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The Renaissance of Melancholy

The history of depression

By DuointherainPublished 2 years ago 13 min read

I wrote this essay at the end of this term. The class was about the Renaissance and was a fantastic class. In November I had a bit of a mental breakdown though. I had to get a paper done though, even if it wasn't the greatest paper.

I didn't really get solid thesis into this paper, so to add one now, I'd say that the thesis is that depression has been real for all of human history, that people who aren't depressed don't enjoy being around depressed people as a rule, and it's not really that much better now. We have a lot to learn still.

In Macbeth, Malcolm gives good advice, “Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak knits up the o-er wrought heart and bids it break.” Written some time in the early 1600s Macbeth is hardly ancient, but Malcolm’s words are still fresh today. Melancholy is not new to humanity. The core of what it is to be human in 2021 is the same as it was in 1621, but the vocabulary has changed.

Over the course of the Renaissance the language surrounding mental health moved from being deeply entwined with the supernatural to being much more empirical with a frosting of supernatural. The treatment of those who experienced neurodivergent experiences, be that autism, depression, schizophrenia, or any other condition experienced prosecution that often resulted in unpleasant deaths during torture of burning alive. Even as understanding of the physical body, to include the mind, increased and illness was understood, the most common treatment was confinement for the convenience of society, not for the benefit of the afflicted. To understand European experience of diagnosis and treatment between 1400 and 1650, we can can insight into the experience of mentally ill people today and the purposes of treatments and reactions from community that can compound mental health symptoms.

History isn’t just times and dates. It can’t be properly understood without soaking in as much of a time and place as possible. Otherwise it’s like reviewing a cake by licking the frosting. Reading a translation of a person’s work as it is on the screen of a computer with a font of one’s own choosing loses so much of the tender information that a person might leave doodled on the side of a page or a bit of tea leaf lost to time between pages. This is one of the reasons that secondary works are so important. The historian Susan Wells, who had a great deal of access to works owned and written by Robert Burton found that he had written, “I hate what I am, and yet, for all my desiring, I cannot be but what I hate.” on his copy of On Temperaments by Galen. That gives depth to the book for which is usually studied, ‘The Anatomy of Melancholy’. Not every secondary resource brings that kind of depth and authenticity to historical authors.

Sometimes what a secondary sources brings is breadth of information. With Jeremy Norman’s site, he brings a small, but useful contribution that can help a person studying the history of psychology in the Renaissance direction. Especially for hard to find sources, such small crumbs are how the path is created.

Professor Peter Elmer taught at Open University and Exeter. He specializes in early medicine, magic, and witchcraft. He is the editor of ‘​​The healing arts : health, disease, and society in Europe, 1500-1800’. In chapter nine, an essay by Elmer considers the risks of approaching the past of mental health experience strictly through a lens of modern understanding.

We all feel that our internal experience of self must be similar to other people’s experience. This expectation of similarity contributes to a sense of community that is essential to the felicitous cooperation of community members. In modern vocabulary, a person who is socialized effectively to their community’s standards and also has neurotypical neurology operating without pathology will have a range of behaviors available to them. Communication between individuals in that group will be fairly easy and effective. While pathology such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia, or any other pathology of the brain and nervous system will affect individuals across a spectrum of intensity, if intensity is high enough to produce unusual behavior as a symptom, then that individual will have great difficulty fitting in and functioning in society.

The Renaissance period, from the 1400s to the middle of the 1600s, is not at all a uniform period and views on unusual behaviors are similarly varied across location and time. While change is a constant as humans never stop learning and improving on their environments, the Renaissance period is often seen as an especially powerful period of change. Just as individual behavior that is unlike the behavior centered in whatever point-of-view is making the assessment, it is possible that as the change in the Renaissance period moved behavior closer to what is considered modern, the point-of-view of modern people is to favor these changes and consider them improvements.

It is that very need to standardize behavior towards what the point-of-view perception considers normative that made the Romans thinking their society was moving towards decadence and Medieval people likely would have been horrified by the religious wars in the Reformation. Depression doesn’t really happen on the scale of a societal movement. It’s much more personal. It affects the interaction between family and friends, between people who have known each other throughout their lives. From the point-of-view of the non-depressed person or community, someone suffering depression or other midlife onset pathology there must be a frustration with the change in behavior. In the experience of this author, having hidden my depression from my daughters with more success than not for their childhood, upon becoming more authentic with them as adults brought pretty regular requests to just stop being depressed.

