Great Mistakes of Great Minds: The Four Humours!

Great Mistakes of Great Minds: The Four Humours.

Historians across the world like to look back fondly upon the ancient Greeks. Wise, cultured and learned, despite their place firmly in the “BC” part of the calendar. History teachers, in particular, like to endlessly praise how wonderfully clever and smart the Greeks were, between their Trojan Horses and their really long poems. This is why it is perhaps so amusing when these great and lauded minds got things wrong.

High amongst the subjects, which the Greeks were later found to be quite wrong about, was the ancient belief that health was governed by, what was determined to be, the balance of four “Humours” in the body. These were; blood, yellow bile, black bile and phlegm. As the theory of the ancient world went, good health came as a result of the correct balance of these four substances. Should the levels of one or more increase or decrease, then a variety of illnesses could arise. The solution to sickness was often deemed to be action intended to correct the perceived imbalance in the four. Bloodletting, purges of excess fluid and emetics became the order of the day.

Many famous ancient Greek names became associated with ancient medicine and thus adapted, at least in part, a belief in the four humours. The names of great thinkers such as Hippocrates, Aristotle and Asclepiad would ensure belief in the four humours for millennia afterwards. Indeed, scholars in the following centuries would build on the understandings of those who came before them.

By the Renaissance, the theory had developed further refinements, associating the humours with elements and the belief that each one gave off vapours that influenced the personality and temperament of a person. Blood thus became associated with the element of air, and could indicated an amorous or happy personality, but could also be irresponsible. Yellow bile was associated with fire and violent personalities. Phlegm was water and, those with too much, prone to laziness, while black bile was the element of earth and those under its influence prone to introspection and gluttony.

This knowledge of medicine reached its influence far beyond the world of doctors and physician at the time. As medical dramas and film doctors distort the understanding of medicine of the masses today, so too did the understanding of the four humours pervade the drama and literature of the Renaissance. Indeed, when reading old English literature from the Shakespearian period, it is helpful to have an understanding of what people of that day thought of as regarding the four humours when understanding the characterization of the people in the works.

Naturally, our understanding of medicine has improved somewhat since the days of ancient Greece. Amongst understanding that the cure to everything is not “more garlic”, we now understand that illness is typically caused by micro-organisms entering the body rather than an absence or presence of fluids. Nevertheless they pioneered many other developments and made one truly critical advance in understanding of sickness: that diseases had natural, not divine, causes and that beseeching Zeus wasn’t really an alternative to proper medicine.




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