Hunting the Windy Vapors

Illogical Dark Nooks, The Cooling Effects of Lettuce, Melancholic Quails, Phlegmagogics, Bacon’s Fictional Cult of Utopian Science, Emmenagogues, Venomous Semen, Hypochondriacs v. Hysterics, Spleen as Receptacle for Gross Feculencies, Enemas in Art
by Rachel Poliquin
Matthew Darly, Mon.R le Médicin (The doctor), 1771, etching. Courtesy of the Wellcome Institute Library, London.

Hunting the Windy Vapors

Rachel Poliquin
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My gurgling enigma

Among the least-examined ailments afflicting the human body and mind are the windy vapors. Why they have not received more recent critical attention is lost on me, but perhaps we might chalk up this oversight to the visual stringencies of modern Western medicine, which—in great part—has little time for invisible physical distempers. Tumors, blockages, clots, chemical imbalances, muscular failings—all can be measured or weighed or seen or calibrated, but windy vapors… they present an unusual challenge for the medical practitioner.

I’m biased, of course. I’m no doctor. I appreciate that my body usually works, that I’m generally healthy and sound, but at the same time I hardly consider my internal workings as the smooth operations of a coherent machine. Inside lie hidden too many dark nooks, too many strange pumpings and sinuous twists to be logical. But as I say, I’m biased. Twice something has popped inside me, somewhere deep within those recesses—without reason, without warning, just the unlucky detonation of some mysterious corporeal force. And when you fall victim to your own body’s random actions, it becomes mighty clear that we are all just navigating within a gurgling enigma.

To believe in the windy vapors is to accept that mind and body work symbiotically—what affects the flesh must also disturb one’s thoughts and passions—but the winds take the belief one step further. Those passions must have a presence, perhaps not a heavy materiality but a distinct existence; not exactly concrete but not immaterial either, if that makes any sense. To explain the logic of such immaterial materiality, a lesson in outmoded medicine is required. A proper hunt for the windy vapors must begin at the source: the ancient, sticky, and odiferous world of humoral medicine.


Phlegm is cold and wet. Melancholy is cold and dry.

From at least the time of Hippocrates, that ancient Greek physician whose name is still conjured up by medical graduates, the body was believed to contain four fluid substances known as the humors: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile, also known as melancholy. All people contained all four in varying proportions, and this idiosyncratic balance determined each individual’s unique constitution. But more: humoral medi­cine presupposed a sympathy between mind and body. Each humor had its own particular “complexion,” endowing individuals with distinctive physical, emotional, and intellectual dispositions. The corrosive properties of black bile, an acid, excremental substance, engendered the melancholic’s lean body and world-weary countenance, while ruddy cheeks and a cheerful, optimistic glow announced a sanguine (blood-predominant) personality. The cholerics’ fiery tempers and irrational, hotheaded anger were kindled by the hot and dry humor of yellow bile, and the sluggish and languid disposition of phlegmatics arose from an excess of heavy, clammy mucus.

Health was a state of balance among the humors. Disease was humoral mayhem. A simple change of weather could do the trick since the human body was essentially composed of the same four basic qualities—hot, wet, cold, dry—as the world itself: blood (hot and wet), phlegm (cold and wet), black bile (cold and dry), yellow bile (hot and dry). Too much atmospheric heat could bring on a fit of choleric spite. Dank weather engendered excess phlegm and the apathetic droop it begot. This sort of climatic determinism continued well into the eighteenth century and explained why, for example, Spaniards living in their parched, scorched land were always so angry while the Dutch were irredeemably phlegmatic. An edifice porous to the world, the body had a dynamic balance of temperature and moisture that required constant monitoring.

Careful attention to food and drink was also critical. Diet and medicine were barely separable components of health and healing: “For a good cook is halfe a physy­cyon,” as a Renaissance herbalist put it. All foods—all natural substances, in fact—were composed of those four basic elements: hot, wet, cold, dry. The only difference between foods and medicines was the reason for which they were taken: food, to maintain health; medicine, to regain humoral balance. Barley, for example, bred cold humors. Lettuce produced cooling humors; wine, beer, cheese, garlic, and red meat all produced hot, heavy blood. Capers, nettles, and wild hops purged phlegm. Quails engendered melancholic humors, and melancholic constitutions were also advised to avoid spicy wines and fried and burnt meat. Young turtle­doves encouraged good blood while cranes, hard on digestion, roused dangerous intestinal winds. And indeed, intestinal winds were always dangerous.


