“The Apple” that Brings Balance to the Humors

I’m sure it comes as no surprise that when reading “The Apple: Or, Aristotle’s Death” I was primarily drawn to the passages about the four humors. The two main quotes that talk about the humors link them with the bodily senses and the “sensible soul” – which makes sense, considering the fact that the humors are not only fluids within the physical body, but also are influenced by earthly things like the elements and the stars. The first time the connection to the humors is implied is directly after Aristotle sniffs his apple for the first time – the apple that has sustained his life beyond its natural life. When the wise men who followed him are distressed over how thin and weak and ill Aristotle looks, he says to them that “if it weren’t for this apple which I am holding in my hand and whose odor strengthens me and prolongs my life” then he would have “already expired,” but “the sensible soul, which we share with the beasts, is sustained by a good odor.” Somehow, the apple’s odor is capable of re-balancing the humors which have caused his illness, at least temporarily so that he might discuss Big Philosophical Questions with his Wise Men Followers before he dies. Sniffing the apple works because of the body’s connection to the earth and to the beasts – after all, the “sensible soul” is the one of the four souls that we “share with beasts.” It is at this point that Aristotle first reveals how relieved he is to be leaving his worldly body behind:

And I am happy that I am departing from this world, which is composed of contraries;
for the four elements, from which every created thing under the sun is made, are
contraries. One is cold, another hot, another dry, another moist. How can a body
composed of such elements last, or be prolonged in life, except briefly? When those
elements are in equilibrium and do not oppose each other, and when no one of them overcomes its contrary, then one’s life is well-ordered, and he can live. But when one dominates another, diminishes and weakens its own contrary, then illness comes. If some highly skilled doctor can be found, who recognizes the illness, so that he can strengthen the weak elements and weaken the stronger, then the body is restored to its strength and can convalesce. But many of them neither know nor recognize the case; they increase the body’s illness and cause it to descend to ruin and death.”

While not explicitly mentioning the four humors, this passage would have had a clear connection to the humors for a medieval reader. Each of the four humors (sanguine, phlegmatic, choleric, and melancholic) were associated not only with a different bodily fluid (air, water, fire, and earth) but also were also associate with particular contrary features, namely cold, hot, moist, and dry. Wikipedia actually has a handy table that helps organize this:


So when Aristotle is discussing the ways in which these elements either find “equilibrium” in health or are “contrary” to each other in illness, the text is relying on an established humoral tradition that view balance and imbalance of the four humors/elements/temperaments as vital to bodily health. The text seems to reason here that, since the world is so full of contradictory elements/humors, the deterioration and illness of the body is inevitable.

I find it interesting, then, that this text – one that seems to find its primary rational in disavowing the “sensible soul” and discussing the ways the earthly form is inherently flawed and a relief to be rid of – seems to ascribe such a prominent place to the apple which sustains Aristotle’s body. At the same time as the “sensible soul” is the one that “we share with beasts” it is also the one that allows Aristotle to be sustained and “re-balanced” by the odor emitted from the apple. (Fun fact: many medieval medicinal cures listed in texts like The Trotula involved odors which were intended to re-balance the humors and banish bad fluids from the body – for example, if you had a stomach ache, you should stand over something sweet-smelling and sniff something foul-smelling, but if you had a headache, you should sniff something sweet-smelling and stand over something foul-smelling, so as to draw the problematic fluids from the body and re-establish balance).

Despite the positive connotations surrounding the apple (a reversal of Eden, perhaps?), the moment when the humors get brought up explicitly is also one which (unsurprisingly) disavows the body:

“For he who is deeply intent upon eating and drinking, and uses the
least pleasures of this kind (which he can enjoy only while he is eating) corrupts his
body with diseases and pain. For the nascent humors in the body, which are the
source of a man’s life and strength, increase immoderately as a result of much food
and drink. One is blood, the source of life; it is warm and moist. The second is black
bile, which is cold and dry. The third is yellow bile, which is warm and dry. The
fourth is phlegm, which is cold and moist. Each of these is diminished and increased
and alters its nature as a result of excessive and variable eating. Likewise, one who
makes great use of venereal pleasure ages his body and macerates its substance. A
wise man is careful. He despises all such things and perfects his soul by seeking
knowledge of his Creator, Who made being itself out of nothing.”

This text connects the body and the earthly world to imbalance, contrary elements, inevitable illness, and death. The body is something that is a relief to be rid of. And yet, there is also an acknowledgement that over-indulgence in things of the world will cause the body to become imbalanced. Eating, drinking, and “venereal pleasures” will cause the humors to become even more imbalanced, and will cause further illness, and yet the avoidance of these things does not ensure health.  The apple then becomes a symbol for the liminal space the body finds itself in, neither fully corrupted and sick nor free of death. The apple can restore the humors momentarily, but health cannot be ensured, and illness cannot be fended off indefinitely. Eventually, the apple must fall from Aristotle’s hand.

Nota Bene: One of the things I find fascinating about the four humors is that they are still used as personality texts and pseudo-psychology. They are viral ideas – memes according to Richard Dawkins definition of a “cultural idea that reproduces with slight variants.” You can still take personality tests to find out what temperament you have (I’m a sanguine/phlegmatic) and you’ll get a little write up that explains what this means about your personality (I’m fun-loving but I’m also a people-pleaser). Coincidentally, I’m also a Scorpio/Libra cusp, which means I’m both a water and air sign – water and air just so happen to be the elements that primarily govern my temperament. All of this to say; these modes of organizing bodily experience have been transposed onto modern personality quizzes in fascinating ways. Everyone should take the temperaments quiz, either the short version or the longer version.




