Burton, Robert
First name:
Place of birth:
Lindley (ENG)
* 08.02.1577
† 25.01.1640
Biography print

British theologian, eminent theorist of melancholy.


Robert Burton (1577–1640) was born in Lindley (Leicestershire) as the fourth of the nine children of Ralph and Dorothy Burton. He grew up at Lindley Hall, the country estate of his well-off family, members of the landed gentry. His older brother William Burton (1575–1645) became a county historian and antiquarian (on the family tree, see Burton 1777: 162). Little is known about Robert Burton’s early years; he attended grammar school in Nuneaton and Sutton Coldfield and matriculated into Brasenose College, Oxford, in 1593. He transferred to Christ Church College in 1599 and received his MA in 1605 and his BD in 1614. In November 1616, he became the vicar of St Thomas the Martyr Church in Oxford; he also was the clerk of the local market for a period of three years. In 1632, he obtained the rectorship of All Saints Church in Seagrave (Leicestershire), a much more valuable office although he rarely spent time there (Höltgen 1976).


Burton worked at Christ Church College until the end of his life as a tutor skilled in mathematics and from 1662 also as a librarian (cf. Gowland 2006: 5 ff.; Kiessling 1990). He earned his first literary laurels as a writer of satire (Philosophaster, 1606), but it was is his major work, The Anatomy of Melancholy, published in 1621 when he was 44 years old, that secured him lasting fame. After his death in January 1640, Burton was buried in Christ Church Cathedral, where his brother William had erected a statue with his portrait. The rumour according to which Burton took his own life is probably false (Geritz 2004: 53).


The Anatomy of Melancholy

During Burton’s lifetime, his magnum opus was published in five constantly expanded editions and finally comprised around 1,300 pages. From the third edition, the book was furnished with an emblematic frontispiece. A posthumous edition appeared in 1652. The Anatomy of Melancholy is considered a masterpiece of English Baroque literature to this day (see, e.g., Lezard 2001). Burton wrote the book under the pseudonym of “Democritus Junior”, the name of the Greek pre-Socratic philosopher who, according to an ancient legend in the pseudo-Hippocratic Letters, became so immersed in his work on sections that he was mistaken for mad (“mania”) (Hippocrates 1990: 55–101). Burton used the writings of around 1,000 authors to develop his universalist perspective: “… who is not brainsick? Folly, melancholy, madness, are but one disease, Delirium is a common name to all” (Burton 1621/2021: 40).


Expert by experience

In the preface, Burton revealed himself to be a melancholic: “Concerning myself, I can peradventure affirm with Marius in Sallust, that which others hear or read of, I felt, and practised myself, they get their knowledge by books, I mine by melancholizing. [...] I learn from my own miseries to help those in distress. I would help others out of a fellow-feeling, and as that virtuous Lady did of old, being a leper herself, bestow all her portion to build an Hospital for Lepers, I will spend my time and knowledge, which are my greatest fortunes, for the common good of all” (Burton 1621/2021: 23). This self-portrayal is credible (Lund 2010: 141), and the biblio-therapeutic method helped transform melancholic musing into theorizing (cf. Shirilan 2014; Bahun 2013). In a pseudo-Aristotelian understanding of melancholy as a mode of scholarly creativity, Burton, with his Puritan professional ethics, declared himself an “expert by experience”. Yet, despite the biographical interpretation of his own melancholy – as being a result of parental neglect –, this motif of personal affectedness hardly plays a role in the further course of the book (cf. Gowland 2001: 54; Miller 1997; Heusser 1987).


Forms and causes of melancholy

Burton presented the spectrum of melancholy in three parts: (1) symptoms, forms and causes; (2) cures; (3) religious melancholy and lovesickness (cf. Fox 1976). He essentially distinguished between reactive melancholy (“disposition”, temper) and an established pathological condition (“habit”). While orthodox early-Baroque medicine assumed that pathological forms like “melancholia adusta” were caused by the residues of heated “black bile” disturbing the flow of the vital spirits, Burton – in line with the early modern zeitgeist – emphasised the personality and behaviour of the sick: “This Melancholy of which we are to treat, is an habit, morbus sonticus, or Chronicus, a Chronic or continuate disease, a settled humour, as Aurelianus, and others call it, not errant, but fixed; and as it was long increasing, so now being (pleasant, or painful) grown to an habit, it will hardly be removed” (Burton 1621/2021: 150).

