Complexio and the Transformation of Learned Physiognomy ca. 1200-ca. 1500

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This article surveys the long story of complexio in physiognomic discourse, from Galen's De complexionibus (De temperamentis) to the great physiognomic manuals of the fifteenth century by Rolandus Scriptoris and Michele Savonarola. We linger, along the way, on various physiognomic texts, most notably the contributions to learned physiognomic discourse of Michael Scotus, William of Aragon, and John Buridan. The emerging story moves from the absence of complexio to omnipresence, with a sudden leap forward in the importance of the idea in the thirteenth century. The agents of this change were natural philosophers as well as physicians - possibly via medical intermediaries (most notably Rhazes), whose texts became available to Latin readers in the twelfth century; they borrowed the term and assimilated it into their texts, which now included the missing causal explanations that linked the physiognomic sign to its meaning. The distinctions between various kinds of complexions, most notably the growing use of the concept of radical complexion (around 1300), played a key role in this development, which provided a more stable foundation for the physiognomic judgement.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)472-497
Number of pages26
JournalEarly Science and Medicine
Issue number3-5
StatePublished - 2023

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© Joseph Ziegler, 2023.


  • John Buridan
  • Michael Scotus
  • Rolandus Scriptoris
  • hair
  • physiognomy
  • radical complexion

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Medicine (miscellaneous)
  • History
  • History and Philosophy of Science


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