EROTOMANIA, OR A TREATISE DISCOURSING OF THE ESSENCE, CAUSES, SYMPTOMES, PROGNOSTICKS, AND CURE OF LOVE, OR EROTIQUE MELANCHOLY.
(Oxford: Printed by L. Lichfield, 1640). $9,500
SMALL OCTAVO (5 3/4 x 3 5/8″). a-b⁸ c⁴ A-Z⁸.. Translated from the French by Edmund Chilmead. FIRST EDITION IN ENGLISH. This copy is neatly bound in 19th century calf with a gilt spine. it is quite a lovely copy.
First some symptoms:
“pale and wan complexion, joined by a slow fever … palpitations of the heart, swelling of the face, depraved appetite, a sense of grief, sighing, causeless tears, irresistible hunger, raging thirst, fainting, oppression, suffocation, insomnia, headaches, melancholy, epilepsy, madness, uterine fury, satyriasis, and other pernicious symptoms …”
This book is filled with details chosen on account of the personal motives and life ex- perience of the author. A close reading of Ferrand’s treatise (in particular a careful comparison of the two editions) reveals that he had to deal with criticism from both the religious establishment (the Catholic Church) and the academic establishment (his colleagues in the Paris medical faculty)
“Climate, diet and physical activity (three of the six “non-natural causes”) were the main elements controlling an individual’s health8. However, a reading of descriptions of the lifestyle which is most likely to lead to being infected by love melancholy makes it clear that the disease was characteristic of a specific social class. Wine, white bread, eggs, rich meats (especially white meat and stuffed poultry), nuts and most sweets were thought to be prob- lematic. Aphrodisiac foods such as honey, exotic fruits, cakes and sweet wines were considered to be extremely dangerous.
A close look at this list reveals a diet available to and typical of only the wealthy, mainly the nobility. Sleeping in a very soft bed was also regarded as very dangerous, since it aroused lust11. Farmers were hardly likely to suffer from this problem. The writers claim that an idle lifestyle that includes excessive dining and minimal physical activity is dangerous for two reasons: first, an idle person wastes his time thinking, which dries the body and makes it melancholic; second, and much worse, idle people indulge in useless activities like plays and dances that involve both men and women and thus induce lust.
“[The disease] is most evident among such as are young and lusty, in the flower of their years, nobly descended, high-fed, such as live idly, and at ease,” writes Burton12. He scorn- fully examines the lifestyle of the nobility, which gives rise to burning desire, and hence to love melancholy. Ferrand, though not as directly critical, em- phasises the same factors and writes that “great lords and ladies are more inclined to this malady than the common people”13. Class difference, formerly only hinted at in the discussion on diet, becomes the major issue. But are young aristocratic men and women, who obviously eat and sleep better than most, more inclined to this disease by reasons of their lifestyle, or is there another cause for their distress?
Having dealt with the various therapeutic techniques, Ferrand declares: “No physician would refuse to someone suffering from erotic mania or melancholy the enjoyment of the object of desire in marriage, in accordance with both divine and human laws, because the wounds of love are cured only by those who made them.”14 Although Ferrand only deals quite briefly with this type of remedy (compared to the dozens of pages he devotes to medical therapies), he is also quite decisive. Only by union with the beloved will the patient be healed completely; but this can be achieved only in accordance with divine and human rules. In his chapter on love melancholy in married couples, Ferrand is obviously fully aware that these rules are in many cases the cause of youthful distress. Acknowledging that marriage is not a guaran- tee against the disease, he admits that love melancholy in married couples is usually the result of the animosity arising in a couple that was forced to marry and consequently sought love outside the marriage bonds”. (Michal Altbauer-Rudnik)
Ferrand declares: “No physician would refuse to someone suffering from erotic mania or melancholy the enjoyment of the object of desire in marriage, in accordance with both divine and human laws, because the wounds of love are cured only by those who made them.” (Love, Madness and Social Order: Love Melancholy in France and England in the Late Sixteenth and Early Seventeenth Centuries. Michal Altbauer-Rudnik)
Madan notes that “If Robert Burton was acquainted with the first edition of this book, as he may well have been, there can be little doubt that he has taken or imitated the general method and treatment of the subject, in his Anatomy of Melancholy”. Burton certainly owned a copy of the Paris 1623 edition (N. K. Kiessling, The Library of Robert Burton, Oxford, 1988, no. 566).The Inquisition showed an interest, and tried Ferrand for heresy. Today, the work provides a rare insight into 17th century understandings of anxiety, depression, love relations. Robert Burton devoted more than a third of The Anatomy of Melancholy, published in Oxford in 1621, to a discussion of love melancholy.
