Mead and Health: Humor Theory

Humor theory is a way of looking at matters of health and philosophy that started with Greek and Roman physicians and carried through over 2000 years to the advent of modern medicine. It is the idea that the human body includes 4 humors, and that too much or little of any of them is reflected in temperament and health.

The original humors, each of which has a corresponding temperament are:

  • Blood – sanguine
  • Yellow Bile – choleric
  • Black Bile – melancholic
  • Phlegm – phlegmatic

Each person was held to have a unique mix of these humors. It was accepted that imbalance of the humors was a source of illness and disease. Disease could also be caused if one of the humors became corrupted.

The figure below shows the humors, their associations and the derived qualities.

Moods, illnesses, foods, drinks, and activities all were associated with various humors, and embodied those humors in different strengths.

It was important to balance the humors, and through attention to diet and activities ensure they did not become unbalanced. Physicians used the innate properties of compounds and food/drinks to counteract imbalances; herbs were commonly used medicinally for this purpose. People chose food, drink, and daily regimens to bolster or counteract tendencies or problems. A choleric person would consume cold and wet foods to counteract their nature. Urine color was a primary diagnostic tool; the bodily fluids were indeed precious and critical to health.

If you are interested in mead as a purely culinary beverage this may be unimportant, or even if you want to re-create the historical recipes in a fairly strict sense. But if you are interested in understanding how herbs and spices were added to meads historically, or in understanding the context of the many mead recipes that originate as medicinals, this theory of health is omnipresent.

The top three sources for historical mead recipes are medicinals, herbals, and books on health.

One recipes with 12 herbs in it (Tractatus), includes 10 that are hot and dry, one that is cold and dry, and one with “no manifest heat”.

So what about honey and mead?

Bartholomaeus Anglicus in the ‘Le grand proprietaire de toutes choses’ writes “And for the sweetness of honey is the most hot and least moist of all other sweet things”. This text was compiled in about 1240 in Latin, translated to French in 1372, and this version was printed in about 1495.

Thomas Elyot’s ‘The Castel of Helth’ (1541) states about honey “Of this excellent matter, … be made lykors commodious to mankind, as mead, metheglyn, and oximell. … Alsoo meade perfectly made, clenseth the breast and lunges, causeth a man to spytte easyly, and to pisse abundantly, and purgeth the bely moderately. Metheglyn, whiche is most used in wales, be reason of hotte herbes boyled with hony, is hotter than meade, and more comforteth a colde stomake, if it be perfectly made, and not new or very stale.”

W. B. in ‘The Philosopher’s Banquet’ (1614) writes “Drinke made of Honey according to Rais, is exceedingly hote, and causeth a rednes in the face, and is very hurtfull to those of hote Complexions”

1620 Tobias Venner in his ‘Via Recta ad vitum longam’ opines on metheglin “But it is not good for such as are hot by constitution, nor in the hot seasons of the yeere, because it ouermuch heateth the bodie, and is very quickly turned into red choler, and therefore let such as are cholericke, beware how they vse it. If in their old age, cold fleame shall somewhat abound in their stomacks, then sometimes mornings fasting, a small draught thereof may bee profitable for them.”

In conclusion, if you are Choleric or Sanguine, you need to stay away from mead in general and metheglin even more. Those who are Melancholic or Phlegmatic – drink away, it will properly balance your humors.

Last updated November 29, 2017