Medieval Medicine: The Four Humors

(SIDE NOTE: This was practice by almost every “doctor” but the village Wise Woman or Witch. For Star Trek watchers can you try to imagine how barbaric this type of medical practice was to Dr McCoy?)

It’s indisputable that medicine has come a long way in the last 200 years, but do you know just how many advances have been made? Prior to the 19th century, medical practice was based largely on what ancient Greeks termed “the four humors,” an idea formally introduced by Hippocrates way back in the 4th century BC.

The four humors were thought to be sanguine (blood), choleric (yellow bile), melancholic (black bile), and phlegmatic (phlegm) and their composition within the body was considered to determine a patient’s personality and health concerns. Every human body was thought to contain some measure of each of these humors. Let’s take a closer look!

The Four Humors

Sanguine (Blood)

Sanguine humor was associated with the season spring and the element air.

Character traits related to a sanguine temperament include courage, hope, and playfulness.

An excess of this humor was considered to be present if medical symptoms included fever and/or sweating.

Medical professionals thought that in order to cure this problem they needed to bleed the patient. Doctors often did this using leeches. No thanks!

Choleric (Yellow Bile)

The choleric humor was typically thought to cause restlessness and aggression.

It was associated with the element fire and the summer season. Interestingly, chamomile, which is currently often used in teas meant to calm and relax you, was frequently used to treat what was perceived to be an excess of this humor.

Melancholic (Black Bile)

Autumn is the season that was considered to be closely related to melancholic humor, and it was thought to represent the element earth.

People with a tendency to be introverted, serious, or sad/depressed were thought to have too much black bile.

This was commonly associated with dietary or digestive concerns.

To treat an excess of black bile, doctors might attempt to force patients to purge, or throw up!

Phlegmatic (Phlegm)

The phlegmatic temperament was associated with the winter season and with the element water.

Those who were thought to be predominantly phlegmatic were considered peaceful, calm, and thoughtful.

Too much phlegm may be present if a patient had respiratory, cough and cold, or energy problems.

Treatment for this was not as dramatic as some of the other humors – physicians may have recommended consuming more fluids and reducing stress.

The four humors dominated medical practice for thousands for years – they were thought to determine every person’s health, personality, and behavior. Although this theory is no longer in use, there are things that medical professionals have learned from it, such as the use of herbs to alleviate symptoms of some illnesses. Personally, I’m just glad that no doctors is coming to my house with leeches!