Even in a time of understanding of such conditions, there is an instinct that if the point-of-view person can make choices that support normative expressions, if the person they are interacting with used to be able to seem to do the same, then it must just be a choice to behave as they are. People react to novel experiences in many different ways, now and in the Renaissance. A common response to abnormal behavior in a loved one or a person in the community is to be angry. They used to be able to make the bread on time. They must have chosen not to be able to anymore. They used to find joy in mass. They must have encountered strange and evil heresies if they don’t anymore. While change is constant in human experience, that change is often driven by the human need to explain the experience of the world.

The Malleus Maleficarum, published in 1421, can represent evidence of pathology of the authors that would be recognized today, but also shows a genuine quest to understand the world, that dreams, ideas, and experience were not mystical, but physical, “...through a natural local motion caused by the flow of blood to the first and inmost seat of their faculties of perception; and we speak of an intrinsic local motion in the head and the cells of the brain.” So while the authors were aware of physical explanations for the world the spiritual explanations seemed very dear to them. For a book about witches, which the authors of the Malleus Maleficarum felt were overwhelmingly female, the book spends a very great deal of time talking about erectile dysfunction.

Erectile dysfunction is also listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-V). While well adapted people with non-pathogenic can make efforts to enforce confirmation to their expectations, people with pathologies may also try to force acceptance of their own expectations on the community as well. For this author, the last time the male member were mentioned this many times in a text, the author was reading a romance book with homosexual leads. It leads to the idea that few people are without some mental illness and those driven to write or create may be working towards healing their own pain, sometimes while passing on unhelpful ideas that harm people. That is the engine of change and evolution, the constant quest for better in relation to the perceived self.

It probably says something about the modern world that copies of Malleus Maleficarum are easy to find and readily available, while an English translation of Johann Weyer’s De Praestigiis Daemonum is much less so. The part of the book that was a compendium of demons is readily available, but the part where he talked about mental health and medicine is not. Published a little over a century after Malleus Maleficarum, it is often spoken of as a rebuttal to the Malleus Maleficarum. Dr. Weyer is credited with the first use of the words mental illness which he used in reference to accused witches. Availability of things is still driven in 2021 by market demand. Why people would have more interest in imaginary creatures than in the history of medicine and mental health would make an interesting question. Perhaps in the history of melancholy, we like the imaginary where we have control much more than reality where we don’t.

Published in 1628, only 51 years after Weyer’s book, The Anatomy of Melancholy, had not completely abandoned the connection to demons and paranormal, in fact supernatural causes are listed as the number one cause of melancholy, but the second cause is nature. Burton recognizes that loss of liberty, hereditary, poverty, want, and the after effects of disease. He lists the symptoms of melancholy has, “Fear and sorrow without a just cause, suspicion, jealousy, discontent, solitariness, irksomeness, continual cogitations, restless thoughts, vain imaginations,” which are not that far off from what the DSM-V listed them as in 2013. Stretching the meaning of words across time can make the people of then and the people of now not feel so far apart.

Where the people in the Renaissance tended to lead with supernatural and divine explanations, people of the twenty-first century tend to lead with what seems like empirical world constructions that can leave out some of the very analog and illogical of human experiences. Those are very hard to quantify, after all. Burton makes, what to modern people, might seem like a very strange connection. He wrote that lycanthropia was a kind of melancholy. His definition of the condition read, “Lycanthropia, which Avicenna calls cucubuth, others lupinam insaniam, or wolf-madness, when men run howling about graves and fields in the night, and will not be persuaded but that they are wolves, or some such beasts. [901]Aetius and [902]Paulus call it a kind of melancholy....”.

