Wellcome Library Insight Event – Mind and Body: Heart and soul

30 September 2010

 The four elements, four qualities, four humours, four seasons, and four ages of man. Airbrush by Lois Hague, 1991.
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The four elements, four qualities, four humours, four seasons, and four ages of man. Airbrush by Lois Hague, 1991.

Have we always thought of our health as having connections between our mind and our bodies? Erin Sullivan, doctoral candidate at the Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine at UCL, spoke about the history of body/mind perception at a Wellcome Library Insight  event in the Rare Books Reading Room last week.

Using items and images from the Library, Erin explained that the belief that humans have four humours inside the body – blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile – was first adopted in ancient Greece. These fluid elements were believed to be linked with different seasons, with the natural elements of water, air, fire and earth, as well as either cold, wet, hot or dry qualities (see illustration above). For example, someone who was depressed would have been treated by regulating an excess of black bile in their body,  since this humour represented melancholy. For an irritable patient, doctors could treat for excesses of yellow bile, because it represents hotter qualities and, therefore, fiery temperaments.

Showing us a 17th-century medical text, owned by the Wellcome Library, called ‘Touchstone of Complexions‘ by Levinus Lemnius, Erin pointed out that doctors commonly practised finding ways to manipulate the body and mind based on the humours.. From shaving one’s beard in order to feel happier, to purging excess humours with bloodletting, these physical ‘prescriptions’ for mental stability became a system of beliefs. Maintenance of the body was equal to mental health.

Different to some of today’s medical thinking, and especially throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, the soul had divine and medical implications. It was believed that passions such as fear, joy, sadness or hatred were all formed inside the soul, which was linked to reason in the mind. When the soul was flooded with sorrow, it was believed that the melancholy would then stir through the body creating excessive black bile, causing physical and mental disease and, sometimes, even death. Therefore, human health was believed to be a negotiation between these different facets. Having too much or too little of certain passions could kill.

In fact, none of this seems too far off from what we believe today. We don’t think of the soul or humours as having much to do with medicine, and we no longer suggest purging humours by cutting hair (although there is a slight sensation of having weight taken off one’s shoulders when getting a haircut) or through bloodletting and the like. A day does not go by when a doctor doesn’t suggest that to maintain a healthy mind and body, people should make lifestyle changes, such as eating well, exercising or quitting certain bad habits, all of which makes one feel better. Perhaps the contemporary, more ‘scientific’ humours are called genetics, chemicals and bacteria.

Erin is a faculty member of the University of Birmingham with interests in the “understanding and representation of emotions in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England, particularly in dramatic literature, poetry, and life writings”.

It was interesting catching up with her after her lecture. She was surprised at the event’s successful turnout. Not only did droves of people from all different career backgrounds attend, but hearing Erin’s lecture, accompanied by the original materials, made this event extra effective in communicating the history and relevance of this topic. The Wellcome Library often holds interesting Insights events. Keep an eye out for more and the like on the Wellcome Collection calendar.

Shannon Marie Harmon is Web Assistant Editor at the Wellcome Trust.