The Magazine

Four Temperaments

How medicine saw the human body for two millennia.

Jul 30, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 43 • By LAWRENCE KLEPP
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Standard remedies for melancholia and other complaints also included soothing music, baths, broths, and herbal infusions, plus applied leeches, methodical bleeding, "enemas and clysters, poultices," and potions, pills, and ointments made with everything from mint and saffron to turpentine. Some worked quite well, some killed the patient quite well. Much like today. The slice of Montaigne that she uses as an epigraph to one of her chapters should be displayed above the pharmacist's counter at your local drug store:

Among all my acquaintance, I see no people so soon sick, and so long before they are well, as those who take much physic; their very health is altered and corrupted by their frequent prescriptions. Physicians are not content to deal only with the sick, but they will moreover corrupt health itself, for fear men should at any time escape their authority.

There are fascinating chapters on the Black Plague and its subversive effects on both medical and ecclesiastical authority (since neither doctors nor priests could protect themselves or others), early anatomical drawings, how modern astronomy changed the view of the body, the challenge to medical orthodoxy posed by the cryptic alchemical mysticism of Paracelsus, explanations of why women were more lustful and more "witless, maniacal, and frantic from love" than men, and Albrecht Dürer's mysterious, densely detailed allegorical drawing of a pensive bearded angel, Melancolia I (1514).

She has put so much into it that it seems churlish to mention what she's left out, but this is the sort of nuisance that book reviewers get paid to be. I was surprised that she didn't cite Ben Jonson's 16th-century "comedy of humours," which includes such plays as Every Man in His Humour and Every Man Out of His Humour. While discussing the melancholic vapors of the artistic temperament, she somehow resisted the irresistible art-history classic on artists' melancholy and madness, Rudolf and Margot Wittkower's Born Under Saturn. The most famous melancholy character in literature, Hamlet, is mentioned only in passing. Rabelais, a doctor by profession who made fun of humours (along with everything else), doesn't get through the door.

And what about how the word humour went from something medical to something funny? It happened only in the 18th century, and our civilization developed a "sense of humour" only in the 19th century. It was thought by the French and others at the time to designate something peculiarly English, something bordering on nonsense, which is what the theory of the humours itself always bordered on. But Arikha has made a good story out of it, one that reminds us how easily knowing a little can be mistaken for knowing a lot.

Lawrence Klepp is a writer in New York.