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Method in the Madness

The Humours

Classical medicine, particularly the ideas of Hippocrates (c. 460 - c. 370 BC) and Galen of Pergamon (c.129 – c.216/17 AD) formed the dominant system for understanding the body, mind and illness in the 1500s and 1600s. The human body was believed to be controlled by four fluids known as ‘humours’. These were: yellow bile, black bile, blood and phlegm. The humours were each thought to possess different qualities of heat and moisture, with their balance determining the body’s temperature, anatomical form and health. Blood was believed to make the body hot and wet, yellow-bile hot and dry, black-bile cold and dry, and phlegm cold and wet. Whilst this may sound alien, some of the language related to this theory persists. For instance, we still consider anger to be ‘hot’ and suggest time to ‘cool’ down. In each individual, the balance of these humours was slightly different, affecting both their physical and mental characteristics and the likelihood of their suffering with certain diseases.


Quinta Essentia

by Leonhard Thurneysser, Leipzig, 1574

This illustration depicts the different temperaments associated with the humours and zodiac signs. Each person had their own individual balance of humours which affected their character. A prevalence of yellow bile created a temperament that was choleric or bad-tempered. An excess of blood created a sanguine or optimistic character, someone who was naturally courageous. Too much phlegm led to a personality that was phlegmatic; calm and unemotional. An individual in whom black bile dominated was melancholy and irritable.