The Four Humors: Eating in the Renaissance

The Taming of the Shrew
John Augustus Atkinson. The Taming of the Shrew. Watercolor drawing, late 18th or early 19th century. Folger Shakespeare Library.

In The Taming of the Shrew, Petruchio attempts to squelch Katherine’s hot temper by denying her meat, snatching away a roast that he claims was “burnt and dried away,” and thus likely to engender choler. “And better ’twere both of us did fast,” he offers by way of explanation, “since of ourselves, ourselves are choleric.” While his methods may be imperious—and his motivation suspect— Petruchio’s reasoning nonetheless expresses a dietary philosophy prevalent during the Renaissance.

WHAT’S YOUR HUMOR?

Humoral theory, based on the work of the ancient Greek physician Galen, holds that good health relies on a balance of four fundamental fluids: blood, choler (yellow bile), phlegm, and black bile. An ideal proportion (one quarter as much phlegm as blood, one sixteenth as much choler as blood, and one sixty-fourth as much melancholy as blood) is difficult to sustain since humors are continually influenced by what people eat and drink. So one humor will generally predominate and characterize an individual’s overall temperament or “complexion.” Too much blood, for example, results in a sanguine personality, and an overabundance of black bile makes one melancholy.

Each temperament carried its own set of characteristics, which still resonate in our language today. Sanguine people were thought to be ruddy and cheerful, phlegmatics pale and listless, cholerics jaundiced and angry, and melancholics dark and sad (but often creative).

OPPOSITES ATTRACT

According to humoral theory, each fluid possesses an elemental quality that reflects some combination of heat, moisture, coldness, or dryness. Foods also possess these qualities in varying degrees, which can be tempered by cooking methods. The way foods are categorized depends not so much on their perceived properties as on how they affect the body’s humors. So while sugar may feel dry, it actually warms and moistens.

Flavors also play a part. As shown in the chart below, sweetness is associated with heat and moisture, tartness with cold and dryness, and so on. The trick for the Renaissance cook lay in balancing a person’s excess humor with its dietary opposite. So serving parsley to someone with an overabundance of phlegm, for example, would be conducive to good health, but giving it to a choleric person would only sharpen his temperament.

William Marshall. The foure complexions. Engraving, 1662. Folger Shakespeare Library.
William Marshall. The foure complexions. Engraving, 1662. Folger Shakespeare Library.

BON APPÉTIT!

With the advent of the scientific revolution in the mid-seventeenth century, the humoral diet began to lose favor in Europe. The scientists and dietary writers who had once instructed people in balancing their humors now began to look more empirically at the basis for their advice. While their experiments and studies did not produce any compelling ideas to replace humoral theory, they nonetheless offered little hard evidence in support of it. At the same time, a revolution of a different sort was simmering in France. The advent of classical haute cuisine, with its rich cream sauces and butter-laden reductions, led people to think about food in terms of how it tasted rather than how it might affect their bile. A new culinary fashion was born.

Many ordinary Europeans clung to their humors, though, and the theory had its defenders well into the 1800s. Its vestiges still linger today in such popular lore as “feed a cold, starve a fever” and in descriptions of taste sensations, from hot peppers to dry martinis. Even the basic philosophy continues to have adherents in India and Pakistan, where a Galenic medical study called Unani is taught in accredited institutions. And while eating by temperament seems unlikely to make a big comeback in this century, it could probably hold its own next to many modern diet fads.

 

A version of this post appeared first in the Spring 2009 issue of Folger Magazine.

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