Explore a curated collection about four humors and its practitioners drawn from collections of the National Library of Medicine. Learn how the theory of the four humors underpinned European medicine and thinking on the innerworkings of the body until at least the 1700s.
De animalibus, Aristotle Stagiritis son of Nicomachus, 1235–ca.1245close
Aristotle (384–322 BCE), the ancient Greek philosopher, wrote extensively about animals; De Animalibus is a 19-volume collection of three of his works: Historia Animalium, De Partibus Animalium, and De Generatione Animalium. In addition to his studies of animals, he exerted a profound influence on Western philosophy and scholarship from Antiquity through the Renaissance. A person with wide-ranging interests, he wrote about medicine, science, and other topics. Aristotle understood the four elements of earth, water, air, and fire as the building blocks of the universe, a concept later used in “four humors” theory.
Aristoteles Stagirita. Clar. Olymp. 103, undatedclose
Aristotle Stagiritis (384–322 BCE), the ancient Greek philosopher, is considered a founder of Western philosophy and has shaped scholarly thought from Antiquity through the Renaissance. He advanced the notion that logic must be proved through observation and not be based in abstract thought. Although Aristotle wrote hundreds of texts on a variety of topics such as physics, biology, and ethics, only 31 survive today.
Master with two students, 1493close
This woodcut of a teacher and his students appears on the first page of the 1493 edition of Aristotle’s book Problemata. Although he was best known as a philosopher, Aristotle’s role as a teacher was equally significant. He taught at several academies, including his own, and mentored famous students like the King of Macedon Alexander the Great.
Aristotle contemplating nature, 1791close
In this illustration, Aristotle and a companion observe and take notes on various animals around them in the natural world. The image appears in the influential encyclopedia of natural history, Dictionnaire reisonné universel d'histoire naturelle, v. 1 by French naturalist Jacques Christophe Valmont-Bomare (1731–1807), demonstrating the profound influence Aristotle’s writings had on later scholars of natural history.
Octoginta voluminal, quibus maxima ex parte, annorum circiter duo millia Latina caruit lingua…(Hippocratic Corpus or Hippocratis De Humoribus), Hippocrates, Marco Fabio Calvi, 1525close
This 1525 edition of Hippocratic Corpus includes 60 ancient Greek medical works based on the teachings and essays of Hippocrates ( 460 BCE–370 BCE). The 800-page book covers a wide range of topics, from epidemics to infertility, head injuries, dreams, and the four humors. Considered the founder of Western medicine, Hippocrates is known for developing the theory of the four humors—blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm—and identifying their influence on the body and emotions.
Hippocrates Hiraclidae F. Covs, P. P. Pontius, engraver; P. P. Rubens, painter, 1638close
This engraving of a bust of Hippocrates by Paulus Pontius (1603˗1658), is based on a drawing by the Flemish master Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640). Hippocrates (460–370 BCE), an ancient Greek physician, is widely recognized as the founder of Western medicine.
The medical triad of physician-patient-pharmacist, ca. 1600sclose
This 17th-century painting of a pharmacy equates the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates (460 BCE–370 BCE) with Greek gods. It shows Asklepios (right), the god of medicine and healing, leaning on a bust of the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates. Also, a physician reads medical books while a pharmacist mixes up medicine and Hygeia, the Ancient Greek patron goddess of pharmacy and daughter of Asklepios, cares for a patient. By combining the gods’ presence with the bust and practitioners, the artist presents Hippocrates as a key patron of Western medicine.
De vita libri tres (Three Books of Life), Marsilio Ficino, 1529close
Marsilio Ficino (1433–1499), an Italian physician, humanist philosopher, and Catholic priest, wrote the popular De vita libri tres. First published in 1489, the book is a unique blend of medieval medicine, natural magic, astrology, theology, and ideas of ancient Greek philosopher Plato (ca. 428–ca. 347 BCE). The book is in three parts: the first, De vita sana (On Healthy Life), helps melancholic scholars live healthy lives; De vita longa (On Long Life) explains how to prolong one’s life; and finally, De vita coelitus comparanda (On Obtaining Life from the Heavens) explores astrological and spiritual magic.
M. Ficinus, 1574close
The influential Italian physician, humanist philosopher, and Catholic priest Marsilio Ficino (1433–1499) was an important figure in the early Italian Renaissance. Ficino’s three-book series, De vita libri tres, published in 1489, influenced the thinking of people of the time and remained popular until the 17th century. Icones Medicorum (1574), a book published during Shakespeare’s lifetime, includes this portrait entitled “M. Ficinus.”
