July 2018 Historical Book of the Month
This month’s historical book selection is The Anatomy of Melancholy, What it is, with all the kinds, causes, symptoms, prognostics & several cures of it. Philosophically, Medicinally, Historically opened & cut up, by Robert Burton [Democritus Junior] (1576-1640). Initially published in 1621, Burton edited and augmented four subsequent editions, and packed his psychological tome with a mix of humor, popular 17th century theory, and boundless lists of symptoms, causes, remedies, and cures for the mysterious “black-hole”.
Ironically, The Anatomy of Melancholy has its share of whimsy. Burton’s notable sense of humor is initially revealed by his choice of pen name, Democritus Junior. The first Democritus (c. 460 B.C.E. – c. 370 B.C.E.) is known as the laughing philosopher, and Burton’s comic wit is evident throughout his writing, especially in the satirical preface: Democritus to the Reader.
Burton himself was a vicar, mathematician, and philologist. He reportedly wrote to help sort through his own personal fight with melancholy. However, he “increased it to such a degree, that nothing could make him laugh, but going to the bridge-foot and hearing the ribaldry of the bargemen, which rarely failed to throw him into a violent fit of laughter”.
Burton’s work is heavily referenced with Latin, French, Greek, and biblical citations, eager to provide evidence for his ruminations. Within his myriad of divergent contemplations, he examines the relationship between depression and love, beauty, geography (including hot countries prone to jealousy), anatomy of the body and soul, bloodletting and the horse-leech, diet, digestion, drink, bad air, idleness, shame, disgrace, scholarly melancholy, and even cause from an undesirable wet nurse.
Visit the P.I. Nixon Medical Historical Library to experience firsthand our treasured 1632 edition of this classic tour de force. Get a closer look at the detailed frontispiece and read Burton’s interesting interpretations for each illustrated compartment in “The Argument of the Frontispiece”. If you would like to check out a facsimile of this hefty book, there is a copy in the circulating stacks on the fourth floor.
For more information on the collections of the P.I. Nixon Medical Historical Library, contact us via email: special firstname.lastname@example.org
Diane Fotinos, MLIS student