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Burton's Melancholy

Posted Feb 02 2011 4:19pm
"THE/Anatomy of/Melancholy,/what it is./With all the Kindes,/ Cavses, Symptomes, Prog-/nostickes, and seve-/rall cvres of it./In Three Maine Partitions/with their seuerall Sections, Mem-/bers, and Subsec-/tions./Philosopbically,Medici-/nally, historically, ope-/ned and cvt vp./By/Democritus Iunior./ With a Satyricall Preface, conducing to/the following Discourse./Macrob./Omne meum, Nihil meum./At Oxford,/Printed by Iohn Lichfield and lames/Short, for Henry Cripps./ Anno Dom. 1621"

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 200px-The_Anatomy_of_Melancholy_by_Robert_Burton_frontispiece_1638_edition[1] 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.  Born into a prominent family, he was one of nine children and his early childhood was apparently an unhappy one.  There also seems to be a family history of melancholy as 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.  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 a satirical play in 1617 which was well received.  

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 and Anatomy 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 suicides during 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. 

Link to Anatomy of Melancholy (Project Gutenberg)


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