English Literature



Humoral theory in England in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries belonged both to the world of the practitioner and the academic. It originated in Aristotle’s idea of balance within the body and achieved its fullest articulation in the works of Galen (129–ca. 216), which became central to the curriculum of medical study in Europe. The enormous quantity of medical manuscripts in England (over 7,000 in English alone from the midfourteenth to fifteenth centuries) testifies to the thorough extent to which medical discourses permeated society. Bartholomeus Anglicus wrote his De proprietatibus rerum in the midthirteenth century. Bartholomeus was probably born an Englishman, studied in Paris, became a Minorite in France, and went on to lecture on theology in Paris. His text is encyclopedic, not a strictly medical work, and contains information about spiritual and human matters, including all the branches of human knowledge. John Trevisa completed his translation of De proprietatibus rerum in 1398, a translation which survives in eight manuscripts alongside several Latin versions (see “Friars,” p. 7, for a general introduction to Trevisa, as well as “The English and England,” p. 50, and “The English Language,” p. 258).

These eight manuscripts are large and professionally produced. About 1495 Wynkyn de Worde published one of Trevisa’s translations, possibly a later printing of one completed by Caxton in Cologne in 1471–4. To trete of the propretees of mannes body and of the parties therof, we schul first biginne to trete of the qualitees of the elementis and of the humoures of whiche the body is maad . . . Elementis beth foure, and so beth foure qualitees of elementis of the whiche everiche body that hath a soule is componed1 and imade as of matir, and nameliche mannes body that is nobilest among alle the elementis and most nobilliche is i-ordeined among alle thinges that beth componed and imade of divers thinges. Mannes body is i-ordeyned to be the propre instrument of the resonabil soule in his workes of kinde and of wille. Mannes body is made of foure elementis — of erthe, watir, fire, and aier — and everiche therof hath propre qualitees. Foure ther beth iclepid the firste and principal qualites, that is to wite, hete, coold, drye, and wetenesse, and ben iclepid the firste qualites for they sliden first of the elementis into the thinges that ben imaade of elementis. They ben also iclepid the principal qualitees for of hem cometh al the secundarye effectis.

Tweyne of these qualites ben iclepid active “able to worche,” hete and cooldnes. The othir tweyne, drynesse and wetnesse, ben iclepid passive “able to soffre.” And so as these qualites have maistrie, the elementis ben iclepid active othir passive “able to do or soffre.” The firste tweyne ben principallich iclepid active, noght for they worchin alone, for the passive qualites worchith also, [for] non qualite is in the body an ydel; but therfore they beth iclepid active for, be the worchinge of hem, the othir beth ibrought inne and ikept and isaved . . . For libro I capitulo 16 Constantinus2 seith if the body is hote, thanne is moche fleisch and litil fatnesse, rede colour, moche here (blak othir rede), hote touche and gropinge, good witt, a man of gret facounde3 and of gret mevynge,4 hardy and wratheful, lovy5 and lecherous, and desiringe moche, and hastilich defienge6 for good digestioun, of scharp voys, an schamefast, of strong and swift puls . . . Also, coolde is the modir of whightnesse and of palenes, as hete is the modir of blaknes and of rednes. And so in hote londes cometh forth blake men and browne, as among the Moores, in coolde lond white men, as amoung the Sclaves. So seith Aristoteles in libro de celo et mundo7 and tellith the resoun why and seith that in coolde londes the modres of wommen ben disposid to conseive suche children. Therfore, they beren children with whyte skynnes that haveth longe, yelewy, neissche,8 and streite here.

The contrarie is in hote londes there wymmen bereth children that ben blake and hath litil here and crips,9 as in blo men londe.10 Thenne coolde schewith itself in the body what he is and hath the maistrie withinne, for in the body ther coolde hath the maistrie the colour is white, here is neissche and streight, hard wit11 and forgeteful, litil appetite, miche slepe, hevy goinge and slowe. So seith Constantinus libro primo capitulo 17. This schal not alwey be undirstonde in everich colde nedeliche,12 but in comparisoun to the complexioun of the heete that hath the maistrye and in proporcioun of the hote lond to the coolde lond, auctoures seith suche thingis and lefte hem iwrite in here bookes to hem that camen aftir hem . . . An humour is a substaunce fletinge13 in dede, and is ibred and cometh of gederinge of the element qualitees, and apt to norische and fede the membres and to counforte the worchingis therof kyndeliche, or hapliche14 to lette the worchingis therof. For humour is the firste principal material of bodies that haveth felinge and chief help in here worchinge, and that bycause of norischinge and of fedinge. Constantinus seith that the humoures beth iclepid the children of the elementis, for everiche of the humours cometh of qualite of elementis. And there beth foure humours: blood, flewme, colera, and melencolia. And beth iclepid symple in comparisoun to the membres and lymes, thouh they be componed in comparisoun to the elementis whos children they beth. Thise foure humours, if they beth in evene proporcioun in quantite and qualite, he fedith alle bodyes that hath blood and maketh hem parfite and kepith in [dewe] beinge and state of helthe; as agenward, if they beth uneven in proporcioun and infecte, thanne they bredith eveles.

