Death and Humors: A Medieval Medicine Game

Death and Humors” is a browser game designed to give high school students, college students, and the historically curious a hands-on introduction to humoral medicine.

You play the role of a medieval European medical student trying to cure patients by learning how to balance their humors. Learn about the patients’ conditions by asking about how they’re feeling, sleeping, and other aspects of their life, and then treat them by managing their food, activity, and even bleeding and purging them. Use historical texts to plan treatments, and watch your patients’ conditions for change to get a better sense of what’s making them sick.

Historical context

Death and Humors” is set at the University of Montpellier, France, near the turn of the 14th century. Ancient medical texts by Hippocrates and especially Galen began to be reintroduced to Europe in the 11th century from Muslim Spain. These works became the basis of formal medical education in Europe, starting at Montpelier and the University of Naples, Italy. In the early 16th century, new dissections pointed out flaws in Galen’s anatomical descriptions, contributing to a fall in his preeminence. However, many aspects of Hippocratic and Galenic medicine, especially the influence of the non-naturals — food and drink, sleep, exercise and rest, excretion, emotional and mental state, and the air (especially its heat) — on personal health continued into the nineteenth century and even impact our thinking today. 

Suggestions for the classroom

Death and Humors” can be used to introduce humoral medicine to students and then followed by a discussion or lecture contextualizing it and exploring how and why people thought it worked.

In “Death and Humors,” players are given quotes from Galen’s medical works to help them understand their patient’s condition and the effects of treatments. This prompts players to practice using historical evidence to make enough sense of the humoral medical system to treat patients.

When discussing humoral medicine with students, I suggest pushing them to think about why this system lasted as long as it did, how patients and physicians determined if it worked, and whether and how it differs from medicine today.

Discussion questions

  • What influenced health according to humoral medicine?
  • What treatments were used? How did you know if treatments worked or not?
  • Would you want to be treated according to humoral medicine? Why or why not?
  • How do you know if a modern medical treatment will help make you better? Do you have a better knowledge of medicine than a medieval medical patient?

Further reading

Primary sources – Hippocrates and Galen

Galen. Galen on Food and Diet. Translated by Mark Grant. New York: Routledge, 2000. (Translation used in “Death and Humors”)

———. “On the Natural Faculties.” Translated by Arthur John Brock. Project Gutenberg, August 2, 2013. (Translation used in “Death and Humors”)

Hippocrates. Hippocratic Writings. Edited by G. E. R. Lloyd. New York: Penguin, 1983.

General background

Conrad, Lawrence I., Michael Neve, Vivian Nutton, Roy Porter, and Andrew Wear. The Western Medical Tradition: 800 BC to AD 1800. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Lindemann, Mary. Medicine and Society in Early Modern Europe. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

The continuing influence of humoral medicine

Bashford, Alison, and Sarah W. Tracy, eds. “Special Issue: Modern Airs, Waters, and Places.” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 86, no. 4 (2012): 495–670.

Cantor, David, ed. Reinventing Hippocrates. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2002.

Sargent, Frederick. Hippocratic Heritage: A History of Ideas about Weather and Human Health. New York: Pergamon Press, 1982.

Temkin, Owsei. Galenism: Rise and Decline of a Medical Philosophy. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1973.

The meaning of medical treatment

Geest, Sjaak van der, Susan Reynolds Whyte, and Anita Hardon. “The Anthropology of Pharmaceuticals: A Biographical Approach.” Annual Review of Anthropology 25 (January 1, 1996): 153–78.

Gronim, Sara Stidstone. “Imagining Inoculation: Smallpox, the Body, and Social Relations of Healing in the Eighteenth Century.” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 80, no. 2 (2006): 247–68.

Helman, Cecil G. “‘Feed a Cold, Starve a Fever’ — Folk Models of Infection in an English Suburban Community, and Their Relation to Medical Treatment.” Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry 2, no. 2 (June 1, 1978): 107–37.