Some more info about the theory of the Humours, from our Recipe video: https://youtu.be/u_8vkfJF_UI
Welcome to the Endnotes, where I put all the fun facts I can’t fit into the main videos! Today, an extra bit of information from my video about what is a Recipe — & if you haven’t seen that yet, click on the card.
When I talked about ancient medicine in that video, I mentioned the basics of the theory of the humours—so here’s a little more about those four humours. Let’s start with blood. The Greeks called it haima, from which we get words such as hemorrhage the “bursting forth of blood” & hemoglobin a component of blood. The Romans called it sanguis, one of two main words for blood, this one for blood inside the body, which gives us words such as sanguine, the temperament associated with this humour. By the way, the other word for blood cruor refers to blood from a wound, coming from a root that meant raw flesh, & is related to such words as crude, cruel, pancreas, & raw. In case you’re wondering, our English word blood comes from a root that means “swell, gush, spurt” (lovely), & in turn from a deeper root meaning “thrive, bloom”. Blood was associated with the spring & the element air (of the four classical elements of earth, air, fire, & water). It was associated as well with the liver (makes sense), & was considered to have the qualities warm & moist (again, makes sense).
The next humour, yellow bile, was called by the Greeks kitrini khole, the word khole giving us choleric, the temperament associated with yellow bile, & also distantly related to the word yellow. Bile we get from the Roman term bilis. According to the humorists, yellow bile was associated with summer, fire, & the gallbladder, & was considered to have the qualities warm & dry. Excess of yellow bile could produce aggression & anger
Next, black bile in Greek is melaina khole, from which we get the word for the corresponding temperament melancholy. That first word melaina, by the way, comes from Greek melas meaning black, & also gives us the word melanin. Black bile is associated with autumn, earth, & the spleen, & was considered to have the qualities cold & dry. Black bile was thought to produce depression, or what was called melancholy.
And finally we have the phlegm or phlegma in Greek, which was associated with winter, water, the brain & lungs, & was considered cold & moist. Unsurprisingly it produced the temperament phlegmatic, a word we still have with the sense of apathetic. By the way, phlegm comes from a Proto-Indo-European root that means “burn, shining, white”, which perhaps oddly gives us the colour words black & blue, as well as the more obvious bleach & blond. This etymology may seem at odds with the associations of cold & moist, but probably has more to do with the colour.
So the ancient or medieval physician / cook would have to keep in mind all these association when preparing food. So for instance a winter sauce would used hot & dry spices such as mustard, ginger, pepper, cinnamon, & cloves to keep one healthy in those cold months, but such hot, dry spices would be avoided in the summer. If a patient was reckoned to have an excess of a particular humour, foods with the opposite qualities would be prescribed. So the proper menu had to include the appropriate recipes, & the right food was just what the doctor ordered.