HERE THERE IS A reciprocal connection between disease and society; we can trace on the one hand the way the social world shapes the course of an illness and on the other hand the way the symptoms of an illness shape the social world.
The Sixteenth Century Journal, Vol. 20, No. 1 (Spring, 1989), pp. 41-53
Lydia Kang MD & Nate Pederson. Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything “Bleed Yourself to Bliss” (Workman Publishing Company; 2017)
Lesel Dawson, Lovesickness and Gender in Early Modern English Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008),
Michal Altbauer-Rudnik. Love, Madness and Social Order: Love Melancholy in France and England in the Late Sixteenth and Early Seventeenth Centuries (Gesnerus 63 (2006) 33–45)
Which brings us to Erotomania. Originally written in French by Jacques Ferrand in 1623, it is a textbook that discusses the diagnosis and treatment of lovesickness. Translated into English in 1640, Erotomania is prefaced by a series of poems by various Christ Church wits. Rather in the tradition of Coryat’s Crudities, these poems are largely performative, a communal university game that ironises the text they preface and which jokingly frame the book itself as a prophylactic. The first poem, by W. Towers, plays on the conceit that the lovesick reader must have made a mistake in buying the volume, that (s)he has picked it up not for medical reasons but has mistaken it for a pleasurable romance: “Thou, that from this Gay Title, look’st no high’r/Then some Don Errant, or his fullsome Squire”. F. Palmer mock-prophesises the world turned on its head: “The World will all turne Stoicks, when they find/This Physick here”… “Men, as in Plagues, from Marriage will be bent/And every day will seem to be in Lent”
Prefatory material aside, Erotomania consists of 39 detailed chapters discussing the treatment of love melancholy from surgical remedies to potions. It’s less of a manual than a quasi-conduct book – there are no diagrams, unlike in Ambroise Paré’s works. The physician must devise remedies that are not just physical but moral. Ferrand declares in his introduction: “My chiefest purpose is, to prescribe some remedies for the prevention of this disease of Love, which those men for the most part are subject unto, that have not the power to governe their desires, and subject them to Reasons Lawes: seeing that this unchast Love proves oftentimes the Author of the greatest Mischiefes that are in the world (p4)
Therapeutic bloodletting, the letting go of a plethora of blood and heat, as much about the control of a patient’s desire and therefore his (usually his) behaviour. In Chapter 38, entitled Chirurgicall Remedies for Love-Melancholy, Ferrand advises: “If the Patient be in good plight of body, fat and corpulent, the first thing wee doe, we must let him bleed, in the Hepatica in the right arme, such a proportionable quantity of blood, as shal be thought convenient both for his disease, complexion, and strength of body…. Phlebotomy makes those that are sad, Merry: appeaseth those that are Angry: and keeps Lovers from running Mad.”
In other words, bloodletting regulates social behaviour. The unruly humoral body must be tamed. Gail Kern Paster’s The Body Embarrassed is the key critical work here; she has brilliantly drawn on Norbert Elias’s theories of the way that violence, bodily functions (including sexual) are ‘civilised’ by ever-increasing thresholds of shame. Paster makes the connection between the disciplining of humoral fluids and the way that the Bakhtinian grotesque and carnivalesque becomes tamed by the classical body. Her study of Middleton’s city comedies and Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar explores the inflections of gender. Anxieties around the ‘leaky vessel’ of the female body, whether through menstruation or urine, underlines the increasing ideological investment in female intactness that becomes a system of control and decorum. (Nowadays the female body is disciplined by the baby diets in Closer magazine and the Daily Mail sidebar of shame. But I digress.)
ENTHUSIASME [Late Latin enthūsiasmus, from Greek enthousiasmos, from enthousiazein, to be inspired by a god, from entheos, possessed :]
Political,economic and social stresses take their toll on normative behavior. The late “early modern period” let’s call it 1590-1680 (pre Newton?) was a period of hegemonic disillusion, simultaneously there was an ‘outbreak’ or interpretation of behavior as aberrant and named Enthusiasme characterize by those who were thought guilty of feigned inspiration, impostures, sectarianism, and extremes of religious passion. Enthusiasm was also associated with sets of physical symptoms—convulsions, ecstatic dancing, prophesying, speaking in foreign tongues.
