Can the work of a 17th-century scholar help us understand mental illness?

In 1621, Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy was published for the first time. The book, which Burton would revise and expand, dealt with what we would now call clinical depression. Today, as a new BBC Radio 4 series explores, it still has much to teach us…

Robert Burton, a 17th-century scholar

Presented by writer Amy Liptrot, whose memoir The Outrun dealt with her recovery from alcoholism, BBC Radio 4’s The New Anatomy of Melancholy delves into Burton’s remarkable attempt at understanding the human condition to find out what we can learn and how far we have come in four centuries. Here, producer Ruth Abrahams tells us about Burton and how the programme was made…

Producer Ruth Abrahams (left) with writer and presenter Amy Liptrot
Producer Ruth Abrahams (left) with writer and presenter Amy Liptrot

Jonathan Wright: Can you tell us a little about Robert Burton?

Ruth Abrahams: Robert Burton (1577–1640) was a scholar at Oxford University 400 years ago. He was librarian at Christ Church and was also vicar of St Thomas in Oxford. He lived a single life in the college but was, by all accounts, sociable and dedicated his life to writing The Anatomy of Melancholy.


JW: Why is his work so important and how did he collate his great work?

RA: Robert Burtons work is important because it was the first book in the modern, western world to try to understand and categorise all the “kinds, causes, symptoms, prognostics and several cures” of melancholy. He researched The Anatomy meticulously, leaving no stone unturned in the libraries of the Bodleian and Christ Church, in his attempt to assimilate experiences of melancholy – what we would now call sadness and depression – into an organised framework.

The title page of Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy
Burton’s ‘Anatomy’ attempted to assimilate experiences of melancholy – what we would now call sadness and depression – into an organised framework. (Photo by The Print Collector/Getty Images)

Burton used the medical understanding of the body based around ancient Greek ideas of the four humours, which were just about to be challenged by William Harveys ideas on the circulation of blood (1628). Burton wasnt a physician and his insights are infused with personal experience, and references to physicians, philosophers and poets.


JW: What was the contemporary reaction to his work? 

RA: The Anatomy of Melancholy, published in 1621, was immediately successful and the subject of close discussion among Burton’s peers. Burton immediately began revising the text – although never to take material away, only to add and extend! The book went through five more editions before his death in 1640. It has never been out of print.

JW: Has interest in the work been consistent down the years? Or was Burton rediscoveredat a certain point?

RA: Readers have shown a steady interest over the last 400 years with some notable fans, including Samuel Johnson, Charles Lamb, John Keats, Virginia Woolf and Philip Pullman. Perhaps now is a moment that might signal a particular moment of rediscovery with a wider audience, as many of his ideas chime with contemporary ideas about mental wellbeing.


JW: How closely do his ideas about melancholy overlap with and/or anticipate our contemporary understanding of depression and other mental illnesses?

RA: What has been remarkable in the making of this series is finding how the descriptions of the symptoms of melancholyare so similar to experiences that people struggle with today. The words may be different, but when Burton describes the profound effect of unexpected, extreme fear with phrases like “terrors in the night”, its clear that hes talking about PTSD and its consequent effect on mood. He describes huge swings of mood, from elation to crashing lows, that we might now understand as bipolar disorder.

Many of his ideas chime with contemporary ideas about mental wellbeing

Because he was using the model of the four humours, the mind and body are very much interconnected in a way that modern medicine, until recently, hasnt allowed, but is now returning to – albeit with different scientific insights. The breadth and variety of causes, shades of experiences and possible treatment options are also something that we can find emerging today in a way that Burton was exploring 400 years ago.

Listen: Dan Snow joins the HistoryExtra podcast to explore the history of war trauma from the First World War onwards:

JW: He sets out causes of melancholy. Can you perhaps pick an example of how the show focuses on one of these causes and how its explored in the episode devoted to it.

RA: There are many, many causes of melancholy noted by Burton, but one that stands out from the series is fairly simple and blunt, and that is poverty:

“Poverty and want are so violent oppugners, so unwelcome guests, so much abhorred of all men, that I may not omit to speak of them apart. As it is esteemed in the world’s censure, it is a most odious calling, vile and base, a severe torture, a most intolerable burden; we shun it all, we abhor the name of it, as being the fountain of all other miseries, cares, woes, labours, and grievances whatsoever. To avoid which, we will take any pains, rather than endure this insufferable yoke of poverty, which doth so tyrannise, crucify, and generally depress us.”

Burton goes on to reference one of the burning issues of today, inequality:

“He may sail as he will himself, and temper his estate at his pleasure, jovial days, splendour and magnificence, sweet music, dainty fare, the good things, and fat of the land, fine clothes, rich attires, soft beds, down pillows are at his command, all the world labours for him, thousands of artificers are his slaves to drudge for him, run, ride, and post for him.”

In our episode devoted to this, we hear from a young man whos at the sharp end of poverty in the UK right now – the challenges it brings and how it makes him feel apart from society. However, he describes himself as “privileged” to be an only child because he has the space to cry in his room in private. Many of his friends are in shared accommodation and dont even have that.

We hear from Professor Kate Picket, author of The Inner Level: How More Equal Societies Reduce Stress, Restore Sanity and Improve Everyones Well-being, about how greater equality would be good for everyones mental health – including, perhaps surprisingly, those at the top.

Humans have the same vulnerabilities and propensity to sadness and depression across the ages

And to end the episode, as with all the episodes in this series, we ask our contributors to add one piece of writing, a poem or a song, to an imaginary new Anatomy of Melancholy, carrying on Burtons spirit of weaving a tapestry of human responses to melancholy.

Throughout the episode and the series as a whole, Simon Russell Beale (as Robert Burton) reads extracts from The Anatomy, revealing its relevance to us today.


JW: Whats the biggest lesson he has to teach us and why?

RA: There is a lot to learn from Burtons book, but the biggest lesson that I take from The Anatomy of Melancholy is that humans have the same vulnerabilities and propensity to sadness and depression across the ages. With this in mind, and this commonality, we can take some comfort and listen to his overarching message to try to retain a sense of balance and find ways of living that take note of moderation – of ourselves –  and to keep reaching out in ways that connect with others and focuses beyond our own inner monologues.

One of the most famous quotes in The Anatomy is, “I write of melancholy by busy to avoid melancholy,” and this is an example of his redirecting attention outside of himself. Through the months of attention and exploration that has been involved in making this series, where the presenter Amy Liptrot and I have met some truly fascinating and inspiring people, I have occasionally thought to myself: am I making a radio series on melancholy by being busy to avoid melancholy? If so, it has been the best tonic.

The New Anatomy Of Melancholy is available to listen on BBC Radio 4 and BBC iPlayer now.


Jonathan Wright writes the TV and radio previews for BBC History Magazine and BBC History Revealed