Purify your mind: ejaculate often.

The theory of digestion through the eighteenth cen­­tury was essentially that of a cauldron: the stomach cooked up foods into a half-fermented product called chyle. Chyle passed along to the liver, where it was further cooked into the four humors. A third digestion happened in the heart, where blood was transmuted into the rarer spirits—the vital spirits—that passed throughout the body along the arteries, spreading vigor. A portion of these spirits was carried to the brain, where a fourth and final transmutation occurred, transforming the vital spirits into the animal spirits, which endowed the body with sensation and quickness. When digestive processes were clogged up or burbled to a halt (particularly during a prolonged flush of hot, stagnant summer air), the whole system could be sent into anarchy. Undigested food went ­rancid, humors lay stagnant and soured, and like all composting organic material, those rancid foods and sour humors emitted noxious winds and steamy vapors. These rose through the body, curdling the vital spirits and addling the brain with unruly delusions, terrible dreams, and melancholy.

As William Rowland wrote in his A New and Needful Treatise of Wind Offending Mans Body (1668), these impure winds were like gas trapped beneath the earth’s surface. If no fissures released the pressure, “there must needs be an Earthquake…. So when flatuous spirits or wind is shut up in the cavity of the body, and strives to get out, there is great trembling.” But if the ­bowels heated up with constipation and the humors began to decompose, the winds did more ­damage than corporeal tremblings. They wheed­led their way forcefully into the membranes, stretching, tearing, biting, and wounding the bodily pipes and passages, or even stretching the ventricles of the brain until they swelled painfully, like a bladder. The best cure? Belching, farting, and abundant use of laxatives.

Windy burping and oral croaks came in only one variety: sour and smoky. Unsavory, but highly thera­peutic. Farting was more varied, and, as Rowland notes, by the ­timbre of the fart “any ingenious person” could interpret where the excremental blockage lay. Rowland helpfully offers a diagnostic of clamors and blasts—perhaps it was a “sharp and shrill” whistle-like toot or a little puffing known as a fizzle, being a little or low-sounding fart; or maybe it was a “humming, like that of Pipes” or a raucous kind of Bombus. Generally speaking, the greater the quantity of stool that lay in the bowels, and the moister it was, the more rumbling and booming the farting would be, a sure sign that laxatives were needed, and needed fast.

Curing or preventing the winds was really all about purging stagnant matter. Besides colon cleansers, purges included vomitories, sternutators (sneeze inducing), sudorifics and diaphoretics (sweat inducing), alexipharmics (drawing away poison), masticatories, emmenagogues (inducing menstruation), melanagogues (expelling black bile), choleretics (stimulating secretion of bile by the liver), phlemagogics (purging phlegm), and, of course, diur­etics, expectorants, and vesicants, the ­latter being horrible things which produced blisters in order to expel toxins through the skin. No ­wonder Francis Bacon, the seventeenth­-century granddaddy of experi­men­tal science, included “more easy and less loathsome purgings” as part of the research conducted by his fictional cult of utopian science.

Humoral medicine was basically a theory of organic substances and processes, all about sediments, fermentation, and fluctuating crude compounds, all liable to go stale, bad, and fetid if not eliminated in a timely fashion, including semen. You see, semen was believed to be concocted from blood, and such distillations were all the more liable to fester. As Dutch physician Johan van Beverwijck wrote in 1636, it was necessary to discharge semen regularly; otherwise “it will decompose and take on a venomous nature.” Even healthy young men, if they did not “eject the semen regularly, many awkward and deadly accidentes will come forth, namely: shortness of breath, melancholy, languor, yawning, sighing, tightness of chest, vertigo and similar symptoms. If, however, they get rid of the semen they will be relieved of all those indications of surfeit and they will be fresh and healthy again.” Rowland also wades into another symptom caused by lack of sex and “having much seed”—the dreaded priapism, which he describes as “a standing of the Yard swelling in length and breadth, without lust from heat, and wind with pain.” Various curatives are prescribed, including mercury, leeches, and scarification, and “he must see no Venereal pictures, nor hear no wanton discourse.” As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. 