Thise humours beth nedeful to the makinge of the body and to the reuleynge and kepinge therof, and also to restore what is ilost in the body . . . Thise foure humours beth ibred in this manere. Whan mete is ifonge15 in the place of seethinge,16 that is the stomak, first the more sotil partie and fletinge therof that phisicians clepith pthisinaria is idrawe be certeyn veynes to the lyvour and ther, by the worchinge of kinde hete, it is ichaungid into the foure humours. The bredinge of hem bigynneth in the lyver, but it endith there [not] atte fulle. First, by worchinge, hete turneth what is coolde and moist in[to] the kynde of flewme, and thanne what is hote and moist into the kynde of blood, and thanne what is hote and drye into the kynde of colera, and thanne what is coolde and drye into the kinde of malancolia. Thanne the proces is suche: first, fleume is bred as an humour half sode;17 secounde, blood that is parfitliche isode; the thridde, colera that is oversode;18 the laste is malencolia that is more erthi and the drestis19 of the othir. And so suche is the ordre, as Avicenne seith: the bredinge of elementis is streite and agenward into the same, for aier is ibred of fire, and fire of aiere, and everiche element of othir . . .20 Thenne of the sentence of the forseid auctours21 gedre thu schortliche that kinde blood is pure, hoot and moist, sotile22 and swete, and also it kepith the kinde vertu of fedinge.

23 And blood is the sete of the soule and conteyneth hym, and maketh parfite [youthe], complexioun a chaungith, and kepith and saveth the herte and the spiritis, and maketh hem glad, and waketh love, schedith him in the uter partie of the body and maketh it of good colour and hiewe. And if blood is wel and temperat, he kepith hele and helthe. And if he is corrupt, it bredith corrupcion, as in lepra24 that is corrupt blood in the wellis.25 Medlid [with] othur humoures, it temprith the malice therof. And blood by his vertu swagith the smertinge of eighen . . . In wommen, for to grete moisture and defaute of hete, if it is iholde over dewe tymes, it is cause and occasioun of ful gret greves. For somtime it stuffith the spiritual membres, and somtyme frenesye26 and othir eveles that beth opunliche iknow, as that corrupt blood to longe iholde is ise[n]t to divers place of the body, as it is more openlich conteined in libro passionarum Galieni.27 Therfor, agens suche periles best remedye is to voyde suche corrupt blood that greveth so the body that he is inne, for also it chaungith wondirliche and infectith othir bodyes. For libro 10 capitulo 2 Isidre seth by the touch of the blood menstruales fruyt growith noght but drieth and beth ibrent, and dyeth herbes, and treen leseth here fruyt, irne28 is frete29 with roust, bras and metal wexith blake. If hounde etith therof, he waxith wood.

30 Also a thing hatte31 glutinum aspalti is so hard that it may nought be todeled32 with watir nothir with irne, and if the blood menstrualis touchith, that glutinum aspalti al tofalleth anon, as Isidir seith. This blood is bred in wymmennes bodyes of superfluite of moisture and feblenes of hete. And for it schulde not greve kinde, it is igedred into the modir as filthe into a goter. If it is iput out therof in dwe maner, it clensith and releveth al the body, and clensith the modir also, and disposith and maketh able to conceyve . . . The superfluyte of [flegm] is knowen, as Constantinus seith, be thise signes and tokens: for a verray fleumatik man is in the body lustles, hevy, and slowgh; dul of wit and of thought, forgeteful; neissche of fleissche and quavy,33 bloo of colour, whitliche in face, ferdeful of herte; ful of spittinge, snyvel, and rokeinge;34 ful of slouthe and of slepinge; of a litil appetite and of litil thurst but if the flewme be salt, for than for mellinge35 of hote humour he felith salt savour in his mouthe; neische, yelowh, and streit of here; neische, grete, and slough of puls. His urine is white and thicke, rawe and evel icoloured. He is fat and greet and schort; and his skin is pleyn and smethe, [bare withouten eer].36 He metith37 and hath swevenes38 of grete watris and snowe and reyne and of seilynge on coolde watir and of swymmynge therinne. Men of that complexioun hath often coolde yveles and beith itravayled39 therwith and nameliche in wintir, for thanne the qualitees of fleume, coolde and moist, beth istrengthid. So seith Constantin . . . Thenne this kyndeliche colera, if it passe noght the boundis of kynde, it maketh othir humours sotile, and comfortith digestioun, and clensith drasten40 and corrupcioun, and maketh the body to strecche in lengthe, brede, and thickenesse, and bredith boldenes and hardynes and mevynge and lightnes and wrethe41 and appetite of wreche42 and also of the werkes of Venus, and helpith the vertu explusive,43 and clerith thicke matere and maketh it meve from the middel to the uttir parties, and chaungith the uttir parties in colour of citrine44 and blak. And so colerik men beth generalliche wratheful, hardy, unmeke, light,45 unstable, inpetuous; in body long, sklendre, and lene; in colour broun; in eer blak and crips, [hard] and stif; in touche hoot; in puls strong and swifte.

