Skip to main content Accessibility help
×
Home
Hostname: page-component-568f69f84b-xr9nb Total loading time: 0.531 Render date: 2021-09-17T10:01:18.014Z Has data issue: true Feature Flags: { "shouldUseShareProductTool": true, "shouldUseHypothesis": true, "isUnsiloEnabled": true, "metricsAbstractViews": false, "figures": true, "newCiteModal": false, "newCitedByModal": true, "newEcommerce": true, "newUsageEvents": true }

The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  02 January 2018

Rights & Permissions[Opens in a new window]

Abstract

Type
Review Articles
Copyright
Copyright © Royal College of Psychiatrists, 2016 

The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) continues featuring in all histories of ‘depression’ and/or ‘melancholy’ (as per the current meaning given to these terms). This erroneous inclusion may be due to anachronistic reading, lazy repetition of earlier claims or mere ignorance. Be that as it may, over the years the false friends (‘anatomy’ and ‘melancholy’) have set a deserved trap to those who believe that this book offers an ‘early insight into the neural networks (anatomy) that underlie depressive illness (melancholy)’.

The fact that by the end of the 16th century the old Greek word ‘anatomy’ was already being used figuratively (e.g. anatomy of mischief, anatomy of grief) explains Robert Burton's (1577–1640) choice. In turn, the polysemic term ‘melancholy’ carried, in addition to its classical Hippocratic reference to malaria and black bile, an allusion to ‘love-melancholy’ – as Lawrence Babb identified in Elizabethan poetry. If to these linguistic usages the fact is added that by the early 1600s centoising had become fashionable as a show of erudition, then it makes sense to see The Anatomy of Melancholy for what it is, an anthology of classical quotations referring to human emotions, passions, feelings, dissatisfactions and complaints about life. The fact that the quotation-hunter can find in this book support for any claim they may wish to make explains the persistent presence of Burton's cento in histories of depression, hypochondria, anxiety, obsessive–compulsive behaviour, and so on.

If The Anatomy of Melancholy is not really about psychiatry, then, what is it about? The greatest among Burton's scholars, John Bamborough (1921–2009), described it as an omnium gatherum, a literary genre according to which only successful centos, i.e. those truly encompassing the knowledge of a historical period, could contain hidden ‘truths’. In this epistemological sense, during the early 17th century Burton's book played a social, political and scientific role comparable to that of meta-analysis in our own day.

To write his book Burton ransacked about 1500 classical texts. It ended up being half a million words' long (including 8000 footnotes). The five ‘revisions’ that followed caused it to have a multi-layered structure and Burton's original intention of writing a consolatory (partially self-therapeutic) religious discourse was well-nigh lost under a frondous canopy of ‘medical’ quotations. Influences shaping the book ranged from Archipathologia (1614), the great cento written by P. E. Montalto (1557–1616), to ongoing innovations in map-making and in the concept of geography. The thread stitching the patchwork of Burton's work together was no doubt his balanced scholarship, literary sensitivity and his readiness to take personal responsibility for all he had stated in his book. In contrast to the great centos of the past, meta-analysis explores a ‘knowledge’ base that presents itself as impersonal, universal and immanently ‘truth-making’.

Reams have been written on The Anatomy of Melancholy. Those who really want to know it should approach it with different eyes and expectations and stop searching in it for descriptions redolent of ‘bipolar disorder’ or ‘agoraphobia’ or whatever. Given that all its content is borrowed from classical texts, seeing it as a ‘psychiatric textbook’ leads to the strange conclusion that all classical literature must also be regarded as psychiatric in nature! The Anatomy of Melancholy must be seen as a cultural object whose meaning, as time goes by, is becoming increasingly harder to apprehend. It teaches us something far more important than psychiatry: it provides us with the epistemological coordinates with which we can understand the remote world of the 17th century.

Submit a response

eLetters

No eLetters have been published for this article.
You have Access

Send article to Kindle

To send this article to your Kindle, first ensure no-reply@cambridge.org is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about sending to your Kindle. Find out more about sending to your Kindle.

Note you can select to send to either the @free.kindle.com or @kindle.com variations. ‘@free.kindle.com’ emails are free but can only be sent to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘@kindle.com’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton
Available formats
×

Send article to Dropbox

To send this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Dropbox.

The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton
Available formats
×

Send article to Google Drive

To send this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Google Drive.

The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton
Available formats
×
×

Reply to: Submit a response

Please enter your response.

Your details

Please enter a valid email address.

Conflicting interests

Do you have any conflicting interests? *