The Touchstone of Complexions (Levinus Lemnius)
Levinus Lemnius (1506-1568) was a highly influential Dutch physician and medical author. While he wrote his texts in Latin, his content was not theoretical but “practical and advisory [in] nature”, and his writings were translated into French, English and German before the end of the seventeenth century. Like many medical writers of the time, Lemnius wrote books that were appealing to mass audiences because of their inherent interdisciplinarity – his “encyclopaedic” works did not discuss medicine alone, but were “densely packed with quotations from ancient medical and literary authors, as well as from the Bible and church fathers.”
In The Touchstone of Complexions – or De habitu et constitutione corporis (1561) in its original Latin – Lemnius describes the ideal human through the lens of their humours, temperaments, qualities, elements and spirits. The book was a bestseller from its publication, and the London physician Thomas Newton translated it to English in 1576. According to Lemnius, an examination of an individual’s complexio or temperament will reveal the degree to which they meet the requirements of an ideal human. He identifies Polyclitus’ Canon, a sculpture of a perfect man created in the 5th century, as the physical embodiment of this ideal.
Lemnius offers a relatively traditional argument, suggesting that blood is an element superior to all others (phlegm, black bile and yellow bile), since it is warm and moist and aligns with the traditionally favoured sanguine temperament. Nevertheless, he does differentiate his argument from the traditional canon by contending that blood is the sole element that contains all others. He also notes that blood is the only element to run through the heart, and is there enriched with spiritus vitalis – a kind of safeguarding and empowering force.
A Look Inside
Notable features of the book include: the highly visible sewn bindings; ornamented initials; and the decorative borders along the top edges of pages for new chapters.
Lemnius took a liberal stance to the humours in suggesting it is possible to make a complete transformation from one humour to another. Nevertheless, he did believe that certain people were inclined to certain temperaments (youth and adults are more naturally sanguine, and elderly people melancholic). He also crafted amusing overarching temperaments for individual nations, as described in the pages above. The English, for example, are "of heat [...] weake and lesse boyling," and prone to be artistically poor. The descriptions, of course, should be taken with a grain of salt.
THE TOVCHSTONE OF COMPLEXIONS: Expedient and profitable for all such as bee disirous and carefull of their bodily health: Containing most ready tokens, whereby every one may perfectly try, and thorowly know, as well the exact state, habit, disposition, and constitution of his body out-wardly: as also the inclinations, affections, motions, and desires of his minde inwardly. Written in Latine by Levine Lemnie, and now Englished by T[homas]. N[ewton].
PUBLISHER: Printed by E[lizabeth]. A[llde]. for Michael Sparke, and are to be sold at his house in Greene Arbour, at the Signe of the blue Bible. 1633.
ITEM TYPE: Book
CALL NUMBER: R 128.6.L45 1633
NOTE: STC records 10+ copies. ESTC records 15 copies. "A translation of: De habitu et constitutione corporis" (EEBO).
A-2K4 2L1 [$3 (-A1)].  2-248  pp. Boards measure 17.9 x 13.1 cm. Leaves measure 17.4 x 13 cm.
TYPE: Roman; Italic
LANGUAGES: English; Latin
DEDICATIONS AND ADDRESSES:
1. To the Judicious Reader. 2. Poem in Latin by G. C.
TABLES AND INDEXES: Index (at back).
ILLUSTRATIONS: Historiated/ornamented initials, head and tail pieces.
WATERMARK: Pot with initials (lower gutter).
BINDING: Early 17th c.? calf over pasteboards has simple frame of triple fillets tooled in blind. Flat spine has (faded) tooled compartments. Early pastedowns. Reddened (faded) edges.
PROVENANCE: 1. CRRS bookplate on inner pastedown. 2. CRRS stamp on final leaf. 3. Price of £55 in pencil.
HANDWRITTEN NOTES: See Provenance.
Boards: loose boards are scratched and chipped, pasteboard showing at corners. Spine is worn and faded. Leaves: Tightly cropped leaves have minor tears, major tears to edges of prelims and end leaves, creases and stains throughout. Reddening ink splashed on foot at title page, A2, and A3. Final leaf is loose.