The England of Burton and Casaubon, the two authors who dedicated a great amount of scholarship to Enthusiame was very different, Burton died (1640) before The Death of Charles I . Causaubon’s book was published in the period between the execution of King Charles 1st in 1649, and the restoration of Charles 2nd in 1660. At this time, religious sects were multiplying profusely and their conflicting demands for a restructuring of society were a threat to political stability in England. The investigation of the etiology of what was regarded as a religious distemper,ceased to be operative in theological or political terms. This insufficiency inspired a great mind such as Casaubon to look for a better ( and maybe more peaceful) understanding of these behaviors.
In Casaubon’s etiological journey he sets out to impose on general Enthusiasme, distinctions, and specific causes for each of these. He stipulates that some types can arise from mental abnormalities without supernatural intervention. In this view Casaubon is investigating mental illness.
“Physiological accounts of enthusiasm and the application of the category to religious history are indicative of an important shift in Western understandings of the basis of religious belief. The quest for the natural causes of the diversity of religious beliefs, incipient in the treatments of Burton, Casaubon, and More, heralds the beginning of Enlightenment attempts to provide religious beliefs with natural, rather than supernatural, explanations. To a degree, these treatments also lessened the moral stigma associated with religious heterodoxy. Enthusiasm and its critics played a significant role in the secularization of European thought and culture.”
A further not of interest is that Casaubon was concern for the spread of Mahometisme, in the greater part of the world ( America being set aside)
344F Casaubon, Meric. 1599-1671
A Treatise Concerning Enthusiasme, As It is an Effect of Nature: but is mistaken by many for either Divine Inspiration, or Diabolicall Possession. By Meric Casaubon, D.D. Second edition: revised, and enlarged.
London: Printed by Roger Daniel, and are to be sold by Thomas Iohnson, at the Golden Key in St. Paul’s Church-yard, Anno, 1656 $1,500
Ocatvo, 6.4 x 4.2 inches. Second edition. A-T8, V6. 297 pages. This is a good copy in a later quarter calf binding.
“This was the first separate treatise on enthusiasm, a term used for conditions attributed to possession by a superior power. Casaubon divided it into two kinds; supernatural which was ‘a true possession, whether divine or diabolical,’ and natural ‘whereof all men are capable’ to which belonged the delusions and hallucinations of the insane; the first not less real for being rare, the second common. “Casaubon had read ‘The Life of Sister Katharine of Jesus’ published at Paris, 1628, ‘a long contexture of severall strange raptures and enthusiasms, that had hapned unto a melancholick, or if you will, a devout maid.’ Despite approbations from a cardinal, an archbishop, a bishop and several doctors of divinity, Casaubon could find ‘no great matter of wonder’ in it but instead ‘a perpetuall coherence of naturall causes.’ Disturbed ‘that what by such, and so many, was judged God, and Religion, should be nothing but Nature and Superstition,’ he determined to investigate the whole matter thoroughly and this book was the result. Its main purpose was to survey historically cases and opinions so as to distill and preserve the belief in true divine intervention from adulteration with ‘natural enthusiasm’ with which it was often confused to its disrepute: ‘to embrace a cloud, or a fog for a deity; it is done by many, but it is a foul mistake: let him take heed of it.’
“ ‘A Treatise Concerning Enthusiasm,’ was an enlightened work since in it Casaubon set out to show how various enthusiasms, such as ‘divinatory,’ ‘contemplative,’ ‘rhetorical,’ ‘precatory,’ and others could arise from mental abnormalities without supernatural intervention or imposture. Read today in this sense it was a psychiatric treatise devoted to mental illness with religious coloring and the special problems raised by it. The first extract shows how epileptic phenomena in particular made it difficult to accept all mental illness as ‘natural.’ This was partly because of the dramatic effect of sudden, short-lived, episodic disturbances of consciousness accompanied by convulsions in otherwise normal persons which had given epilepsy its popular name of sacred disease and rise to Hippocrates’s famous pronouncement: ‘it appears to me to be nowise more divine nor more sacred than other diseases, but has a natural cause from which it originates like other affections. Men regard its nature and cause as divine from ignorance and wonder, because it is not at all like to other diseases.’ Another difficulty was that persons suffering from minor epileptic conditions such as temporal lobe disturbances with twilight, dreamy or confusional states — surprisingly known to Casaubon and called by him ‘a more gentle and remiss kind of Epilepsie’ — often report hallucinatory experiences as of another world. These are sometimes elaborated into delusional systems on religious themes. — ‘for it is natural to those that have been epileptical to fall into melancholy’ — especially if repetition of vivid experience perhaps reinforced by a feeling of reminiscence or deja vu has convinced the patient of direct contact with superior powers. A third difficulty was the overzeal in religious matters or religiosity which is a common manifestation of epileptic personality change.