Approached with an open mind, both melancholia and lycanthropia can present very disturbing behaviors for those not afflicted with such conditions. Strangeness causes people to worry about what they treasure, which probably has something to do with the frequency of phallic mentions in Malleus Maleficarum. It can account for family estrangements in the present and even fuel intergroup conflict. Diagnosis and defense are so much easier than treatment and accommodations, however. Burton, in his index, lists boring of the head as a cure for melancholy. The Malleus Maleficarum suggests faith in God and with that adherence to social norms so a person doesn’t get a visit from the Inquisition in the first place. This author is very convinced that a session with the strappado would not improve the symptoms of melancholy. That leaves Weyer with his assertion that accusing someone of witchcraft is to torment someone who has mental illness. Looking back at how melancholy and odd social behavior were thought of across what is most of the period usually called the Renaissance, it’s not treated so very differently today. They symptoms are the same and the treatments still involve faith in what authorities say and provide, while being a disappointment to one’s family. While change is constant, sometimes it doesn’t reach quite as deeply as might be hoped. The experience of melancholy or depression is still mostly about how inconvenient it is for people not experiencing the melancholia. We just changed the vocabulary from witches to self-centered, homeless, hypochondriac, and bum.


Primary Sources

Burton, Robert. The Anatomy of Melancholy. London, 1621.

Published in 1621, Burton’s work addresses possible causes of melancholy. Used in contrast to Malleus Maleficarum, it demonstrates a more empirical understanding and exploration of mental health. It also continues to demonstrate the tradition of supernatural explanations.

Kramer, Heinrich, and Jacob Sprenger. “Malleus Maleficarum Part 1.” Malleus Maleficarum Part 1 Question VI. Accessed December 9, 2021.

The Malleus Maleficarum represents one way society addressed unusual behavior. Anything non-normative was suspect and while the idea of mental health was also created in this same period of time, just demanding normative behavior with serious consequences if that behavior was not presented is a response to mental health issues that continues into the present day. Written in 1487, it also shows the change over time when compared with ‘The Anatomy of Melancholy’.

Weyer, Johann, George Mora, and Benjamin G. Kohl. Witches, Devils, and Doctors in the Renaissance. Tempe, AZ: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, 1998.

Weyer’s book is the mid-point between ‘Malleus Maleficarum’ and Burton’s ‘Anatomy of Melancholy’. It is said to be the first time the words mental illness were used and a rebuttal to the ‘Malleus Maleficarum’. When the book finally arrives from the library, as it’s quite difficult to find a copy of, the paper will be expanded a bit.

Secondary Sources

Background Material

Bridley, Alexis, and Lee W Daffin. “The Essentials of Abnormal Psychology .” Essentials of abnormal psychology. Washington State University, January 5, 2018.

This was the best source on Weyer available at this point. It was where I found out about him and I’m using it to support references to him in the paper until his book actually arrives.

Elmer, Peter. “George Mora (Ed.), Witches, Devils, and Doctors in the Renaissance: Johann Weyer, ‘De Praestigiis Daemonum’, Assoc. Ed. Benjamin Kohl, Transl. John Shea, Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies 73, Binghamton, State University of New York Center for Medieval and Early Renaissance Studies, 1991, Pp. Xcii, 790, Illus., $33.00 (0-86698-083-0).” Medical History 36, no. 3 (1992): 351–51. doi:10.1017/S0025727300055526.

Peter Elmer is a British professor at the University of Exeter. He is the author of ‘The Healing Arts: Health, Disease and Society in Europe 1500-1800’ This is a review that establishes Professor Elmer’s authority in the field.

Elmer, Peter. The Healing Arts : Health, Disease, and Society in Europe, 1500-1800. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2004.

In this book Professor Elmer discusses health care in the sixteenth century, in particular Vesalius. The book assumes no expertise in history, casually explaining important concepts and the impact of the work of various persons in the time discussed.

Norman, Jeremy M. “In an Expose of the Witchcraft Delusion Johann Weyer Presents One of the First Scientific Approaches to the Study of Mental Illness.” In an Expose of the Witchcraft Delusion Johann Weyer Presents One of the First Scientific Approaches to the Study of Mental Illness : History of Information, 2021.

Norman’s commentary on Weyer provides further support for his important position in the history of mental illness and the slow shift from overt supernatural causes to more evidenced based understanding in which humans could affect change.

Wells, Susan. Robert Burton’s Rhetoric. Vol. 12. Penn State University Press, 2020.

Wells is a historian with an extensive history with Burton’s ‘Anatomy of Melancholy’. Her access to materials related to Burton bring a depth and authenticity to his work.


About the Creator


I write a lot of lgbt+ stuff, lots of sci fi. My big story right now is The Moon's Permission.

I've been writing all my life. Every time I think I should do something else, I come back to words.

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