Love me, Love my vapor.

So that’s the material side of the windy vapors: ill-digested chyle, unexpelled semen, sedimented humors, and thickened phlegm or bile all could fester, ferment, and provoke the winds. But fumes could also be produced by the passions, and this is where things get interesting. ­Neither material nor fully immaterial, the passions were the crossover between body and mind. Turbulent emotions and disruptive mental states such as love and rage had the potential to whip the internal parts into a frenzy, increasing bodily heat to the danger point. The steams ascended toward the brain; reason became confused; the imagination was disrupted. This makes sense when you think about it. Heated liquids produce vapors and steams; hot air always rises; and—as frequent fliers know—rising air causes turbulence.

In his article “Vapors and Fumes, Damps and Qualms: Windy Passion in the Early Modern Age (1600–1800),” Wolter Seuntjens argues that “love and especially frustrated or unrequited love, more than any other passion, could produce the necessary heat to inflame humor.” This is the reason why love was (is) often regarded as a disease, or at least a form of temporary madness: smoky fumes and vapors rose dangerously toward the brain from the seething humors, which, in turn, were caused by heat generated by a violent passion: “Fever, fire, love, fume, and vapor were thus often considered synonyms.” Plus, such violent, fiery vapors could actually scorch the entrails. The ancient philosopher Em­pedocles, present at an autopsy of a man who died from frustrated love, observed that “his heart was combust, his liver smoky, his lungs dried up, insomuch as he verily believed his soul was either sod or roasted through the vehemency of love’s fire.” (And surely the reliability of Empedocles’ observations is in no way diminished by the fact that they are cited by Robert Burton in his labyrinthine masterpiece, The Anatomy of Melancholy [1621], or by the fact that Burton was quoting Abraham Hoffmannus, who was citing Plato, who was quoting Empedocles, who died two years before Plato was born.) As heat consumes water, so love’s heat dried up all vital moisture. Sighing was again a symptom of the vaporously lovestruck (as it was with the sperm-hoarder); as Seunt­jens has it, “by sighing, fumes are expelled, love is cooled and a crisis, quite literally, expires.”

We may no longer believe that love literally and physically consumes us, but the notion of burning passion still lurks in our language. We still talk of lust being “enflamed” and of “kindled” and “ignited” love. Actually, the notion that extreme emotions are like ­champagne—bottled pressure and explosive if mishandled—is alive and well; we still describe pent-up emotions as bad for the health and venting anger as relieving pressure. And we still experience symptoms of lovesickness: the sweating and increased heart rate of an elevated body temperature; the sighing, the languor, and the wandering thoughts provoked by heated winds. While I can’t help thinking it is rather sad that we have lost the ancient visceral potency of love-speak, perhaps it’s not such a bad thing: nobody wants a smoky liver or, for that matter, the clogged spleen plaguing hypocondriacal men.


A suspicious spleen is a windy spleen.

But before we get to hypocondriacal men, let me first touch on hysterical women. You may have heard the theory of the wandering womb? From the time of ancient Egypt, the womb for various ­reasons (mainly a lack of sexual pleasure, exercise, or too much learning) was believed to become disgruntled and wander about the body looking for fulfillment and causing havoc. If thoroughly malignant, the womb would heat up violently, compress the vital organs, and choke the unlucky victim, causing shortness of breath, panic, and the other symptoms of hysterical fits. (Hysteria is derived from the Greek word for uterus: hystera.) Some medical authorities denied the womb’s mobility, but still persisted in believing the mental disorder—also known as “suffocation of the womb”—was aggravated by a frustrated uterus capable of polluting the delicate female mind with putrid fumes.