“The mental disturbances in another group of patients seemed also to be inexplicable on natural grounds, namely those whose ‘distemper’ was ‘confined to some one object or other, the brain being otherwise sound and sober’ such as the ‘poor woman in Warwick-shire’ mentioned by Joseph Glanvill, ‘whose habitual conceit it was, that she was Mother of God, and of all things living, and yet when I diverted her to anything else of ordinary matters, she spoke usually with as much sobriety and cold discretion, as could well be expected from a person of her condition.’ This apparent paradox of ‘a sober kind of distraction’ as Casaubon called it, has always been a major stumbling block in psychiatric systems and classifications. […] Casaubon realized that it touched on the fundamental question whether insanity ‘was an error of imagination only, and not of understanding.’ and wondered whether by natural means one faculty could be ‘depraved’ without the other. This dichotomy between an ‘intellective’ or ‘ratiocinative’ and an ‘imaginative’ faculty is still implied in the current psychiatric distinction of mental illness into ‘thought disorder’ or schizophrenia and ‘affective disorder’ or manic-depressive psychosis, and of course forms the basic tenet of the McNaughton Rules (1843) by which ‘a defect of reason, from disease of the mind’ is the ultimate medico-legal test for the presence or absence of absolving insanity.” (Hunter and MacAlpine)
Wing C-813. Please see Heyd, Michael. “Be Sober and Reasonable”: The Critique of Enthusiasm in the Seventeenth and Early Eighteenth Centuries.Leiden, 1995. Argues that reactions against enthusiasm provide important background to the Enlightenment.
Tonight I’ll begin now, where I am or rather what i’m (re) Reading again and again..
On being blue: a philosophical inquiry
By William Gass is one of my favorite books, “This small but memorable treatise, written “for all who live in the country of the blue,” examines the color as state of mind, as Platonic Ideal, as a notoriously erotic hue, and as a color of our interior life. In a brilliant, extended meditation, Gass mulls over blue in literature and art, dance, music, and the popular press. No shade or variation escapes his engaged and engaging prose or his vertiginous asides. This is a witty, lyrical, highly original, and beautifully written book that demands to be read and redefines the meaning of a “philosophical inquiry.””Not since Herman Melville pondered the whiteness of Moby Dick has a region of the spectrum been subjected to such eclectic scrutiny. . . Gass gives philosophy back its good old name as a feast that can never sate the mind.”
I read it probably in 1980 or 81 and it lead me to Robert Burtons’ The Anatomy of Melancholy. Not having read much 17th century prose at that time, I was so excited, ” the 17th century IS POST MODERN!!”I exCLAIMED to Jean Howard, my professor of 17th century literature… and here is why:::: “Il n’y a pas de hors-texte” quote Derrida!
Burton destabilizes Psychology it self 300 years before Lacan castrates Freud!
Burton is by no means a stable ‘Traditional’ Solid subject author, He questions every single criterion of legitimation he encounters, In fact He hovers between reader ,author, editor and critic so ethereally that it is hard to tell if he is on his way to take us out of our own subjective reading at every turn.
Does not Burton inaugurate The crisis identified in Jean-François LyotardThe Postmodern Condition a crisis in the “discourses of the Human Sciences” ?
