The Four Humours made Simple
The concepts involved in the theory of the Four Humours can be very tricky but, given the importance of the theory, it’s important that students understand it clearly, even if at an elementary level. This activity therefore uses physical representation to help them develop that basic understanding.
1. You might want a toga to wear in your role as Greek or Roman expert physician. On togas see www.howtomakeatoga.info
Apparently the popularity of toga parties among university students means that cloth for togas can be obtained cheaply at markets in most university towns!
2. Cards or tabards with the names of the 4 Humours – blood, yellow bile, black bile and phlegm.
3. Brief the student who is playing the patient to ‘play sick’ groaning etc whenever the Humours are out of balance.
1. a) Bring out one student to be the patient and sit him/her down.
b) Arrange around him 4 other students (also sitting down) and give each of them a card or tabard showing which humour they are.
2. Introduce yourself as Hippocrates, a great Greek physician, and say that you are going to explain your great theory of the Four Humours – it’s brilliant because it’s so simple. Now focus on the patient and explain that this patient is healthy because all four humours are in balance – i.e. in this demonstration they are all the same height (because they’re all sitting down). So what might make the patient ill?
3. Tell one of the Humours to stand up - and then explain that the patient will be ill (cue groans etc) whenever he has too much (or too little) of one Humour. Your job is to restore the balance of the Humours – at this point make the standing Humour sit down so they are all back in balance – and cue smiling patient.
That’s the very basic demonstration – so simple you may not feel it is worth doing but there will be students for whom this kind of physical representation makes a difference to their understanding. From there, you can if you wish, introduce other layers e.g. the relation to the seasons (bring in 4 more students and discuss where they stand in relation to the Humours), how symptoms link to the Humours and seasons e.g. runny noses in winter links to too much phlegm. How much detail you go into depends on how much detail students can cope with.
The key question is ‘why was this theory last so powerful?’ – the answer being that it was neat and logical – something that’s clearer though this demonstration than simply through words.
- How could you improve the clarity of this activity?
- How can students best record what they have just done?