Burton also distinguished a limited “head melancholy” from disorders affecting the entire body and from hypochondrial forms. He considered demonological theorems undecidable and argued that the primary factor was a disorder of the brain, affecting first imagination and then the mind. To him, the accumulation of “black bile” in the body was always the result of physical, mental and social conditions (including hereditary constitution, age, diet, sins, chastity, isolation, education, material hardship). He described dejection, social withdrawal, mistrust as well as errors of perception and reason up to the denial of reality as the characteristic symptoms of melancholy (cf. Brückner 2007: 230 f.). Burton’s phenomenology and theory of disease were modern. To cure the condition, he recommended remedies from the entire spectrum of Renaissance and Baroque medicine (diets, medication, baths, music, social participation).


Medical social utopia

The preface to The Anatomy concluded with a utopian conception of society including eugenic elements (cf. Lepenies 1969: 30), as Burton thought the entire world order to be melancholic: assuming that all human characters, form the solitary scholar to the greedy merchant, were the logical result of inadequate social conditions, he argued for an ideal monarchy, preferably located in a warm region and excluding from marriage all individuals with a hereditary melancholic constitution.


Significance and impact

Robert Burton’s authority in Oxford influenced numerous physicians of his time, such as Richard Napier (1559–1634; MacDonald 1982: 152, 189) but also, over a century later, George Cheyne in writing his sensualist manifesto The English Malady (1733) on typically “English” moods, sensitivities, spleens and nervous disorders.


The Anatomy of Melancholy is considered a timeless classic. The Bodleian Libray in Oxford held an exhibition in 2021/2022 to mark the 400th anniversary of its first publication. At the same time Angus Gowland published a new critical edition (Burton (1621/2021).



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Bahun, S. (2013): Modernism and Melancholia. Writing as Countermourning. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bright, T. (1586): A Treatise on Melancholy. London: Windet.

Brownlee, A. (1960): William Shakespeare and Robert Burton. Reading: Bradley and Son.

Brückner, B. (2007): Delirium und Wahn. Geschichte, Selbstzeugnisse und Theorien von der Antike bis 1900. Vol. 1. Vom Altertum bis zur Aufklärung. Hürtgenwald: Pressler.

Burton, R. (1621/2021): The Anatomy of Melancholy. Edited by A. Gowland. Dublin: Penguin.

Burton, R. (1632): The Anatomy of Melancholy. What It Is, With All the Kinds Causes, Symptomes, Prognostickes, & Serverall Cures of It. In Three Partitions with Their Severall Sections, Members and Subsections, Philosophically, Medicinally, Historically, Opened & Cut up. By Democritus Junior. With a Satyricall Preface Conducing to the Following Discourse. The Fourth Edition, Corrected and Augmented by the Author. Oxford: Printed by John Lichfield for Henry Cripps.

Burton, W. (1777): Proposals for Printing by Subscription. A New Edition of The Description of Leicestershire. Containing Matters of Antiquity, History, Armory and Genealogy. King’s Lynn: W. Whittingham.

Cheyne, G. (1733): The English Malady: or, A Treatise of Nervous Diseases of all Kinds, as Spleen, Vapours, Lowness of Spirits, Hypochondriacal and Hysterical Distempers. Cornhill, Bath: Strahan, Leake.

Conn, J. (1988): Robert Burton and the Anatomy of Melancholy. An Annotated Bibliography of Primary and Secondary Sources. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press.

Fox, R. A. (1976): The Tangled Chain. The Structure of Disorder in ‘The Anatomy of Melancholy’. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Geritz, A. J. (2004): Robert Burton. In: A. Hager, E. S. Nelson (Eds.): Age of Milton. An Encyclopedia of Major 17th-Century British and American Authors. Westport: Greenwood, pp. 53–57.

Gowland, A. (2006): The Worlds of Renaissance Melancholy. Robert Burton in Context. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gowland, A. (2012): Burton’s Anatomy and the Intellectual Traditions of Melancholy. In: Babel. Littératures Plurielles 25, pp. 221–257.

