Humoralism and the seasons

Throughout the medieval and early modern periods, medical practice was based on the theory of the four humors. The humors—blood, black bile, yellow bile and phlegm—were fluids that moved through the body and needed to remain in balance in order to maintain health. There were a number of things that could disrupt this balance, including the kind of food you ate, whether or not you were getting enough sleep, and, of course, the changing of the seasons. Spring meant there might be an excess of blood in the body, yellow bile was dominant in the summer, black bile rose to prominence with autumn, and phlegm was associated with winter. 

Here in St. Louis, the summer heat is finally giving way to the chill of autumn and winter, which means that we need to be especially on guard against an excess of black bile, the melancholic humor. So, what can we do to stave off the winter blues? We went to our 17th-century edition of Salernitan Regimen of Health, a medieval guide to healthy living, for advice. 

One of the first pieces of advice is fairly straightforward: 

But in the winter, cold doth then require 

Such a full meal, as nature doth desire 

As is often the case, the reason for this lies in the writings of the classical physicians Hippocrates and Galen. In winter, the coldness of the air causes the heat in our bodies to congeal and subsequently become quite strong. This means that we can eat richer food that would be difficult to digest in other seasons, particularly meat. There are some caveats to this, however—ideally, the meat consumed should be somewhere between “heavy and light, grosse and subtile,” such as veal, mutton, or perch. If you prefer something heavier, like beef or goat, you should only eat one meal a day. You can wash it down with wine, but remember! “Wine that is drunke in Winter, should be red as a rose, and not white.” 

If following a specific diet isn’t quite managing your melancholy, you can always return to bloodletting, the old standby. But be careful! You can’t just let blood from any vein and expect it to work—you need to follow correct bloodletting protocol, which also varied by the season. 

Spring-time and Summer, if we intend to bleed, 

Veins on the right side do require as need. 

Autumn and Winter, they the left side crave, 

In arm, or soot, as they best like to have. 

Why should we let blood from the left side during the cold months? Well, we know that black bile tends to be abundant in winter, the spleen is the source of black bile, and the spleen is located on the left side of the body.  

In our times modern, enlightened times, we know that bloodletting is not a remedy for all of our various aches and pains. But medieval ideas about diet have persisted to this day. Even now, thick soups, stews, and pot roasts are considered autumn and winter foods, and white wine is usually more associated with summer than winter. So next time you have a glass of cabernet with a hot, hearty meal, know that you are following a centuries-old tradition of keeping the cold at bay with food.