INDEED He does! it further calls into question literary temporality as an access of recuperation…
MELANCHOLY IS “That Dangerous Supplement…” which brings us to face the death drive, or the absolute destruktion (of Heidegger)
Ah Ha! this is where Wm Gass gets his license to say
“Still, we permit the appearance of our meats, sauces, fruits, and vdgetables to dominate our tongues until it is difficult to divide a twist of lemon or squeeze of lime from the colors of their rinds or separate yellow from its yolk or chocolate from the quenchless brown which seems to be the root, shoot, stalk, and bloom of it. Yet I hardly think the eggplant’s taste is as purple as its skin. In fact, there are few flavors at the violet end, odors either, for the acrid smell of blue smoke is deceiving, as is the tooth of the plum, though there may be just a hint of blue in the higher sauces. Perceptions are always profound, associations deceiving. No watermelon tastes red. Apropos: while waiting for a bus once, I saw open down the arm of a midfat, midlife, freckled woman, suitcase tugging at her hand like a small boy needing to pee, a deep blue crack as wide as any in a Roquefort. Split like paper tearing. She said nothing. Stood. Blue bubbled up in the opening like tar. One thing is certain: a cool flute blue tastes like deep well water drunk from a cup.” ― William H. Gass, On Being Blue
But On Being Blue ends too fast it is 91 pages of wonder, But next to Burton and his 723 pages, Gass is an Apéritifs to Burton’s Cask!
It is a book everyone should look at! I know that there is an etiquette to Blogging, but I don’t know it (yet maybe) In any case I will go on too long about this book or maybe not, It deserves far more that i can say, write, gesticulate, or quote about…
Nicholas Lezard writes:
The book to end all books
Nicholas Lezard celebrates The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton, a 17th-century compendium of human thought that is funnier than it sounds
“it is not just Burton’s thoughts on the subject of melancholy, but the thoughts of everyone who had ever thought about it, or about other things, whether that be goblins, beauty, the geography of America, digestion, the passions, drink, kissing, jealousy, or scholarship. Burton, you suspect, felt the miseries of scholars keenly. “To say truth, ’tis the common fortune of most scholars to be servile and poor, to complain pitifully, and lay open their wants to their respective patrons… and… for hope of gain to lie, flatter, and with hyperbolical elogiums and commendations to magnify and extol an illiterate unworthy idiot for his excellent virtues, whom they should rather, as Machiavel observes, vilify and rail at downright for his most notorious villainies and vices.” And that’s a good quote to be getting on with: it shows you that Burton is on the side of the angels, that he’s prepared to stick his neck out, and that he is funny.”
One of the major documents of modern European civilization, Robert Burton’s astounding compendium, a survey of melancholy in all its myriad forms, has invited nothing but superlatives since its publication in the seventeenth century. Lewellyn Powys called it “the greatest work of prose of the greatest period of English prose-writing,” while the celebrated surgeon William Osler declared it the greatest of medical treatises. And Dr. Johnson, Boswell reports, said it was the only book that he rose early in the morning to read with pleasure. In this surprisingly compact and elegant new edition, Burton’s spectacular verbal labyrinth is sure to delight, instruct, and divert today’s readers as much as it has those of the past four centuries.
All I can say is that most modern books weary me, but Burton never does…His writing is like talk, learned but earthy, and once he starts, he is hard to stop…That he was a humorist in our sense of the word we need no biographical facts to attest: The Anatomy of Melancholy is, by a magnificent and somehow very English irony, one of the great comic works of the world. — Anthony Burgess
No prose writer—ever—has been more of a universe than Robert Burton, self-curing author of The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), an essay on the humors that went utterly out of control and became the craziest, best entertainment ever written in English—far more important than the King James Bible in terms of effect on alpha—class letters. — William Monahan, Bookforum
319G Burton, Robert. 1577-1640
The Anatomy of Melancholy. What it is, with all the kinds, causes, symptomes, prognostickes, & severall cures of it. In three Partitions, with their severall Sections, members & subsections. Philosophicaly, Medicinally, Historically opened & cut. By Democritus Junior. With a Satyricall Preface conducing to the following Discourse. The fift Edition, corrected and augmented by the Author. Omne tulit punctum qui miscrit utile dulci.
This edition has the charming pictorial engraved title-page by C. Le Blon, which depicts types of melancholy. The edition also contains the “Argument of the frontispiece” leaf, quite often lacking. This copy is bound in modern full calf, . Some very light browning, occasional spotting, but overall a really nice copy with ample margins.
