The Ancient & Medieval theory

of the equilibrium of the Humours

after Hippocrates & Galen

"The body has 4 kinds of tastes ."

1. Bitter = hot + dry = choleric                                  [marked by the over-production yellow bile]

(Characteristic of a personality easily moved to unreasonable or excessive anger.)

2. Sour = cold + dry = melancholic        [marked by the over-production of black bile]

(Characteristic of a personality marked by depression of mind & spirit.)

3. Sweet = cold + moist = phlegmatic                        [marked by the over-production of phlegm]

(Characteristic of a personality of sluggish, dull, or apathetic coldness or indifference.)

4. Salty = hot + moist = sanguine                             [marked by the prominence of healthy red blood]

(Characteristic of a rosy complexion, sturdy, cheerful, confident, optimistic.)

Ancient Greek medicine, deriving after Hippocrates and Galen, was based on a theory of the four chief fluids, or humours, of the body, which were supposed to determine the temprament of the individual. A predominance of blood over the other fluids produced a ruddy complexion and a courageous, hopeful, amorous disposition. Too much phlegm resulted in calmness, then sluggishness and apathy. Yellow bile or choler caused anger and irrascibility. Black bile, or melancholy, produced introspection, sadness, and depression. Galen attributed disease to an upset of the humoral equilibrium, whereby there was an excess or deficit of one of the humours and the qualities of heat, cold, moisture, and dryness. In Medieval times those who suffered from diseases were treated by bookish physicians who never touched their patients, but left this work to a medical assistant; or they were treated by apothecaries whose endless variety of herbs had little relation to the disease itself.

The ideas and developments of Paracelsus' theory of matter opposed and destroyed the system of ancient humoral medicine. Paracelsus denied that the four humours and temperatures could explain the wide variety of diseases, and developed a medical theory which related the Macrocosm and Microcosm, while building on the dynamic notions of matter and energy. Paracelsus saw disease as something which affects the body from outside, rather than from a condition of internal imbalance. He used chemical remedies based on his speculations regarding Sulphur, Salt, and Mercury; and his treatments led to experimental and practical searches for specific cures and remedies for specific diseases and disorders.
Greek Medicine: The Four Humours

[Paracelsus : Essential Readings, selected and translated by Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke; pp. 29-30; Aquarian Press (Crucible Series), Thorson Publishing Group, Northamptonshire, UK; 1990]