In love sickness, call a doctor or a cupid?

The lover and the priest in the ‘Confessio Amantis’, early 15th century. MS Bodl. 294, f.9r. Bodleian Library, Oxford University

Love sickness strangles both mind and heart. Loss of appetite, loss of sleep, mood swings, desperation, increased heartbeat, disorientation of thoughts, nausea, anxiety– sound familiar? Falling in love is quite a beautiful feeling. Above all, lovers quote it as the most precious and wanted feeling in the world. However, behind the curtain of romance and love lie quite some unpleasant and unfair experiences that lead the lover towards queer conditions. Originally, love is merely release and reaction of neurotransmitters in the brain. Different hormones release in the three stages of love i.e. lust, attraction, and attachment which initiate a series of reactions which we know as falling in love. In brief, these neurotransmitters also cause physical symptoms as mentioned in the beginning. With physical symptoms come the emotional symptoms as well which include goal-orientation and euphoria or anxiety. 

In Confessio Amantis or The Lover’s Confession, the lover is in utter grief. Hence, love-sickness has made him wish for death or a cure. He complains to cupid named Venus who mercifully massages his temples, broken heart, and kidneys with an ointment. This medical treatment, called “Fyri Peine”, cures the lover.  

Four humors in human body

In the Middle Ages, physicians derived an exclusive connection between physical health and love in a human being. According to Greek medicine, there were four humors in the human body namely blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. Reputable physicians like Galen associated the connection of body humors with the characteristic traits of a human. Generally, each one of these had affirmative effects on the body and brain but their increase or decrease could cause serious psychological and physical issues. 

Blood promoted joy, optimism, enthusiasm, and well-being. 
Phlegm promoted sensitivity, emotionalism, devotion, and passivity.
Yellow bile promoted anger, irritability, boldness, ambition, courage, and jealousy. 
Black bile promoted sadness, pessimism, and caution. 

Text and tabular of humors and fevers, according to Galen, c.1420. In MS 49 Wellcome Apocalypse, f.43r. Wellcome Library

In 11th-century a famous physician and monk, named Constantine the African translated a treatise on melancholia. In the first place, it gained admirable popularity in Europe in the Middle Ages. He made clear the connection between an excess of the black bile of melancholy in the body, and love-sickness:

The love that is also called ‘eros’ is a disease touching the brain … Sometimes the cause of this love is an intense natural need to expel a great excess of humors … this illness causes thoughts and worries as the afflicted person seeks to find and possess what they desire.

Constantine the African

Black bile is the culprit

Hence in the Middle Ages, the melancholy nature of an individual was believed to occur because of the rise in black bile which in turn was a result of love-sickness. Later in the 12th century Gerard of Berry further contributed to this aspect of the science of love. According to him, when a person fell for another person their thoughts and ideas became fixated on the loved ones only. This incessant attention towards the loved one resulted in more pensiveness. Usually, the object of love and desire was a Christian woman. Due to religious concerns and ethical codes they would not allow any word of love. This proved to be a trauma for the lover. It was quite difficult for them to let go of desire, passion, and love. Hence, the love-sickness. 

Treatment for love-sickness

Most interestingly, medical treatment for love-sickness also existed. Hippocrates formulated the treatment which included exposure to light, gardens, calm and rest, inhalations, and warm baths with moistening plants such as water lilies and violets. A diet of lamb, lettuce, eggs, fish, and ripe fruit was suggested. Since the cause of love-sickness was the rise in black bile therefore it was equally necessary to normalize it. Purgatives, laxatives, and phlebotomy were employed to re-balance the humors.

Phlebotomy for love sickness in Aldobrandino of Siena’s ‘Régime du Corps’. British Library, MS Sloane 2435, f.11v. France, late 13thC. Wikimedia Commons
Phlebotomy in Aldobrandino of Siena’s ‘Régime du Corps’. British Library, MS Sloane 2435, f.11v. France, late 13thC. Wikimedia Commons
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Kashmala Khan is a student of Bachelors of Medicine and Surgery at Karachi Medical and Dental College (KMDC), Pakistan. She is an amalgam of medicine and literature. Her inquisitive nature towards health-oriented issues ignited her interest to pursue medical writing. Kashmala owns deep interest in literature. She is an avid reader of novels and newspapers since young age and equally adores spending time under open sky to let the nature cherish her leisure. Currently, she is immersed in the student life that happens to occupy most part of her day. Years later from today, she sees herself as a recognized medical professional.


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