Never to Go Forth of the Limits': Space and Melancholy in Robert Burton's Library Project

By Barczyk-Barakonska, Liliana | Journal of European Studies, December 2003 | Go to article overview

Never to Go Forth of the Limits': Space and Melancholy in Robert Burton's Library Project


Barczyk-Barakonska, Liliana, Journal of European Studies


This article is a study of early seventeenth-century melancholy in the context of a library project introduced by Robert Burton in his Anatomy of Melancholy (1621). Modelled on the great libraries of the times, Button's library is designed to function as the only space free of melancholy and as such is to be structured on the principle of isolation.

Discussing the interrelations between the Burtonian vision of the melancholy reader and his concepts of space, the article explores the terms of isolation Burton establishes in order to construct the library. The article is also an analysis of the problem of border transgression, which is constitutive for the notion of melancholy. Finally, the article presents issues involving the moulding of the brand new man Burton envisions: a man free of melancholy and inhabiting the supposedly isolated space of the library.

Keywords: Burton; library; melancholy; reader; space

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Penned up

When Robert Burton, the author of The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), decides to describe the space of the library as constituting a therapeutic measure against the melancholy condition, he reserves for the description the middle part of his three-volume work. He introduces the library in the Second Section, Member Four of the Second Partition, entitled 'The Cure of Melancholy'. Thus he enfolds the vision of the library in his writing, which itself is a library of quotations penned within his own study functioning as his private library. Since the library occupies the innermost space of Burton's work, studying, the supreme 'exercise and recreation of the mind' associated with the space of the library is what Burton classifies as a strictly indoor activity, one performed 'within doors' (II, 86). (1) Thus the image of the library envisioned by Burton could never be complete without the express mention of the bolted doors which form an indissociable part of the library experience as he quotes after Heinsius, the keeper of the library at Leyden in Holland: '"I no sooner" (saith he) "come into the library, but I bolt the door to me"' (II, 91). The moment of bolting the doors, which entails a very hermetic gesture, seems essential for the library to constitute itself, to become accessible to the reader and thus to be of curative value to the melancholy patient.

This article sets out to explore the terms of the proscribed enclosure and the ways in which Robert Burton tries to negotiate the limits of the library in order to situate the melancholy 'mind within doors' (II, 86) and thus complete the illusory task of designing a space free of melancholy.

Mortuis magistris

The sign of bolted doors inscribes the library in prison architecture, which is very close to the way King James understands the idea of library when, in one of the quotations Burton uses to construct his library, the monarch claims: 'If I were not a king, I would be a university man: and if it were so that I must be a prisoner, if I might have my wish, I would desire to have no other prison than that library, and to be chained together with so many good authors et mortuis magistris" (II, 91). The quotation implicates the space of the library in questions of state. It is the king who, wishing to remain within the library, envisages himself in the role of either a scholar or even a prisoner as he associates these two seemingly incongruous roles with the enclosed space of the library. Thus the library is perceived in terms of both a scholarly venue and a prison, as the king's discourse provides the two heterogeneous spaces with a link, the chain: the linking instrument par excellence. The chain, while introducing uneasy tension between the two otherwise disparate spaces, not so much collapses them into one, as makes them overlap, transpose, infiltrate one another.

As a visible bond between the two institutions, the chain renders manifest their common share and investment in the system of control, confinement and enslavement, a system that operates by means of chaining together everything and everyone to what Nietzsche calls the cold monster of the state. …

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Never to Go Forth of the Limits': Space and Melancholy in Robert Burton's Library Project
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