The urine of hem is thinne in substaunce and subtile, in colour fury,46 schinynge, and clere . . . If this humour [melancholy] have maistrye in any body, thyse beth the signes and tokenes. First, the colour of the skyn chaungith into the blake or into bloo colour; sour savour and sharp and erthey is ifeled in the mouth by the qualite of the humour; the pacient is faynt and ferdful in herte withoute cause. Galien seith if the dredes of suche endureth withouten cause, his passioun is melencolia. And so al that hath this passioun withouten cause beth often dredeful and sory, and that for the melencolif humour constreyneth and closith the herte. And so if men asketh of suche what they drede and wherfore thei beth sory, they haveth none answere. Somme weneth that they schullen dye anon unresonabliche. Somme dredith enemyte of som oon. Som loveth and desireth deth. In libro passionum Galien seith no wondir though he that soffreth coleram nigram be sorry and have suspeccioun of deth, for no thing is more dredeful outward in the body than derknes. And so whanne any derk thinge heleth the brayn as malincolie flewme, it nedith that the pacyent drede, for he bereth with hym the cause why he schulde drede. And therfore he meteth dredeful swevenes and of derknes, griselych to se, and stinkinge of smelle, and soure in savour. Of alle thise cometh passio melancolya. Also, it cometh of [mania,] “madnes,” and of disposicioun of melancolie whanne suche hath likinge and laugheth of sorewful thinges and maketh sorowe and dool for joyeful thingis. Also, suche holdeth here pes whanne they schulde speke and speke to moche whanne they schulde be stille and holde here pees. Also somme trowith that they beth erthene vessellis and dredeth to be touchid lest they beth ibroke. And somme weneth that they closeth and conteyneth the world in here fist and alle thingis in here hondes, and therfore they putte noght here hond to take mete; they dredeth that the worlde schulde tofalle and be lost if they streight out here hondes. Also somme weneth that an aungel holdeth up the worlde and wolde forwery47 late the worlde falle, and therfore they heveth up here hondes and schuldres to holde up the worlde that hem semeth is in point to falle and breideth48 strongliche and streyneth if fisicians maketh hem holde doun here hondes. Also somme weneth that they have none heedes, and somme that they have leden hedes or asse hedis or som othir weyes evel ischape. Also somme, if they here the kockes crowe, they rereth up here armes and crowith, and trowith that hemsilf be kockes, and at the laste they ben hoos49 for grete cryenge and doumbith.

Also somme falleth into wel evel suspicions withouten recovere, and therfore they hatith and blameth and schendith hire frendes and somtyme smytith and sleeth hem. Melencolik men fallith into thise and many othir wondirful passiouns, as Galien seith and Alisaundir50 and many othir auctours, the which passiouns it were to longe to rekene al on rowe. And this we seeth alday with oure eighen, as it fel late of a nobleman that fel into suche a madnes of melancolye that he in alle wise trowed that he himsilf was a catte, and therfore he wolde nowher reste but undir beddes there cattis waitid aftir myse.51 And in cas in wreche of his synnes Nabugodonosor was ipunyschid with suche a payne, for it is iwriten in stories that seven yere hym semed that he was a best thurough divers schappis: lyoun, egle, and ox.

4 thoughts on “Humors

  1. I only wish I could. Just had a mental day. Psychology lecture was just so complicated and that was followed by literature..

  2. [411Music] Odds On Bob Dylan Winning Nobel Prize For Literature Increase: But he still probably won’t win…

  3. Just got grammar pwned by ! Vigilant not only of vioence and physical crimes, but crimes against literature (y)

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