The Galenic Humoral Theory Meets Leprosy

The Galenic Humoral Theory was an uncontested thought in the medieval medicine. According to this theory there are four humours in the body that are associated with the development and progression of disease. These humours are the blood; black bile; red bile; and, phlegm. The aforementioned humours are located in their specific locations inside the human body. Both the blood and red bile are located in the right side of the body specifically the spleen, while, the black bile and phlegm are contained in the liver and head, respectively.

Some blood though can also be found in the heart and there is also phlegm in the bladder. These four humours have properties that are likened to the four elements: fire, water, earth, and air. The specific properties of these humours are the following: blood – hot and moist; red bile- dry and hot; black bile- cold and dry; and, phlegm –cold and moist. Those with cold properties are believed to be adhered to the upper part of the body, whereas, the humours with hot properties are assumed to stay in the lower part of the body .

Aside from the likening of the humours to the four elements, it is also said to have influence on the attributes of the human beings. The only humour that has a good influence on humans is the blood. Pointed to it are traits such as being simple, gentle, moderate, and well- intentioned. The negative attributes of humans which are associated with the other three humours are: fickle, sharp, clever, and irritable (red bile); envious, fearful, and miserly (black bile); and, whitening of hairs, watchful, and not very bold (phlegm) .

Thus, it can be fairly said that during the medieval age the characteristics of an individual were thought to be highly related to the increased amount of one type of humour in their body. If the person for example is irritable, the medieval doctors can conclude that is due to the elevated amount of red bile in his body. The maintenance of the proper amounts of these humours gives the body its health, whereas, the increase of any or all of these humours causes the occurrence of disease . The humours were also supposed to be connected with the seasons and time of the day.

Having fever was supposedly due to the body’s increase in the amount of blood humour in association with the time of day or the season . The properties of all these four humours were highly esteemed in the formulation and establishment of treatments for various diseases during that time. During the early medieval age, the galenic humoral theory persisted to a superior thought because most of the diseases encountered then were not highly contagious and this theory was still able to explain the specifics about the early diseases.

In the late medieval age though the galenic humoral theory encountered a great challenge, which is the emergence of leprosy and plague. These two diseases not only affected many people but caused the death of more than a million people. The Black Death or the bubonic plague struck and shocked the world during 1348 to 1350 . No medical knowledge at that time was able to manage and control the pandemic, not even the galenic humoral theory. The knowledge of medieval doctors about medicine during the time of the occurrence of plague and leprosy were inadequate to contain the spread of the bacterial and fungal infection.

Hence, the continuous spread of these two diseases to the point of ending in an enormous number of morbidity and death. Some doctors like Ibn Khatima thought that the plague cases can be treated with blood letting but even this did not succeed. The incapacity of the medical doctors during the occurrence of the plague and leprosy pandemic resulted into the decline of the profession. People no longer have high esteem regarding physicians. As a result, the doctors tried to explain the events using varied body of knowledge like astrology and even religious beliefs .

The University of Paris medical faculty which is also an authority of its field even released a statement that explained the pandemic as a result of astrological phenomenon. According to that faculty, the mortalities were due to the aligning of three planets and the eclipses which corrupted the air leading to the manifestation of the diseases. They even quoted the book of Aristotle that correlated the destruction of kingdoms and the presence of diseases to the alignment of Jupiter and Saturn. They also explained that plague incidence is associated with the seasonal changes of the climate .

These explanations are to no avail because it still can not be utilized to solve the dilemma. When we analyze it using the modern body of medical knowledge, all the astrological and religious explanations issued by the medieval medical practitioners does lack concrete grounds. We can not blame those people though because in there time knowledge on medicine was limited. Despite the negative features of the medical practices of medieval doctors, some practices and advices they have applied during the Black Death were qualified even with the modern standards.

Some examples of those practices are: fleeing from the place where the plague is present to prevent one’s self from being infected; fumigation of the room with aromatic plants which is more or less like the disinfection practice of modern medicine; and, avoidance of being in close contact to the infected person . Even if some aspects of these practices have variations from the modern medical practice and may not be acceptable to the present pandemic management standards, we must understand that the medical practitioners of those times tried their best to utilize every body of knowledge as possible to come up with a solution to the pandemic.

The good thing that happened with the inadequacy of the galenic humoral theory to explain the incidence of plague and leprosy is the medical practitioners’ realization that their present medical knowledge is inadequate or much worst incorrect. The encounter with plague and leprosy of the health practitioners led them to probe into the deeper medical knowledge. The incapacity of astrological and religious phenomena to solve the pandemic forced them to find answers to the medical problems. Even though the medieval physicians might have hesitated to leave the Galenic Humoral theory behind, they had no choice but to do so.

The reason for this is that failing to treat the people infected by the plague and leprosy does not only translate to failure of their medical profession but rather it is also a stoppage their civil obligations to the society. The intensive development of the medical profession after the occurrence of the plague and leprosy pandemic could have not been possible if the Galenic Humoral theory was able to solve those pandemics. The medieval doctors’ encounter with the tragic Black Death stimulated the development and growth of medicine.

Bibliography Aberth, John.“The Black Death: The Great Mortality of 1348-1350”. Medical Responses, A brief History with Documents (Boston and New York: Bedford/St Martin’s, 2005), chapter 3, 37- 66. Arrizabalaga, Jon. “Facing the Black Death: Perceptions and Reactions of University Medical Practitioners,” Practical Medicien from Salerno tot eh Black Death, ed. Luis Garcia Ballester, Roger French, Jon Arrizabalaga and Andrew Cunningham, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994, Ch. 8, 237-288. Maurach, Gregor “Sudhoffs Archiv 62 (2)” Translated by Faith Wallis, 1978, 148-174.