The Four Temperaments and the Four Winds

We have mentioned before that the Cathedral Library has a fine collection of manuscripts with detailed information on medical subjects. Manuscript Q.41 is a thirteenth-century compendium of Greek and Arabic texts, all translated into Latin for the benefit of educated readers in England, France, Italy and other west European nations. And on a blank sheet numbered Folio 76, instead of neat and closely written Latin text, it has a complicated circular chart which is reproduced here:


Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)


The chart illustrates the once widely-held belief that human personality was derived from a mixture of four basic Temperaments: Sanguine or lively; Phlegmatic or harmonious; Choleric or practical and Melancholic or thoughtful. And these Four Temperaments in turn depended on physical characteristics of the human body which explains its insertion into a medical text. The date the chart was added is not certain because these beliefs held sway for five hundred years after the manuscript was written.

The four main branches of the chart list the Four Temperaments together with their associated characteristics. Each one has a compass point, a prevailing wind, a season, an element and one part of human life. Twenty-first century people have the benefit of several hundred years of scientific medical research and may easily find such associations no more than fairy tales. But these beliefs were widely held in the ancient and medieval worlds, and it is not surprising that in all that time they grew in complexity and detail.

The chart depends on sixteen carefully drawn circles, each one within the other. The Choleric branch is shown below – the manuscript text, the Latin words and an English translation (ignoring the top line for the moment).


Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)


Nowadays the word choleric suggests perhaps a red-faced, angry and bad-tempered person, but in medieval times its more positive meaning was having an active, lively and creative personality, and an association with the natural element of fire. Eurus was the old Greek name for the east wind. It was thought to belong to the time of youth, and to the fertility of summer. The word ‘Ventus’ in the last line probably means all the four winds.


Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)


The south wind Auster was linked to the enthusiastic and sociable Sanguine Temperament, and also to spring, air and young adulthood. Phlegmatic meant a calm and unemotional Temperament. Its element was water, its season winter and old age its time of life. The north wind Boreas linked to the Melancholic Temperament, to autumn, to earth and to old age. Melancholic personalities were thoughtful and analytical, following orderly patterns of life.

The inmost circle has just one word ‘Homo’ meaning, of course, humanity as a whole. Humanity is understood to depend on four essentials shown as single words in the next circle – the Four Elements, the Four Seasons, the Four Winds and the Four Qualities. These last also appear radiating from the centre of the chart: frigida (cold), sicca (dry), calida (warm) and humida (wet). Thus the Sanguine Temperament is warm and wet; Phlegmatic is cold and wet; Melancholic is cold and dry; Choleric is warm and dry. Thus in some way the physical qualities produce what were seen as equivalent temperaments.

As well as this, the chart offers a guide to all the other wind names coming from the Greeks and Romans and still used in medieval times. They are shown in the outer circle of the chart in alternating black and red ink. The Roman equivalent of Boreas was Septemtrio, the wind that came from the direction of the seven stars of the Great Bear, meaning the North Star. The equivalents of Zephyrus, Eurus and Auster were Favonius, Vulturnus and Notos, written Nothus in the Chart. There were also other winds sometimes called side winds: Aquilo, Affricus, Subsolanus, Sodales, Chorus and Circinus. Medieval sailors seem to have needed a classical education!

It is of interest to note that nowadays there are many websites explaining all these ancient ideas and trying to link them to modern psychological theory. We have not tried going down any of those routes. The old ideas were complicated enough!

Tim O’Mara



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