First published in 1621, The Anatomy of Melancholy was subsequently repeatedly expanded by its author Robert Burton (an Oxford don who also worked in the Oxford Library) 6 more times during his lifetime. His work in the library is informative in that The Anatomy of Melancholy is a book of many books, filled with citations, quotations, and interpretations of various specialists.
Burton, as described in A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature, was “subject to depression of spirits” and wrote the book as an “antidote” for his own melancholy. A su generis work that covers much more territory than to just anatomize melancholy (though it is a dissection of it), it is a book that seeks to explain human emotions, and is a compendia of printed knowledge and science of the time.
It is composed of three parts:
First Partition = Causes of Melancholy
Second Partition = The Cure of Melancholy
Third Partition = Love Melancholy and Religious Melancholy
The book is rooted in the dominate Greek Medicine theory of Humoralism. Within this theory, melancholy (clinical depression) is attributed to black bile, one of the Four Humors.
The Four Humors and their corresponding qualities:
Blood = Sanguine = Spring = hot and moist
Yellow Bile = Choleric = Summer = hot and dry
Black Bile = Melancholic = Autumn = cold and dry
Phlegm = Phlegmatic = Winter = cold and moist
Galen of Pergamon theories on the Humoral System of medicine influenced Western medicine for over a century. His theory of the Four Humors consisted of a holistic system that drew upon the Platonic philosophy of the relationship between the mind and the body. These fluids ran all through the body and where all thought to be present in the blood. For instance, if you poured a person’s blood into a glass, it would (theoretically) separate into these four fluids. These fluids and their corresponding temperaments (mind-body connections) need to be in balance for health, while disease occurs when they are out of balance. Treatments like blood letting, purging, vomiting, and food sought to bring the humors back into equilibrium.
Burton wrote, and rewrote, The Anatomy of Melancholy as a treatment for his own struggles with depression. The fact that he revised and expanded the work with six published editions is a testament to his obsessiveness regarding the process and the need to “write of melancholy by being busy to avoid melancholy”.
We have two different editions here in the Special Collections and Archives and you can also find it online in full-text. It is a fascinating book that is satirical and serious and of a time when scholars wrote and read across the disciplines of science, medicine, and philosophy.
And here’s a little something extra: A BBC Radio IN OUR TIME broadcast on the book.