As Laurinda S. Dixon writes in her article “Some Penetrating Insights: The Imagery of Enemas in Art,” in the seventeenth century, physicians rather luridly recommended daily enemas for hysterical women. Such palliative programs could extend for weeks, even months, and were believed to either cool and moisten a heated womb or lure a disgruntled uterus back into place. Sweet-smelling rose ­water or oil of violet was either injected with a large syringe into various unmentionable orifices or fanned in their general direction. “In all cases,” Dixon writes, “the treatment was designed to relieve the symptoms either indirectly, by ridding the body of putrefying waste, or directly, by cooling and enticing the uterus.” (And yes, such treatments were hardly without erotic charge, and Dixon’s got the images to prove it.) The fermentation of menses could also affect the nervous system with vapors, in the same way, Dixon explains, “compacted excrement affected hypocondriacal men.” As women suffered their vapors, so men had their own fumes to contend with.

Yet compacted excrement ­really wasn’t the root of the problem for men. The real culprit was the spleen, which was considered the body’s cesspool or filtration system. The organ was endowed with an attractive power, drawing black bile and other impurities from the blood. When the spleen attracted less bile, the blood became thick and squalid, and the body developed an unhealthy, peevish color. How the spleen purged itself of filth was a great mystery, and perhaps it was this enigma that led anatomists to conclude the spleen was the source of spitefulness, bad temper, petulance, and peevishness, hence the old saying “venting one’s spleen in spite.” Oddly enough, explosive mirth and wit were also thought to arise in the spleen for the opposite reason: as the spleen attracted all impurities from the body, it thereby enlivened the heart and gladdened the soul. However, the laughing spleen had fewer advocates than the sorrowful, windy spleen.

According to Sir Richard Blackmore’s A Treatise of the Spleen and Vapors: or, Hypocondriacal and Hysterical Affections, published in London in 1725, hypocon­driacal men are thin and unmuscular, pale and gloomy, with dark and suspicious demeanors. They suffered from “a deprav’d Disposition of the Stomach, and an impair’d digestive Faculty, accompanied with an eager Desire to eat.” Left undigested in the stomach, remnants of food gave rise to violent intestinal tempests that distended the stomach and colon. These “Storms of Hypocondriacal Winds,” as Blackmore termed them, “strive and struggle for Vent with great Noise, like Vapors and Reeks imprison’d in Caverns underground: hence proceed those tumult­uous Belchings and loud Eructations” that characterize the windy disorder. These cold, dry winds could do serious damage. If contained without frequent release, the rising winds hardened and dried the brain to the point that it developed a stiff and unyielding texture, producing delusions and unfounded thoughts. Blackmore provides a complete list of additional traits ascribed to hypochondria: sinking spirits, delusions about the imminence of death, twitches, giddiness in the head, great dullness and melancholy, ringing in the ears, obstinate wakefulness or, conversely, great drowsiness, monstrous dreams, ghostly apparitions, laborious breathing, palpitations of the heart, incoherent thoughts, irrationality, immoderate emotions, moodiness, nervousness, and petulance.

Although Blackmore discusses the spleen at great length and even attaches his previously published An Essay on the Spleen to the end of his work, his title is somewhat of a misnomer. In fact, he argues at length that the spleen is not the seat of hypochondria. It is due to “the extravagant and ill-concerted Scheme of those Physicians,” Blackmore argues, “who suppose the Spleen is a Receptable of gross Feculencies [impurities], separated from the purer Blood.” An adamant defender of the spleen’s benevolence, Blackmore nevertheless was equally adamant—somewhat controversially at the time—that the spleen was expendable.


A word of advice

What more is there to say, except perhaps a few words of advice? Discharge both mind and body, freely and frequently. Eat fiber. Fart when urgent. Don’t bottle in your emotions or wallow in sad thoughts. Eat more lettuce. Avoid strong beverages and heavy meats, especially on hot summer days. Kindle love gently and temper its heat with frequent sighing. Women, take frequent exercise. And for you men, don’t let lust get out of hand—but if it does, for goodness’ sake, take it back into hand with a firm grip. Is this all really so unreasonable? 

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