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BOOKS A User's Guide to Melancholy

Robert Burton’s 1621 epic resonates today both as a literary work and a study in what we now call depression

DURING the Renaissance there was no such concept as melancholy, rather there were internal states veering from fear, despair, madness and even the “melancholia of love,” all thought of as disease.  

The title of Mary Ann Lund’s book suggests that this is the kind of  mind-body approach that we might agree with today but without the medieval concept of the four humours, chemical systems regulating human behaviour. Black bile was believed to be responsible for melancholia.

Lund, a scholar of Renaissance literature, guides us through Burton’s great work The Anatomy of Melancholy, dividing it into causes, symptoms and cures, the better to navigate what follows:  Sorrow and Fear, Body and Mind, The Supernatural, Delusions, Love and Sex, Despair, The Non-Naturals, Medicine and Surgery, Lifting the Spirits. There is a terrific section on music and mirth.
Lund presents The Anatomy as a work of the imagination, with poetic accounts of how people “have found cheer for themselves when struck with melancholia” as well as those who’ve had “cheer” imposed upon them.

That was the case with the woman who’d thought she’d swallowed a snake, with a physic “purging her upwards,” then slipping a snake into the vomit. Job done. (I’ll spare you the example of “downward purging,” save to say it involved frogs).   

Cure was a creative matter, rather than one brought about via scientific understanding, even though there were elements of today’s cognitive behavioural therapy involved.

Laurence Sterne drew on Burton’s book for his novel Tristram Shandy and poet John Keats may have given his depression the romantic lustre of melancholia, while Anthony Burgess thought it one of the great comic works, thereby perhaps missing much of its profundity.

Jonathan Swift found inspiration in Burton’s case of the man who couldn’t piss in case he drowned out his whole village. The cure was a house set on fire next to him, thus releasing his flow of urine.   You’d need to go private these days to finance that.
Burton’s might be the only self-help book written in great prose and Lund’s work helps us understand it.

She credits Burton’s “seriousness of social purpose” and his observations on the “heart-eating melancholy of the enslaved and the poor, preyed upon by polling officers for breaking the laws, by their tyrannising landlords, so flayed and fleeced by perpetual exactions that ... they cannot live.” Austerity is indeed bad for you.

At a time when the wellness industry can be a part of capitalism’s exploitation via Big Pharma and neoliberalism has its eye on the next thing, Lund’s is a fine guide to a classic work.

What goes around comes around and, after all, 400 years isn’t that long ago.  

A User’s Guide to Melancholy is published by Cambridge University Press, £19.99.


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