Elizabethan Medicine

By Christopher W. Taylor

Galen (131-201 B.C.E.), a Greek doctor, developed the concept of humours that most European physicians abided by. In this system, the human body fluids were thought to be comprised of four components: phlegm, yellow bile, black bile, and blood. Each of these components, or humours, was categorized based on whether it was wet or dry or whether it was hot or cold. Phlegm, for example, was cold and wet. All illnesses were thought to be caused by an imbalance of these humours. Normally, a physician attempted to restore the health of his patient (and therefore rebalance the humours) by adjusting diet, using medicine, and letting blood (Gately 39).

Given that England is a small island and that the English people were known for their excessive use of food and drink, they were considered by physicians of the time to be especially prone to an illness called rheums. As Sir Thomas Elyot (1490-1546) pointed out in The Castel of Helth (1541), rheums was the most troubling disease in the Elizabethan Age in England. This disease, according to contemporary medicine, developed because of the cold and wet climate of England. Physicians and herbalists thought that tobacco was effective against rheums because it is a hot and dry substance (Knapp 30).


Works Cited

Gately, Iain. Tobacco: The Story of How Tobacco Seduced the World. New York: Grove Press. 2001.

Knapp, Jeffrey. “Elizabethan Tobacco.” Representations 21 (1988). Univ. of California Press. 17 Mar. 2007 <http://www.jstor.org/>.