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  The term humour (Latin umor, ‘liquid’), in the life sciences, refers to any fluid in an animal or plant, but the ancient Greeks supposed that there were four basic humours: yellow and black bile, phlegm and blood. Various imbalances of these four could account for a wide range of disorders and their properties were central to the ideas of Hippocrates (c. 450 - c. 370 BCE). The four humours are often equated with the ancient Greeks\' idea of the four elements (earth, fire, water and air) and represent an important step away from the previous belief that diseases were the result of devils, divine displeasure, etc. and therefore inexplicable in mechanistic terms.

The concept of the four humours persisted until the 18th century and was a prime force in the development of Western medicine. The theories increased steadily in complexity to allow the humours to fluctuate slightly with season and age and to affect psychology. Treatments were based on their supposed effects in boosting or reducing the relative levels of each humour and certain procedures such as blood-letting became extremely popular for diverse symptoms. When, in the 19th century, great advances were made in understanding the cause of disease the concept of vital humours was not abandoned completely as it found shelter in the idea of homeostasis and the maintenance of an internal physiological balance.

In drama, Comedy of Humours is a term used to describe a Renaissance European dramatic form, drawing on traditional medical beliefs in the influence of the four ‘humours’ on individual character. Characters dominated by blood are sanguine, those dominated by phlegm are phlegmatic, yellow bile makes the personality choleric and black bile leads to melancholy. In dramatic terms this leads to unbalanced stereotypical characters dominated by a single trait. RB TRG SS

See also aetiology; alchemy; character.Further reading Ann Barton, Ben Janson, Dramatist.



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