Burton’s classic study of depression, The Anatomy of Melancholy, “has been more frequently reprinted than almost any other psychiatric text, appearing in over seventy editions since its original publication. Burton believed depression to be both a physical and spiritual ailment. Prompted by his own bouts with the affliction, he employed his considerable erudition and wit to write what amounts to the first psychiatric encyclopedia, citing nearly 500 medical authors in the course of classifying the myriad causes, forms and symptoms of depression, and describing its various cures. The work is also a literary tour-de-force in the tradition of Renaissance paradoxical literature.” (Norman)
“Burton had read much, and all that he had read, or nearly all, was refined and incorporated into The Anatomy. The whole book is elaborately divided and subdivided into partitions, divisions, sections, members and sub-sections. The first partition is devoted to the definition of his subject and its species and kinds, the causes of it, and—at length—the symptoms: ‘for the Tower of Babel never yielded such confusion of Tongues as the Chaos of Melancholy doth of Symptoms.’ The second deals with the cure, and Burton’s demonstration that it is necessary to live in the right part of the world to avoid melancholy occasions a long digression: a delightful account of foreign lands based—for Burton never travelled—on a wide reading of the cosmographers, and a powerful advocacy of the delights of country life. The third part deals with the more frivolous kinds of melancholy and the fourth with the serious, Religious Melancholy, with some moving reflections on the ‘Cure of Despair.’ The Anatomy was one of the most popular books of the seventeenth century. All the learning of the age as well as its humour—and its pedantry—are there.” (Printing & the Mind of Man)
As Osler notes, “this edition has the distinction – possibly unique for any book – of having been printed piecemeal in three cities.” According to Madan, pages 1-346 were actually printed at Edinburgh but that the Scottish edition was suppressed at the insistence of the Oxford printers, who then agreed to incorporate the pirated pages in the present edition; some 68 leaves, incorporating Burton’s latest changes, were actually reprinted in London. For an account of the printing history of this edition see further Oxford Bib. Soc. Proceedings & Papers I (1922-6), pp. 194-7.
Garrison-Morton 4908.1; Grolier, English, 18; Hunter & Macalpine, pp. 94-99; Jordan-Smith 5; STC 4163; Madan, Oxford books II # 881.
“Melancholy, the subject of our present discourse, is either in disposition or in habit. In disposition, is that transitory Melancholy which goes and comes upon every small occasion of sorrow, need, sickness, trouble, fear, grief, passion, or perturbation of the mind, any manner of care, discontent, or thought, which causes anguish, dulness, heaviness and vexation of spirit, any ways opposite to pleasure, mirth, joy, delight, causing forwardness in us, or a dislike. In which equivocal and improper sense, we call him melancholy, that is dull, sad, sour, lumpish, ill-disposed, solitary, any way moved, or displeased. And from these melancholy dispositions no man living is free, no Stoick, none so wise, none so happy, none so patient, so generous, so godly, so divine, that can vindicate himself; so well-composed, but more or less, some time or other, he feels the smart of it. Melancholy in this sense is the character of Mortality… This Melancholy of which we are to treat, is a habit, a serious ailment, a settled humour, as Aurelianus and others call it, not errant, but fixed: and as it was long increasing, so, now being (pleasant or painful) grown to a habit, it will hardly be removed.”
Further a great proximity to The anatomy::;
It’s hard to imagine from that unwieldy title page that the book published by Robert Burton in 1621 would become a revolutionary best-seller. Divided into three parts, The Anatomy of Melancholy was intended to provide a serious overview of a subject that had been largely neglected up to that time. In his book, Burton avoided providing a precise definition of melancholy (depression) which he felt would “exceed the power of man”. He also stated that “the letters of the alphabet makes no more variety of words in divers languages” than the various symptoms that melancholy could produce in serious sufferers. He considered melancholy to be a universal illness (“Who is free from melancholy? Who is not touched more or less in habit or disposition?” No man living is wholly free, no stoic, none so wise, none so happy, none so patient, so generous, so godly, so divine that he does not at some time or other experience its transitory forms. No other misery is so widespread”).
Robert Burton was certainly qualified to write the book. Born in Leicestershire in 1577, he studied at Christ Church, Oxford and was appointed a vicar in 1616. Despite having a diverse range of interests, including mathematics and astrology, he also devoted much of his time to the serious study of melancholy. By all accounts, Robert Burton suffered from frequent episodes of lifelong depression although actual clinical details are lacking. Hewas one of nine children and his early childhood was apparently an unhappy one. There also seems to be a family history of melancholy as well since his uncle, Anthony Faunt, died following a “passion of melancholy” in 1588. Despite being a brilliant student, Burton’s academic career was marked by long periods during which his studies were interrupted. He finally graduated from Christ Church at the age of twenty-six (nineteen or twenty would have been more typical). Although the gaps in his education are unaccounted for, his lifelong depression seems to be the most obvious explanation.
