We’re coming at you a little early this week, both for holiday weekend reasons and for “keeping my readers on their toes, because one must always be prepared lest a historical dirtbag pop up unexpectedly” reasons.
As happened with the whole Avignon Papacy incident, this week’s dirtbag was right under my nose the whole time, except I think about his BS so often it didn’t occur to me to spotlight him until now. But the sheer amount of joy I get out of the shit this guy wrote about in approximately the second century CE can’t be understated.
It’s the head honcho of ancient medicine himself:
Claudius Galenus, AKA The King of the Four Humors
Born in 129-ish in what’s now modern-day Turkey, Galen was the son of a wealthy Greek architect who discovered a passion for medicine early and eventually moved to Rome, where he was the personal physician of a bunch of emperors. He’s fairly famous as far as ancient physicians go, mostly because he wrote a lot of treatises that survived over the centuries and influenced medicine in Europe and the Middle East for…a surprisingly long time, given everything.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. I want to talk about Galen’s actual medical practice a bit, because it was, as I learned while researching this newsletter, a time.
The No-Body Problem
When Galen moved to Rome at about the age of 30, he set about two primary pastimes: dissecting monkeys and yelling at doctors.
The monkey thing was partly because nobody was donating their bodies to science in the second century CE, so medical cadavers were really tough to get your hands on. Historically, doctors have gone to some weird lengths to get their hands on those sweet sweet study corpses. (Remind me to tell you about my favorite anatomist, Andreas Vesalius, and his habit of hanging around in bone vaults yoinking tibias left and right, another time.)
Galen, to avoid the problem altogether, apparently looked at a monkey one day and went “eh, close enough.” This was 1,600+ years before Darwin, so like, well done, Galen.
The yelling part was because Galen thought he knew better than everyone else. To be fair, the doctors he was yelling at were trying to treat malaria by syncing their treatments to the phases of the moon, so their methods were in need of some improvement. But apparently Galen was such an a know-it-all that his friends were worried the doctors of Rome were gonna assassinate him for being an annoying piece of shit.
(I have to admit, I hear where they’re coming from. Dr. Preston Burke getting assassinated by the interns for being a dirtbag would’ve been a kickass Grey’s Anatomy episode, and I would read that fanfiction if you have a link.)
Plague Doctor McDreamy
Anyway, Galen was really hungry for a chance to show Rome that his methods were super effective and better than anything doctors had done before.
And fortunately, this being the second century, he didn’t have long to wait until he got one:
A bunch of really bad plagues!!
In 168 CE, about 5 million people died of a mysterious disease that was probably smallpox but at the time was called the Plague of Galen—a name I’m fairly sure Galen wished they’d workshopped a bit harder before bringing to prime time, but that’s showbiz for ya.
Galen was the only doctor in the city who knew how to treat the plague, and apparently he buzzed around the city offering treatments, saving lives, and being a bit of a self-righteous asshole about it.
After the plague, Galen continued working as a famous doctor for the Roman emperor, living a long but poorly-documented life and dying at the age of somewhere between 70 and 90. Which is not bad, for his time or ours.
So what was Galen’s overarching theory of medicine, you ask? Basically: humorism.
This idea had existed for a while, but Galen was the one who wrote it down and popularized it. Humorism means that there’s four basic substances in the body that are supposed to be fairly balanced. If those elements—blood, black bile, yellow bile, and phlegm, aka the “humors”—get out of whack, that’s when you get sick. Treatment basically means adjusting the balances to get yourself back on track.
Yes, this is where medical leeches came from. Too much blood! Gotta get that bonus blood out!
This might sound a little…horse dewormer-y to modern readers, but at the time, this was the height of science. And holy shit did it stick. Galen died around 216ish CE, and all the way in the year SIXTEEN FREAKIN’ HUNDRED Ben Jonson was writing plays about the humors. That’s more than a millennium of bile, you guys.
My favorite part about Galen’s model of the humors, though, is that it isn’t just a set of instructions about how many leeches to put on your friend’s arm. It’s also one of the first pop psychology personality tests.
Basically, Galen theorized that every person naturally had one humor that was a bit stronger in their makeup, and that influenced your personality.
Mostly blood? That made you sanguine: cheerful, easygoing, friendly.
Mostly yellow bile? You’re choleric: bitter, short-tempered, grumpy, ambitious.
Mostly black bile? Melancholy: intellectual, perfectionist, prone to depression.
Mostly phlegm? Phlegmatic: reserved, steady, easygoing, a good leader.
Now, I want you to think of literally any pop culture foursome that comes to mind.
Do they match perfectly onto Galen’s theory of the four humors?
Of course they fucking do! They all do! Someday I will write a book about this, and that book will be just 400 pages of me listing off famous foursomes and yelling “SEE?? SEE????” with increasingly unhinged energy.
No but honestly look:
The Ninja Turtles: Michelangelo is sanguine, Raphael is choleric, Donatello is melancholic, Leonardo is phlegmatic
Harry Potter Houses: Hufflepuff is sanguine, Slytherin is choleric, Ravenclaw is melancholic, Gryffindor is phlegmatic
Wizard of Oz: Scarecrow is sanguine, Cowardly Lion is choleric, Tin Man is melancholic, Dorothy is phlegmatic
Sex and the City: Charlotte is sanguine, Samantha is choleric, Miranda is melancholic, Carrie is phlegmatic
The Narnia Kids: Lucy is sanguine, Edmund is choleric, Susan is melancholic, Peter is phlegmatic
The March Sisters: Beth is sanguine, Amy is choleric, Jo is melancholic, Meg is phlegmatic
The Goddamn Pac-Man Ghosts: Blinky is sanguine, Inky is choleric, Pinky is melancholic, Clyde is phlegmatic
Anyway, Galen was an argumentative piece of shit who got a plague named after him and is the reason people can’t stop putting their Hogwarts houses in their social media bios despite the fact that JKR is transphobic.
*climbs gingerly down from Galenic humorism soapbox*
That’s all the ancient medicine I’ve got for you today, my friends. If I yell about the Ninja Turtles any more I’m gonna pull something.
Wishing an enjoyable long weekend to my American friends who are receiving one. I’m looking forward to a few days of visiting with family, finishing my revisions, and pretending the Michigan vs. Ohio State football game never happened (or literally never shutting up about it, depending on who wins). Be well, and I’ll see you in two weeks for further dirtbaggery!