Early modern Europeans’ conception of health and disease was rooted in the doctrine of humoralism. The tenets of humoralism were first developed by the Hippocratic physicians of ancient Greece, and they were further refined by the Roman physician Galen of Pergamum. It proved to be a logical and highly adaptable system, which is one of the reasons why it remained the dominant medical theory for over one thousand years.
At first glance, humoralism is fairly straightforward. It operated on the belief that the body was governed by four fluids, or humors: blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile. Each one of the humors had its own inherent characteristics tied to the qualities of the four classical elements. Blood related to air (hot and wet), yellow bile related to fire (hot and dry), black bile related to earth (cold and dry), and phlegm related to water (cold and wet). The key to good health lay in making sure that all four humors were in balance with each other.
Finding the correct balance could be tricky. To begin with, there was no one size fits all solution. Individuals possessed their own unique complexion or temperament, which was their baseline humoral state. For example, men tended to be hotter and drier than women, who were naturally cold and moist. To further complicate matters, health was also affected by what were known as the nonnaturals: air, sleep and waking, food and drink, rest and exercise, excretion and retention, and the passions and emotions. Humoral balance was therefore dependent on a variety of factors that affected each individual differently.
No matter how carefully people tried to maintain their humoral balance, illness was an inevitable part of life. Fortunately, early modern Europeans could avail themselves of a number of treatments. Bloodletting is one of the most famous therapeutics from this era, but that was only one facet of the medical landscape. Many early modern medical and surgical texts reveal a keen interest in medicaments that were applied topically or taken orally.
The efficacy of medicines was rooted in humoral theory. Active ingredients were herbs, minerals, and even animal substances; and each ingredient had its own hot, cold, dry, or humid properties. Hot medicines could cause burning and the formation of scars, cold medicines obstructed the senses, and drying ones had a caustic effect. Humid medicines, on the other hand, were generally seen as milder than the other classes, and some medicines were also considered temperate, or unable to dramatically shift temperature in either direction.
These properties were present in different degrees of intensity. In the first degree, the heating, cooling, drying, or humidifying effect was hardly perceptible. In the second degree, the effects were noticeable, but not offensive. Third degree medicines were strong enough to offend the senses, but not to extreme degrees, and fourth degree medicines were the most potent.
Look at the following examples and note how one ingredient could have multiple humoral qualities:
While these classifications can sometimes appear random, they were not necessarily arbitrary. Ginger and mustard definitely have a warming effect on the food we eat, while camphor oil has a cooling effect when spread on the skin. Cucumbers are a moisture laden food that we eat raw (or pickled). Cereals were considered temperate, which makes sense – a bowl of plain oatmeal is admittedly not the most exciting of foods, and can be safely described as “bland.”