A physician and a priest visit a patient, 1518close
In this woodcut, a rich man receives medical care from a physician while a priest looks on. This image appears in Consilio contra la pestilenza (1518), a book by Marsilio Ficino (1433–1499), an influential physician, humanist philosopher, and Catholic priest, active during the early Italian Renaissance.
The Castel of Health, Thomas Elyot, 1541close
Sir Thomas Elyot (1490–1546) wrote The Castel of Helth in order to introduce the English reading public to ancient Greek and Roman medicine, including the theory of the four humors. Although he was a diplomat, writer, and scholar, not a physician, Elyot’s book provided practical advice on maintaining health and diagnosing illnesses. He connected strong emotions, such as anger, and behavior, such as lechery, with the onset of distressing physiological symptoms and illnesses. Though criticized by physicians and other elites, the book was popular with the public—it went through 17 editions.
Melancolicus .4, Virgilius Solis, the Elder, ca. mid 1500sclose
Melancolicus, an engraving by the German artist Virgilius Solis the Elder (1514–1562), is part of a series of works depicting the four humors as young women. The scene presents the earth element that was associated with melancholy. The image depicts a young woman drawing while seated on a stone bench. Those with an excess of black bile were considered melancholic. Such people were also thought to be vigilant, jealous, and sad. The modern description of a person as depressive or “melancholy” comes from this ancient medical theory.
Sanguineus .1, Virgilius Solis, the Elder, ca. mid 1500sclose
Sanguineus, an engraving by the German artist Virgilius Solis, the Elder (1514–1562), is part of a series of works depicting the four humors as young women. Air was the element associated with the sanguine disposition. This image depicts a young woman riding a horse through clouds. A sanguineous person was said to have an excess of blood and was merry, sociable, capable of study, and peaceful. This is the origin for the modern word “sanguine” meaning “happy.” In The Castel of Helth, author Thomas Elyot wrote that blood was the strongest of the four humors because it delivered the other three humors—black bile, yellow bile, and phlegm—to the different parts of the body.
Flegmaticus .3, Virgilius Solis, the Elder, ca. mid 1500sclose
Flegmaticus, an engraving by the German artist Virgilius Solis, the Elder (1514–1562) is part of a series of works depicting the four humors as young women. Her phlegmatic disposition is associated with water and a ladle. An excess of phlegm made a person phlegmatic, or lazy, sleepy, and languid.
Colericus .2, Virgilius Solis, the Elder, ca. mid 1500sclose
Colericus, an engraving by the German artist Virgilius Solis, the Elder (1514–1562), is part of a series of works depicting the four humors as young women. The choleric disposition was associated with fire. The image depicts a woman holding a torch, seated next to a lion and an eagle. Her heart is pierced by an arrow. An excess of yellow bile made a person choleric, or impetuous, deceitful, extravagant, and bold.
De temperamentis, libri tres (On the Temperaments, three books), Claudius Galen, 1545close
Prominent Greek physician, surgeon, and philosopher Claudius Galen (ca. 131–ca. 201) wrote De temperamentis based on Hippocrates’ medical theory of the four humors—blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile—to which he added the qualities dry, moist, hot, and cold in reference to the four elements (air, water, fire, earth). He described four basic human temperaments: "sanguine” disposition was hot/moist and associated with blood; "choleric" disposition was dry/hot and associated with and yellow bile were dry/hot; "melancholic" disposition was cold/dry and associated with black bile; and "phlegmatic" disposition was moist/cold and associated with phlegm. In combination, a balance of these elements and temperaments would foster better health. Galen was an accomplished medical researcher of antiquity and influenced the development of anatomy, physiology, pharmacology, and pathology.
Galenus, Georg Paul Busch, undatedclose
Galenus, an engraving by the German artist Georg Paul Busch (d. 1756), is a portrait of the prominent Greek physician, surgeon, and philosopher Claudius Galen (ca. 131–ca. 201). Galen treated many powerful individuals in the Roman Empire, including Emperor Marcus Aurelius (161–180) and wrote many works on a variety of topics, including physiology and anatomy, hygiene, and medicines. Galen’s book, De temperamentis (On the Temperaments), served as the basis of medical scholarship for many centuries in the Byzantine Empire and Europe.
