2nd October 1660. Are You Phlegmatic or Choleric?

The balance of the ‘Four Bodily Humours’ was once thought necessary for a happy and healthy life.

The word ‘humour’ relates to its Classical definition, and was not to have its modern usage until the 18th century.

Thus Samuel Pepys’ Diary entry Today in 1660 has its old usage, when he relates going to, ‘The [Westminster] Abbey, where he ‘found but a thin congregation…so I see that religion be it what it will, is but a ‘humour’ [disposition] and so the esteem of it passeth as other things do’.

The Four Humours of the body constituted the four fluids: blood, phlegm, yellow and black bile, a mixture which determined character, mind, behaviour, morality and temperament.(1)

Diagram of the Four Humours.

Diagram of the Four Humours.


The 17thc writer Robert Burton, gives a description of the qualities of the humours, (see diagram). He said he wrote the book to assuage his own melancholy, ‘an inbred malady in man’, and bolstered his work with arguments from the Classics and the Bible.(2)

We still use the idea of Humours and associated moods and characteristics: ill-humour (melancholy), good humour (sanguine) and words such as, yellow-livered, green with envy, hot-blooded, phlegmatic, bilious and choleric.


Burton warned against solitude and idleness, which he attributed ‘to a lack of imagination, which affects the reason’, no doubt leading to melancholy.(3)

Ben Jonson wrote a Comedy of Humours; ‘Every man out of Humour’ in 1599, but the best known use is in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, where the four main characters are afflicted, each with different temperaments.

The love-sick Viola, the sanguine heroine; the gluttonous, Duke of Orsino’s unrequited love for Olivia, with his melancholic, ‘if music be the food of love, play on’.

Then the phlegmatic and cowardly Sir Toby Belch, uncle of Olivia, with his ‘cares an enemy of life’, and the introspective Malvolio’s choleric and melancholic disposition.

Traditionally, the Four Humours were the equivalent of the Four Elements, around which the universe was created: earth, fire, water and air.(4

(1) The word is derived from the Latin humor-moisture-thus humidity, and used in medieval times in the tradition of Hippocrates, by physicians in diagnosis.

(2) Anatomy of Melancholy. (1 ii 3 (1621).

(3) Chronicle of Britain/Ireland p525.

(4) Example of Humours are also seen in The Franklin’s Tale, in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales: ‘a sanguine, kind, good living and amorous man, the true blood humour’.

Ref: Pepys diary.com.

Ref: thebillshakespeareproject.com/Pic Image.

Ref: academia.edu/humours-in-12th-night.


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About colindunkerley

My name is Colin Dunkerley who having spent two years in the Royal Army Pay Corps ploughed many a barren industrial furrow until drawn to the 'chalk-face' as a teacher, now retired. I have spent the last 15 years researching all aspects of life in Britain since Roman times.

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