The Touchstone of Complexions (Levinus Lemnius)

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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.[1] 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.”[2]  

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.[3]

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.[4]

A Look Inside

Bibliographical Information


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].

DATE: 1633

PLACE: London

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.


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)]. [9] 2-248 [10] pp. Boards measure 17.9 x 13.1 cm. Leaves measure 17.4 x 13 cm.

TYPE: Roman; Italic

LANGUAGES: English; Latin


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.

MARGINALIA: Moderate. 

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.



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.

[1] Manfred Horstmanshoff, Helen King and Claus Zittel, eds., Blood, Sweat and Tears: The Changing Concepts of Physiology from Antiguity into Early Modern Europe (Leiden: Brill, 2012), 422. 

[2] Ibid, 423.

[3] Ibid, 427.

[4] Ibid, 426. 

The humours and medicine
The Touchstone of Complexions (Levinus Lemnius)