Thomas Linacre, M.D., H. Cook, 1847close
English physician Thomas Linacre (1460–1524) translated the work of Claudius Galen (ca. 131–ca. 201) from Greek to Latin, helping cement Galen’s importance in the history of medicine. Linacre served many notable people in his medical practice during the Tudor period (1485–1603), including King Henry VIII (1491–1547). In 1518, Linacre became distressed by the lack of regulation over the practice of medicine. In response to his concerns, Henry VIII charged Linacre to create a governing body for the medical profession. This institution later became the Royal College of Physicians in London.
A Niewe Herball, or Historie of Plantes, Rembert Dodoens, 1578close
A Niewe Herbal is the 1558 English translation of Cruydeboek by Flemish physician Rembert Dodoens (1517–1585). Dodoens’ herbal, originally published in 1554, contained extensive information on the practical uses of herbs in medicine. Instead of an alphabetical listing, he grouped plants according to their properties and uses, and abundant illustrations made it even more useful for plant identification. Among other remedies, the book discussed the healing power of violet, a plant prescribed for conditions suffered by Ophelia in Shakespere’s The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.
Rembert Dodonaeus [Dodoens], undatedclose
In this engraving, Flemish physician Rembert Dodoens (1517–1585) holds a flower, representing his extensive work on using plants for medical purposes. Dodoens wrote the Cruydeboek (1554), which contained extensive information on the uses of herbs in medicine. Dodoens is most well-known for the Latin translation of Cruydeboek, Stirpium historiae pemptades sex sive libri XXX (1583). In addition to his research and writing, Dodoens served as court physician in Vienna for the Holy Roman Emperors Maximilian II (1527–1576) and Rudolph II (1552–1612). He became became professor of medicine at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands in 1582.
Consilio Pylium, Chironem vincit in herbis, Atq., undatedclose
This engraving depicts the French botanist and physician Charles de l’Écluse (1526˗1609) who translated Rembert Dodoens’s (1517–1585) book Cruydeboek from Dutch to French. Like Dodoens, de l’Écluse served Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian II (1527–1576) as a court physician and director of the royal garden in Vienna. De l’Écluse grew plants from other parts of the world, such as potatoes and chestnuts. His tulip cultivation led to the beginning of the large Dutch tulip industry.
Anatomy of Melancholy, Robert Burton, 1624close
Renaissance scholar and cleric Robert Burton (1577–1640) wrote Anatomy of Melancholy while he suffered in its grip. Considered the most significant publication of his career, the book explores different types of melancholy, presented according to humoral theory. As a minister, Burton viewed melancholy as a spiritual affliction, and one specific type of “religious melancholy” was made worse by leading a sinful life. Although the book was a response to the debates within English religion during the 1620s–1630s, Burton’s primary concern is curing religious melancholy. He advised prayer as a solution for those suffering from the illness. Later writers were influenced by his combination of scholarship, humor, and creativity
Anatomy of Melancholy, Robert Burton, 1628close
The title page of English Renaissance scholar and cleric Robert Burton’s (1577–1640) Anatomy of Melancholy includes small images representing different kinds of melancholy discussed in the book. Anatomy of Melancholy outlines different types of melancholy, presented according to humoral theory. As a minister, Burton viewed melancholy as a spiritual affliction, and one specific type of “religious melancholy” was made worse by leading a sinful life. Although the book was a response to the debates within English religion during the 1620s–1630s, Burton’s primary concern is curing religious melancholy. He advised prayer as a solution for those suffering from the illness. Later writers were influenced by his combination of scholarship, humor, and creativity.
Optick Glasse of Humors, Thomas Walkington, 1639close
A book on melancholy, Optick Glasse of Humors by Thomas Walkington (1575–1621) is based on the work of ancient philosophers, such as Hippocrates (460 BCE–370 BCE) and Galen (ca. 131–ca. 201). Although Walkington did not diverge from or add to the traditional analysis of humoral theory, his book was successful; Optick Glasse of Humors saw four editions. First published in 1607, the book anticipated the work on melancholy by Walkington’s contemporary, Robert Burton (1577–1640).
The Four Temperaments, Philippe Pigouchet, publisher, 1501close
This French woodcut appeared in Ces presentes heures a lusaige de Romme au long sans requerir ont este faictes pour Simon Vostre... (1501). The image illustrates the body parts and their corresponding humoral elements. A phlegmatic person appears in the lower right corner, while a choleric person is in the upper left corner. Older conceptions of the bodily humors, such as this illustration, influenced English scholar and clergyman Thomas Walkington’s analysis of them.