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Ancient European Healing: The Four Humors

Joining the ranks of Hippocrates, Aristotle, and Galen as classical writers and herbalists that have influenced the progress of ancient European healing is Dioscorides and Pliny. In this article, you will learn more about their contributions, as well as the four humors.

Dioscorides and Pliny

With a strong influence on the herbal traditions of Europe, Dioscorides (40 , 90 AD) was a Roman born in Greece that later became an army surgeon. He is also known for a book on herbal medicine that turned out to become one of the most comprehensive in the classical world. After observing close to 600 plants, Dioscorides wrote “De Materia Medica.” Pliny the Elder (23 , 79 AD) also used previous writings and observations to create his Natural History book, which took into consideration more than 400 authors. His work usually focused on herbal lore of his time. Today, the majority of traditional facts regarding medicinal knowledge have come from books written by Dioscorides and Pliny.

The pages of their books told of interesting herbs and medicinal traditions, including a mention on the mandrake , a forked root that actually bears the appearance of the human body. In the past, the mandrake embodied exceptional magical and healing powers. Dioscorides favored to root in treating a great deal of medical problems, including inflamed eyes and sleepiness.

A Turning Point

When the Roman Empire collapsed in the 4th century AD, people started to question the way they saw medicine. New ideas on how illness emerged in the first place started to stir. People started to ponder what other kinds treatments have yet to be discovered. Individuals began to look towards the East for answers. By the time the 9th century rolled around, Islamic doctors had translated the majority of Galen’s work into Arabic. His ideas would jumpstart the progress of Arabic medicine , continuing on into the Middle Ages. This would influence many people, such as Avicenna (980 , 1037), who became viewed as the “father of early modern medicine.” More information on Avicenna can be found in the article titled, ” Who is Avicenna?”

The later part of the Middle Ages would see Galen’s work translated back into Latin from the Arabic version. Over a course of 400 years, the ideas would shift, but mostly found a place within the medical practices of Europeans.

For instance, during the 16th and 17th centuries, students attending medical universities were given training in academics that included the principles of the humoral system (the Galen version). They were taught how to detect an imbalance of the humors, as well as learned methods on how to restore a balance within the body. Interestingly, most of these practices centered on purging and bloodletting.

The Four Humors

The ancient theory of the four humors involves four fluids found within the body: black bile, yellow, blood, and phlegm, which are believed to also correspond to the four elements (earth, water, air, and fire) and the four seasons. Other aspects of the natural world are included. All the way up to the 17th century, physicians believed that an imbalance within the humoral system could lead to physical and mental illnesses.