Gowland, A. (2012a): Consolations for Melancholy in Renaissance Humanism. In: Society and Politics, 6 (1), pp. 10–38.

Gowland, A. (2012b): Melancholy, Spleen, Hypochondria. Mental Diseases in Europe and England from the Sixteenth to the Eighteenth Century. In: R. Hettlage, A. Bellebaum (Eds.): Missvergnügen. Zur kulturellen Bedeutung von Betrübnis, Verdruss und schlechter Laune. Wiesbaden: Springer VS, pp. 95–116.

Gowland, A. (2013): Robert Burton and The Anatomy of Melancholy. In: A. Hadfield (Ed.): The Oxford Handbook to Early Modern English Prose. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Grant Williams, R. (2001): Disfiguring the Body of Knowledge. Anatomical Discourse and Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy. In: English Literary History 68 (3), pp. 593–613.

Heusser, M. (1987): The Gilded Pill. A Study of the Reader-Writer Relationship in Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy. Tübingen: Stauffenburg-Verlag.

Hippocrates (1990): Pseudoepigraphic Writings. Letters, Embassy, Speech from the Altar-Decree. Edited and Translated with an Introduction by Wesley D. Smith. Studies in Ancient Medicine, Vol. 2. Leiden: Brill.

Höltgen, K. J. (1976): Robert Burton and the Rectory of Seagrave. In: The Review of English Studies. New Series 27 (106), pp. 129–136.

Kazimova, U. (2012). Robert Burton’s Work ‘The Anatomy of Melancholy’. In: International Journal of Applied Linguistics and English Literature 1 (2), pp. 219–223.

Kiessling, N. K. (1988): The Library of Robert Burton. Oxford: Oxford Bibliographical Society.

Kiessling, N. K. (1990): The Legacy of Democritus Junior, Robert Burton. An Exhibition to Commemorate the 350th Anniversary of the Death of Robert Burton (1577–1640). Oxford: Bodleian Library.

Lambrecht, R. (1996): Der Geist der Melancholie. Eine Herausforderung philosophischer Reflexion. Munich: Fink, Wilhelm.

Lepenies, W. (1969): Melancholie und Gesellschaft. Mit einer neuen Einleitung. Das Ende der Utopie und die Wiederkehr der Melancholie. Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp.

Lezard, N. (2001): On the Book to End All Books. In: The Guardian, 18 August 2001, Saturday Review, p. 11.

Lund, M. A. (2010). Melancholy, Medicine and Religion in Early Modern England: Reading ‘The Anatomy of Melancholy’. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Macdonald, M. (1981): Mystical Bedlam. Madness, Anxiety and Healing in Seventeenth-Century England. Cambridge Monographs on the History of Medicine. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Miller, J. (1997): Plotting a Cure. The Reader in Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy. In: Taylor and Francis Journals 20 (2), pp. 42–71.

Mueller, W. R. (1952): The Anatomy of Robert Burton’s England. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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Schiesari, J. (1992): The Gendering of Melancholia. Feminism, Psychoanalysis, and the Symbolics of Loss in Renaissance Literature. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Shirilan, S. (2014): Exhilarating the Spirits. Burtonian Study as a Cure for Scholarly Melancholy. In: Studies in Philology 111 (3), pp. 486–520.

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Smith, P. J. (1931): Bibliographia Burtoniana. A Study of Robert Burton’s ‘The Anatomy of Melancholy’. With a Bibliography of Burton’s Writings. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Snyder, S. (1965): The Left Hand of God. Despair in Medieval and Renaissance Tradition. In: Studies in the Renaissance, 12, pp. 18–59.

Wenzel, S. (1967): The Sin of Sloth. Acedia in Medieval Thought and Literature. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.


Burkhart Brückner


Photograph: Walker & Boutall Ltd / Source: Wikimedia / public domain.


Referencing format
Burkhart Brückner (2021): Burton, Robert.
In: Biographisches Archiv der Psychiatrie.
URL: www.biapsy.de/index.php/en/9-biographien-a-z/308-borton-robert-e
(retrieved on:24.05.2024)