Health and the Body


In learned medicine, whose roots stretch back to the ancient world, the body was understood as a mixture of the four “elements”—earth, water, air, and fire. These elements, it was thought, combined to form the various components of the body, such as tissues, organs, bones, vital spirits, and the four humors—“black bile,” “phlegm,” “blood,” and “yellow bile.” Each component was necessary for life, but it was their balance that supposedly explained the difference between individual human bodies. The notion of humoral balance was expressed in the concept of “complexion.” An individual was understood to be healthy when his or her complexion was in balance. But what determined a person’s humoral makeup to begin with? One important factor was the climate into which the person was born, and this idea led people to deploy “national” categories to describe certain regional similarities perceived among people. The complexity of humoral theory allowed people to think about the body in ways that encompassed both physical characteristics, such as the types of food or air quality that people could tolerate, and behavioral characteristics such as “courageousness,” etc. Germanness therefore could be expressed in terms of both appearance and temperament.


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