Like all Europeans, the New England Puritans relied on the medical theory of bodily humors to explain all physical and mental conditions. The theory goes all the way back to the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates; to the Puritans it was a reliable and time-honored methodology. Though the theory is no longer accepted, many of its terms are still in common usage today.
The theory of humors asserts that the body contains four basic substances that control a person’s personality and health. These fluids are blood, phlegm, choler or yellow bile, and melancholy or black bile. In order to be healthy, an individual’s humors had to be properly balanced. They determined his or her physical qualities and temperament. The theory also included variations based on heat, cold, moisture, and dryness.
The basic temperaments, personalities and their corresponding fluid are as follows:
sanguine – blood – extroverted, sociable, creative, talkative
choleric – yellow bile – active, energetic, ambitious, passionate, leaders
melancholic – black bile – thoughtful, creative, perfectionist, self-reliant, independent
phlegmatic – phlegm – contented, kind, affectionate, consistent, relaxed, observant, curious
Unbalanced humors were treated by bleeding, cupping, or purging to relieve the patient of the harmful excess of a humor. Puritans believed that all foods had an affinity with a particular humor, and could help to balance the body. They grew herbs used to counter disease symptoms, often based on the heat and moisture of the patient’s skin. Chamomile and arsenic were used to reduce heat by drawing off excess bile.
We still speak of personalities as “phlegmatic” or “sanguine,” and the heat and moisture qualities are reflected in our descriptions of spicy food as “hot” or certain wines as “dry.”
So a “good-humored” Puritan was happy not because of some good fortune that had happened to him, but because his body and temperament were well balanced. Although modern medicine is no longer based on humors, there may be something valuable to learn here, especially when we’re tempted to blame our bad moods on other people, or seek happiness by acquiring more material goods. Maybe we should stop and consider the possibility that there’s something in us that isn’t appropriately balanced – and then proceed to do what we can to fix it.