There is still little known about Burton’s private life aside from a few anecdotal accounts. He never married and he socialized infrequently although he spent his entire academic life at Oxford. While he was frequently depressed, he was also known as “very merry, facete, and juvenile,” and a person of “great honesty, plain dealing, and charity.” He also loved gardening as well as reading in his chambers at Oxford which were “sweetened with the smell of jupiter (incense)” While he hardly ever travelled, he was an avid cartographer and, in virtual fashion, explored much of the world. Despite being a scholar his entire life, Burton was extremely cynical about his fellow academics and academia in general. His reclusive nature didn’t prevent him from being well-regarded by his colleagues and he received prestigious appointments to vicar positions at Oxford and Leicester. Burton also published various Latin verses as well as works in mathematics and a satirical play in when which was well received when it was produced in 1617.
It was The Anatomy of Melancholy which made Robert Burton a success though. Written when the author was in his late forties, the book had a boisterous tone which antagonized many critics (one of whom dismissed it as “an enormous labyrinthine joke”). Serious reviewers were also likely put off by the “phantastical title” which Burton had included to attract “silly passengers that will not look at a judicious piece”. Beginning with the “satyical preface” that vigourously attacked many of the prevailing views on melancholy, the book quickly led into discussing the topic in earnest. The first part of the book was dedicated to discussing the causes, symptoms, and prognosis of melancholy, the second part was dedicated to treatment, and the third part focused on the melancholy often associated with love or religion. Filled with an astounding number of anecdotes and quotations (including quotations by hundreds of medical writers, theologians, classical writers, historians, and poets) , readers of the book often found Burton’s reasoning to be hard to fathom (I certainly did). It likely doesn’t help that up to a fifth of the book is in Latin and Burton also used numerous obscure terms that often mystify modern readers (including words like “stramineous”, “obtretration”, and “amphibological”).
Burton’s theories on melancholy reflected much of the prevailing medical thinking of the time. Along with attributing the disease to an excess of “black bile” (humour theories were popular at the time), he also suggested that melancholy could be linked to heredity, lack of affection in childhood, and sexual frustration. Although it was a more credulous era (witches were still being executed for cursing people into madness), Burton avoided supernatural explanations for melancholy. That’s not to say that he didn’t have his own personal biases though. He was openly misogynistic and frequently denounced women in general and their “unnatural, insatiable lust” in particular. Many of his anecdotes focused on the melancholy caused by men pursuing women, material pleasures, and worldly success although he was more cynical than puritanical. Burton freely admitted that his motivation in writing the book stemmed from his own need to “write of melancholy, by being busy to avoid melancholy. There is no greater cause of melancholy than idleness, no greater cure than business”.
He originally published the book under the pseudonym of Democritus Junior (Democritus being his favourite Greek philosopher) but Burton’s true identity became known soon enough. The odd mixture of scholarship, humour, and medical insights was virtually unprecedented in an academic book andAnatomy quickly became one of the most popular books of that era. Despite the fame and wealth that his book brought to him, Burton’s lifelong melancholy didn’t seem any more manageable as a result. When he died on January 25, 1640, there were widespread rumours that he had hanged himself in his rooms at Oxford. Given that Burton had often predicted that he would die when he reached the age of sixty-three, there may be some truth to the rumour. Considering the harsh punishment for suicidesduring that time (including being buried at a crossroad with a stake through the heart in extreme cases),to the suicide of a prominent Oxford scholar would have likely been carefully concealed. Robert Burton was buried in Christ Church cathedral with full honours. Following Burton’s own instructions, his grave was mared with the following inscription carved under his bust: Paucis Notus Paucioribus Ignotus Hic lacet DEMOCRITUS IUNIOR Cui Vitam Dedit et Mortem Melancholia (“Known to few, unknown to fewer, here lies Democritus Junior, to whom melancholy gave both life and death”). That the inscription helped reinforce the suicide rumour may well have been unintentional.
Burton’s vast collection of books (more than a thousand volumes) was left to the Oxford University library but it was The Anatomy of Melancholy that was his most lasting contribution. Although the book fell into neglect just a few decades after Burton’s death, it was frequently cited by later authors – including Samuel Johnson, John Milton, and Laurence Sterne – and came back into popularity by the beginning of the 19th century. Not only is it considered to be one of the great works of English literature, but it was also one of the first true classics of abnormal psychology. Digging through Burton’s book may not provide the modern student of psychology with much insight into depression but Robert Burton was definitely a pioneer in his own right.