Burton. The Anatomy of melancholy (2). The cure

How can melancholy be cured? The second book is about remedies. Divine providence is, of course a lawful mean, but saint’s relics or images are firmly rejected. Diet is thoroughly discussed, different kinds of food, drinks, the quality of water, how should constipation be addressed [now I know that suppositories were available in the 17th century!]. It feels like reading a health magazine instead of a treatise on depression.

But, as with the case of the “particular utopia”, Burton excels when he speculates and rambles; when writing about the quality of air as a remedy, he indulges in a long digression, to wander around the world with the imagination, like a hawk that flies freely where the curiosity attracts him. He envisages different lands, the species living in them, the currents of the seas. How can be explained that shells or fish bones are found in mountains far remote from all seas? What is the center of the earth like? What size should hell be in order to accommodate all condemned souls? Whence comes the variety of species? [We will have to wait to Darwin to get the right answer] Celestial spheres are challenged; is the earth a living whole (Sit terra animata?); are there infinite worlds? How does God spend his free time? Does He paint butterflies’ wings? Does He decide how many hours should it rain? How much snow? Some make maps of heaven, their offices, how many angels are in each department. Why is it are good and bad punished together? There are some pretend to be familiar with God and tell when the world will come to an end. Other wonder about what was God doing before creating the world. (Theologies, excrements of curiosity).

25 pages later, back down to earth, quality of air is discussed and comes the Section about “Exercise rectified of body and mind”. Moderate exercise is recommended, also travel to nice places (Deambulatio per amoena loca), visit gardens, climb mountains or imagine a travel in time, for example, to become an spectator of one of Cesar’s battles [I wonder when/where would I travel if I could], tourism in different cities or spend the time in some recreation, may be catching flies as Domitian the emperor, or playing with nuts.

Threre are more possibilities, games, dancing, study, collecting and, of course, books could not be omitted. What man is not attracted by maps? [Burton would have enjoyed Google maps]. Atlases, herbaria, Mathematical works, bestiaria … like King James, who would not be happy in this company? Study is good, provided we do not exceed in it, like Don Quixote. To medidate upon the Bible, to learn algebra, to inquire about the movements of the planets, to perform experiments, all is advisable to keep the mind busy … if it is a masculine mind. In the 17th century all that Burton can suggest for women is neeedlework !

In order to rectify the perturbations of the mind, we can rely on the power of music, a merry company, laughter and try to live merrily. I couldn’t agree more.

After reviewing what activities could make us happy, and before opening section IV about cures and remedies, Burton offers another excellent digression, A Consolatory Digression containing the remedies of all manner of Discontents. I wonder whether therapy in the 17thcentury would be like. Let’s comfort ourselves by considering all possible bad things.  In life, joys and sorrows are annexed, and succeed one another. If we summed the miseries and calamities that affect all men, and then divide them equally, would we share alike, or take our portion? Those who think they are unfortunate because of poverty should be reminded of all that can be enjoyed without money, and being free; maybe it’s happier the one who desires less than the one who has more. The section is completed with a list of divine precepts, truly a 17th century self help manual. Know thyself, don’t be idle, be contented with thy lot, hear much, speak little.

The drug section (the 17th century prozac) offers medicinal plants and precious stones that are carried hanged around the neck [don’t laugh, people still buy them today). One of the authorities mentioned is Arnau de Vilanova. Besides drugs, other medical actions are purging, suppositories, clysters, leeches for haemorrhoids. He does not write recipes in vernacular tongue in order to prevent self medication. Burton does not forget anything he has read about, and, for example, adds that now and then is good to be drunktobaccocoffee or strange potions that involve a ring out of a donkey’s hoof, a lamb’s brain cooked with particular species, a wolf’s dung.


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