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This blog is a behind the scenes look at the Roman Baths in Bath. We hope you enjoy reading our stories about life surrounding the Roman Baths.



Thursday, 19 April 2018

Civilisations: A Humorous History


Today, we put a lot of trust in doctors who prescribe our medication, but how different was medical knowledge in the past? This blog focuses on the theory that dominated medical science until the 1700s: the Four Humours of the body.

The four humours are a medical theory that the human body is made up of four different liquids; black bile, yellow bile, blood, and phlegm.  In a healthy body there is a balance or equal amount of all four liquids. In the body of a sick person, there is an imbalance (too much or too little) of at least one the humours.

The theory of the Four Humours of the body

This theory was developed by Hippocrates who suggested that it was a medical imbalance of the humours that affected bodily functions. Later, Galen classified the humours as hot/cold, wet/dry. He suggested that the humours could be rebalanced by treating the patient with its opposite. For example, if you were too cold, you would take hot baths and eat hot foods. As well as being linked to being hot/cold, wet/dry, the four humours were linked to the seasons, the elements, personality traits, and parts of life.


Blood was seen as being wet and hot. If a physician thought you had too much blood, they would prescribe bloodletting, where leeches would be attached to the skin to suck blood from your body! Blood was linked to air, childhood and springtime; presumably the spring brings a new lease of life. Out of the cold winter, brightly coloured flowers appear, and many animals have their young. Blood was linked with a ‘sanguine’ personality type, which describes people who enjoy taking risks, are enthusiastic, active and love to socialise.


What yellow bile actually consists of is still up for debate. Historians are unsure as to whether it is urine, vomit, or stomach bile. Yellow bile was seen as being hot and dry. It was linked with fire, adulthood, and the summer. Yellow bile was linked with a ‘choleric’ personality type, which described people who are independent and goal-oriented; they make great leaders and work things out logically.


Black bile was seen as being cold and dry, and is thought to be faeces. Black bile was linked to earth, old age, and the autumn. This could be because animal dung is used to fertilise land and so would have strong links to earth and soil. Black Bile was linked with a ‘melancholic’ personality type. This described people who were self-reliant, reserved, and strived for perfection.


Phlegm was seen as being cold and wet. It was linked to water, decrepitude/death, and winter. Phlegm was linked to the ‘phlegmatic’ personality type. This described people who were easy-going, peaceful and good at compromising.

The theory of the four humours was at the forefront of medical science even into the medieval period. As the church banned human dissections, the theories created by Greek physicians were seen as being completely accurate! 


Polly-Mae
Collections Intern

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