Yolanda: an “Old Child” with a man’s heart and a woman’s body

In his 1998 essay on “Brother Hermann’s Life of the Countess Yolanda of Vianden,” Joseph M Sullivan argues that young Yolanda “epitomizes what Weinstein and Bell term the “old child”” (168) which for medieval hagiographers is when mature religious impulses and desires are read backwards into the childhoods of their protagonists. Thus, in Brother Hermann’s text, the old child – Yolanda – distinguishes herself from her peers “by seriousness of speech and manner” and by refusing to take part in the games of her peers. This peculiar feature of her sainthood seems to be a transferal of Yolanda’s refusal of the world from a learned virtue to more of an inherent or natural virtue. As a common feature of hagiography, I couldn’t help but ask some questions about what this “old child” trope implies about medieval ideas concerning children, virtue, and ideas about governing conduct.

Because this text was written in the vernacular, it’s possible that rather than being an case for Yolanda’s canonization, it was instead written as a sort of conduct manual for Dominican nuns written using hagiographic tropes (Sullivan 164). But how could this text function as a conduct manual if the protagonist in question was an “old child,” one who was free of the folly and triviality that other children are subject to?

One of the moments that struck me when puzzling through this was the scene where Yolanda first runs from her mother in the convent and manages to incite the other nuns to dress her in the habit of the novitiate. She strips herself of her courtly clothes and “quickly she told them to dress her. Her hair touched the floor, curly, golden, and fine. Full of love, she told them all to cut off her hair. That was too hard for the sisters; they couldn’t cut it. Yolanda herself then took the scissors in her hand, the pure and blessed Yolanda. She cut, she turned it up, she sheared. The sisters then ran up and helped her finish the haircut” (1840-50). In this moment, Yolanda sets an example for the other nuns of the order by shearing her own head. The other nuns then join in, helping her to complete the task and replacing her “head-band, taffeta, ribbons, silk” with the “way of the cloister.” In this moment, it seems that Yolanda is only able to behave as an example for the nuns conduct because she is ALREADY capable of doing the thing that they are not yet capable of doing. Her hair – a symbol of her femininity, beauty, courtly-life, youth and virginity – is something that she has already abandoned; or, rather, it’s something she never wanted in the first place, and therefore never needed to abandon, only to escape. Meanwhile, it is “too hard” for the nuns to cut the hair from her head until she first shows them how.

However, at the same time that Yolanda seems predisposed to virtue, immediately after this episode she is shown as needing to bolster her courage and strength: “Ah, poor girl, alas! What good help she needs now! For she has stepped into the turning wheel and she must fight there as a matter of life and death. She needs much good hope. For the good young woman is in peril. She must borrow a man’s heart for a woman’s body. Yes, a woman’s strength is not enough for her tender body” (1851-62). In this moment immediately following her brave shearing of her own hair, Yolanda now requires some kind of help; here perhaps we see a moment of writer clairvoyance on Brother Hermann’s part – he of course knows that this decision is the beginning of years of conflict, pain, and struggle for Yolanda as she fights to follow her virtue and stay in the cloister against her mother’s wishes. However, rather than saying Yolanda prayed for grace or something of similar nature, instead Hermann says that Yolanda needed to “borrow a man’s heart for a woman’s body.” Suddenly, in this moment where Yolanda’s childhood predisposition to strength of virtue perhaps momentarily falters, it is not Christ or grace that are invoked, but rather ideas about gender. Yolanda is an old child, but she has a woman’s body, and therefore needs a man’s heart in order to have the hope and the strength the needs to confront the years of pain to come. How does this sudden invocation of gender complicate ideas about virtue and conduct exemplar that up to this point have seemed to follow fairly clear hagiographic tropes? Yolanda needs to be an “old child” in order to provide the example that the other nuns in the cloister needs. She must have already rejected the world and already abandoned her beautiful hair in order to show the nuns how to begin to shear it. However, now faced with the “turning wheel” (of Fortune?) she has stepped into, she needs a man’s heart…in order to continue to be an example? Is this a moment when our hagiographer doubts the relative fortitude of his protagonist?

What strikes me then, as this scene comes to a close, before it is interrupted by the anger of Yolanda’s mother, is that we land on an image of Yolanda, kneeling before the altar, listening to the choir sing “Veni, Creator Spiritus” (“Come, Holy Spirit, Creator Blest”).  This song (if it’s the version that I’m thinking) is doing all the things that a hymn probably ought to do in this moment – it is invoking the Holy Spirit, asking to be comforted, pleading for virtue (“Accende lumen sensibus: infunde amorem cordibus: infirma nostri corporis virtute firmans perpeti.”; “Kindle our sense from above, and make our hearts o’erflow with love; with patience firm and virtue high the weakness of our flesh supply.”), asking for peace and grace. So while our narrator himself doesn’t overtly state that Yolanda asked for grace in this moment, the hymn which she prays to, and which plays as her mother walks in, is in many ways both fulfilling a prayer for grace, and providing prophetic sense of the dangers to come that Yolanda must fortify her woman’s body against with a man’s heart.