Anatomy of Melancholy (1676)

The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton (pseudonym Democritus Jr.), 8th edition, 1676

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Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy (published under the pen name Democritus Junior) was an influential work written in the early Enlightenment period to understand human psychology. Prior to Burton’s work, the condition known as “melancholy” (a pre-modern notion of depression) was thought to be caused by an excess of “black bile” (Jackson). Treatment of melancholy consisted of bizarre, unscientific procedures, like bloodletting and religious intervention, since melancholy was also thought to signify a moral condition
in the sufferer. Burton didn’t reject this thinking but he proposed that things like diet, exercise, and socialization could also be blamed for this condition, and these treatments would address these factors. Today, psychiatrists give patients with depression much of the same advice (Radden).


Anatomy of Melancholy is divided into three “partitions”: 1) The Causes of Melancholy, 2) The Cure of Melancholy, and 3) Love-Melancholy and Religious Melancholy. Each partition contains several sections, which are further divided into members, which themselves contain several subsections. The content of these subsections are famously riddled with footnotes, marginalia, and allusions to obscure thinkers and texts. The untranslated quotations in Latin and other ancient languages make the book inaccessible to most contemporary readers and all but the most educated readers of Burton’s time. The book includes some helpful navigational tools which help readers understand the content. Burton provides a synopsis prefacing each of the three partitions, in the form of a detailed outline of his argument. Burton reduces his inscrutable ramblings to their underlying logical “skeleton”. Much has been made of the book’s full title (The Anatomy of Melancholy … Philosophically, Medicinally, Historically, Opened and Cut Up) — some scholars have suggested that Burton is anatomizing not the human body but the world’s body of knowledge on melancholy (Sugg).


To understand Burton’s general ideas, without getting deep into his analysis, one needn’t look past the title page, which is illustrated with engravings by Christian Le Blon. The page consists of twelve panels, including the title text, a portrait of the author, and symbolic illustrations of melancholy in its various forms. The upper corners (marked panels 2 and 3) depict”Jealousie” and”Solitariness“with animals in pastoral settings, respectively fighting in pairs and sleeping alone. Below those panels are illustrations of male figures in various distressed states. Panel 4 contains a lovelorn man, brooding alone; panel 5 contains a hypochondriac, collapsed into a chair with his head in his hand; panel 6 contains a man on his knees, obsessed with a cross on a pendent; panel 7 contains a madman in chains, with his body contorted wildly.  Each panel is accompanied by a set of arcane astrological symbols: in particular, the symbol of Saturn (“Lord of Melancholy”) appears frequently. Opposite the title page is a humorous poem in iambic tetrameter (“The Argument of the Frontispiece”). Couplets bookend eleven eight-line stanzas, ten of which are numbered to correspond to the ten illustrated panels.

Publication and Printing Information

This copy, from the University of Colorado’s Special Collections, is an eighth edition folio, printed by Robert White for the bookseller Peter Parker in 1676. Burton continually revised Anatomy before his death in 1640, but his revisions continued to inform posthumous editions. This edition includes some of the author’s revisions delivered by another editor referred to as “H.C.”  this is probably Henry Cripps, who published several later editions of the book. The book’s folios were rebound long after they were originally printed to be bound with marbled board covers, possibly as late as 1969, when the book was catalogued by Beeleigh Abbey in England. The sheets were cut at the edges to fit the dimensions of the boards, sometimes inaccurately, and some pages cut off bits of marginal text.

For more information on the book, see its Norlin Library record.

Josh Spielman and Willow Turano

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