Humors and love: amor hereos

Love illness is currently understood like a venereal disease, but this is not its traditional meaning, which is was on the other hand well known from Galen to Renaissance and more, till the theory of four humors was rejected, and it was called amor hereos.

Amor hereos or love sickness is the idea that one cannot live without the Beloved one, and this leads him/her to consumption, folly and eventually death.

This was a real illness and the famous doctor Galen talks about it and how he discovered in a patient of his.   In a first moment Galen thinks the woman was suffering of an illness derived from an excess of melancholy,  but in a following examination he observes how the woman changes when the name of Pilades is mentioned, she changes her face and her pulse becomes faster, so Galen can correct his first diagnosis and give the right one.

This is the same Galen who organised several different doctrines  in a definitive version of the theory of four humours: choler, blood, phlegm and black bile.

The perfect equilibrium of the four virtues, called dynamis, gives the inner balance, which is in fact the temperament, while on the other hand  from the excess or the unbalance of them signifies illness.

But if Latin and Greek literature is full of examples of amor hereos, let’s think for example to Dido in Virgil’s Aeneid, who kills herself when Aeneas left her in order to found a new dynasty

The Queen Dido
The Queen Dido

but it’s in the Middle Ages as the same word “hereos” says us that the disease becomes a standard in medical texts.

In one of the first translations of Arab medical texts where Galen’s doctrines found new life,  a chapter is called “De amore qui eros dicitur”, but soon an h (a mute letter for us) was added and eros became hereos like heros, so in the same word  they had eros and hero 🙂 and love sickness became the sickness of heroic souls.

Love which is called eros. Heroes are said to be noble men who, on account of riches and softness of their lives, are more likely to suffer of this disease.

Love sickness is like a folly

Love called eros is a disease touching brain. For it is a great longing with the intense sexual desire and affliction of the thoughts.

As we saw above – Galen did the same mistake -love sickness can be easily wrongly interpreted as  a melancholy disease, because in traditional medicine folly derives from an excess  of black bile, too much cold or hot, according different theories. This excess- arriving  in  blood or in brain, especially in shape of fumes when it’s very hot, fills the brain with fog and makes reality obscure.

Marsilio Ficino will describe the whole process in De Amore:

The entire attention of a lover’s soul is devoted to continuous thought about the beloved. And to this all the force of the natural complexion is directed. For this reason the food in the stomach is not directed perfectly…. As a consequence, all parts of the body become thin and pale because of the scarcity and crudity of food. Moreover, wherever the continuous attention of the soul is carried, there also fly the spirits, which are tile chariots, or instruments of the soul. The spirits are produced in the heart from the thinnest part of the blood. The lover’s soul is carried toward the image of the beloved planted in his imagination, and thence toward the beloved himself. To the same place arc also drawn the lover’s spirits. Flying out there, they are continuously dissipated.

Therefore there is a need for a constant source of pure blood to replace the consumed spirits, since the thinner and clearer parts of the blood are used up every day in replacing the spirits. On that account, when the pure and clear blood is dissipated. there remains only the impure, thick, dry. and black. Hence the body dries out and grows squalid, and hence lovers become melancholics. For from dry, thick, and black blood is produced melancholy that is, black bile, which fills the head with its vapors, dries out the brain, and ceaselessly troubles the soul day and night with hideous and horrible images.

But we should not forget that four humours have just one origin and source, food we eat, they are four stages of just one process, so many authors felt that mania derived from yellow bile, choler, too much burned and turned like that in black bile.

It shows the same symptoms of melancholy but active people  are more inclined to suffer from it because they act because of their burning desires. ((Arnaldi de Villanova, De Amore heroico ))

All this fire burns the body and the result is the same as in the case of burned black bile, the brain, the moistest and coldest part of the body is dried and becomes cold and the images of Beloved remains attached to it…..

All the body dries, face become pale, and eyes are shining and hollow for the want of spirits.  Avicenna in his Canon:

The signs of lovesickness are hollowness and dryness of the eyes, with no moisture except when crying, continuous blinking of the eyelids, smiling as though he had seen something quite delightful or heard something agreeable. . and he is either joyful and smiling, or despondent and in tears, murmuring of love; and especially when remembering his absent loved one; and all the bodily parts are dried up, except the eyes which are swollen due to much crying and wakefulness.

So severe symptoms  should be not neglected because patients are in danger of life.

We should not forget Orlando’s example who lost his mind for the beautiful Angelica, and eventually his mind was found on the Moon….

Astolfo on the hippogrifo flying on the Moon in search of Orlandos mind
Astolfo on the hippogryph flying on the Moon in search of Orlando's mind - Gustav Dorè

How love sickness can be treated in traditional medicine? Let’s come back again to Arnaldus de Villanova, (1235-1311) author of the most famous treatise on this subject.

Generally a contrariis, i.e. by antipathy, through its opposite. Friends will show to the patient all the awful sides of the Beloved and its  physical flaws and find a proper replacement. Taking tepid bathing and walking for beautiful gardens, music and travels would be good too.

But the most effective remedy, everybody knows since antiquity – it would be even useless mentioning it – is the eros pharmakon:

By whome the harme is wroght the remedie is found.
The causer of the smart, is causer of the ease,
Hee cures the sicknesse best, that caused the disease,
Loue must the plaster lay, where loue hath made the wound.

Written by Margherita Fiorello @ year 2009



Innocenzo Mazzini, Il folle d’amore in l poeta elegiaco e il viaggio d’amore: dall’innamoramento alla crisi. Scrinia, 3. Bari: Edipuglia, 1990.

Roberto Poma, Metamorfosi dell’hereos. Fonti medievali della psicofisiologia del mal d’amore in età moderna (XVI-XVII) in “Eros Pharmacon”-Atti del Convegno di Cesenatico, maggio 2006.

Marion A. Wells,  The Secret Wound Love-Melancholy and Early Modern Romance. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 2007.

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