Historical Cooking and the Four Humours

Is it just me, or does the title sound like it could be the name of a lounge act? Anyways…

From our currently enlightened position of knowing a bit about nutrition, and even more about human physiology, it’s easy for us to look upon our past and assume that since our ancestors did not know these things, that they didn’t equate food with health.

Ironically, this would be an unenlightened position in of itself. Most foodstuffs was considered when it came to health, and very few foods were seen to have no affect upon health. To understand this, we need to look at the underlying philosophy of medicine from that time. And that means talking about the humours.

It is said that it was the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates who helped develop the humourist approach to medicine, and it was in use in both the Western and Muslim worlds all the way into the nineteenth century. So it’s an idea that has been a while for quite some time, through the Roman ages, past on the the Dark Ages, up to the Renaissance, and easily into the Industrial age. It’s an idea that had legs, and wasn’t truly discredited until microscopes were developed and helped see what was truly going on under our skin.

The core ideal of humourism was this – the human body is balanced by four humours, fluids which in health were naturally equal in proportion. They were blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm. Too much of one fluid would mean that a person would take on characteristics related to said fluid. Disease would be the result of an excess of one of the fluids, or a deficiency in another. Doctors (and barbers) would treat a person based on the characteristics they displayed. For example, if a person was easily angered or bad tempered, they were thought to be choleric and had an excess of yellow bile.

Diets and medicines would be recommended that would help alleviate these unwanted characteristics and illnesses related to the humours. As being phlegmatic was a “result” of being too moist and cold, foods that were considered dry and warm would often be prescribed. Dry and warm foods included pork, apricots, truffles, pumpkins and ale. If you were phlegmatic, pumpkin pie and ale were supposed to do wonders.

Most every type of food and spice had a humour associated with it, and many recipes from those periods ended up being a balanced equation created to fit, not only the people eating the dish, but the time of day it was eaten, as well as the time of year. For example, if the recipe was a roast chicken with lemon and garlic, chicken would be for those who were sanguine (too much blood), while garlic helped suppress the choleric (yellow bile), and lemon balanced out those with too much black bile. What would be the perfect time of year to serve such a dish? As chicken was the primary ingredient, the meal should be consumed during the time of year which was considered most sanguine, which would be the spring. A good cook would have to know all of these little nuances, and take them into account when creating a meal.

Of course it should go without saying that the more money and/or power a person or household had, the more this sort of approach became relevant. The lower classes often didn’t have the luxury of either a doctor or an extensive catalog of food.

Additionally, different people interpreted foods in different ways. One person’s belief that salt would cure a persons melancholy would be another person’s belief that the cause of melancholy was too much salt. The system was not without problems.

The more I read into the past of Western food, the more this starts to make sense. By that I mean “how they approached food”, rather than “wow, how enlightened!”. And when I get into more specific medicine history here in the next few weeks, this philosophy will play a major role.