John Gower on the Four Humors (or Complexions)

Use the glossary in The Riverside Chaucer for words not glossed in the margins; see also a note on Gower's spellings.

Confessio Amantis, Book VII, 380-520

[After a discussion of the four elements (earth, water, air, and fire) and the four elemental qualities (dry, moist, cold, hot) which combine in the elements, Genius, the priest of Venus, turns to the four humors.]































Bot lest nou what seith the clergie;
For upon hem that I have seid 
The creatour hath set and leid 
The kinde and the complexion 
Of alle mennes nacion. 
Foure elementz sondri ther be,
Lich unto whiche of that degre 
Among the men ther ben also 
Complexions foure and nomo, 
Wherof the Philosophre treteth,
That he nothing behinde leteth,
And seith hou that thei ben diverse, 
So as I schal to thee reherse. 

The myhti god, so as I finde, 
Of man, which is his creature, 
Hath so devided the nature, 
That non til other wel acordeth: 
And be the cause it so discordeth, 
The lif which fieleth the seknesse 
Mai stonde upon no sekernesse. 

Of th'erthe, which is cold and drye, 
The kinde of man Malencolie
Is cleped, and that is the ferste, 
The most ungoodlich and the werste; 
For unto loves werk on nyht 
Him lacketh bothe will and myht: 
No wonder is, in lusty place 
Of love though he lese grace. 
What man hath that complexion, 
Full of ymaginacion 
Of dredes and of wrathful thoghtes, 
He fret himselven al to noghtes.

The water, which is moyste and cold, 
Makth fleume, which is manyfold
Foryetel, slou and wery sone
Of every thing which is to done: 
He is of kinde sufficant 
To holde love his covenant, 
Bot that him lacketh appetit, 
Which longeth unto such delit. 

What man that takth his kinde of th'air, 
He schal be lyht, he schal be fair, 
For his complexion is blood.
Of alle ther is non so good, 
For he hath bothe will and myht 
To plese and paie love his riht: 
Wher as he hath love undertake, 
Wrong is if that he be forsake. 

The fyr of his condicion 
Appropreth the complexion
Which in a man is Colre hote,
Whos propretes ben dreie and hote: 
It makth a man ben enginous
And swift of fote and ek irous;
Of contek and folhastifnesse
He hath a riht gret besinesse, 
To thenke of love and litel may: 
Though he behote wel a day, 
On nyht whan that he wole assaie, 
He may ful evele his dette paie.

After the kinde of th'element, 
Thus stant a mannes kinde went,
As touchende his complexion, 
Upon sondri division 
Of dreie, of moiste, of chele, of hete, [the elemental qualities] 
And ech of hem his oghne sete
Appropred hath withinne a man. 
And ferst to telle as I began, 
The Splen is to Malencolie
Assigned for herbergerie:
The moiste fleume with his cold
Hath in the lunges for his hold 
Ordeined him a propre stede, 
To duelle ther as he is bede: 
To the Sanguin complexion 
Nature of hire inspeccion 
A propre hous hath in the livere 
For his duellinge mad delivere: 
The dreie Colre with his hete
Be weie of kinde his propre sete 
Hath in the galle, wher he duelleth, 
So as the Philosophre telleth.

Nou over this is forto wite, 
As it is in Phisique write
Of livere, of lunge, of galle, of splen, 
Thei alle unto the herte ben 
Servantz, and ech in his office 
Entendeth to don him service, 
As he which is chief lord above. 
The livere makth him forto love, 
The lunge yifth him weie of speche, 
The galle serveth to do wreche,
The Splen doth him to lawhe and pleie, 
Whan al unclennesse is aweie: 

Lo, thus hath ech of hem his dede. 
And to sustienen hem and fede 
In time of recreacion, 
Nature hath in creacion 
The Stomach for a comun Coc
Ordeined, so as seith the boc. 
The Stomach coc is for the halle, 
And builleth mete for hem alle,
To make hem myghty forto serve 
The herte, that he schal noght sterve:
For as a king in his Empire 
Above alle othre is lord and Sire, 
So is the herte principal, 
To whom reson in special 
Is yove as for the governance.

And thus nature his pourveance
Hath mad for man to liven hiere;
Bot god, which hath the Soule diere, 
Hath formed it in other wise. 
That can noman pleinli devise; 
Bot as the clerkes ous enforme, 
That lich to god it hath a forme, 
Thurgh which figure and which liknesse 
The Soule hath many an hyh noblesse
Appropred to his oghne kinde. 
Bot ofte hir wittes be mad blinde 
Al onliche of this ilke point, 
That hir abydinge is conjoint
Forth with the bodi forto duelle: 
That on desireth toward helle, 
That other upward to the hevene; 
So schul thei nevere stonde in evene, 
Bot if the fleissh be overcome 
And that the Soule have holi nome
The governance, and that is selde, 
Whil that the fleissh him mai bewelde. 
Al erthli thing which god began 
Was only mad to serve man; 
Bot he the Soule al only made 
Himselven forto serve and glade. 
Alle othre bestes that men finde 
Thei serve unto here oghne kinde, 
Bot to reson the Soule serveth; 
Wherof the man his thonk deserveth 
And get him with hise werkes goode 
The perdurable lyves foode. 


i.e., Aristotle


gnaw, consume


[Blood, Sanguine]

fits, is characteristic of

irate, wrathful
strife, foolish haste

pay his debt (copulate)

natural inclination

seat, dwelling place

spleen melancholy
dwelling place


i.e., Aristotle

Aristotles' Physics

wreak revenge


boils, cooks




joined together



Text adapted from: The English Works of John Gower, ed. G. C. Macaulay, EETS e.s. 81-82. London. 1900-01.