Robert Burton's Geography of Melancholy

By Chapple, Anne S. | Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Winter 1993 | Go to article overview
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Robert Burton's Geography of Melancholy


Chapple, Anne S., Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900


about Burton's grasp of geography and cartography is Nicolas K. Kiessling, The Library of Robert Burton (Oxford: Oxford Bibliographical Society, 1988).

10 Albert Baugh et al., eds., A Literary History of England (New York and London: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1948), pp. 597-98.

11 Vicari, p. 41.

12 Democritus, the philosopher of Abdera (ca. 460 B.C.), was a writer on geography himself, and Strabo mentions him as an Observing map collectors in 1570, Dr. John Dee wrote, "Some, to beautify their Halls, Parlors, Chambers, Galeries, Studies, or Libraries ... liketh, loveth, getteth, and useth, Maps, Charts, and Geographicall Globes."(1) Dee was writing at a time when only the wealthy could afford to own maps, curious artifacts that resemble works of art more than they do the mathematically precise productions of our own time. But despite their relative scarcity and prohibitive cost, maps became increasingly accessible in university settings; to some extent, maps were even accessible to the general public. Thomas Blundeville's 1589 treatise, A Briefe Description of Universal Mappes and Cardes and of Their Use, dedicated to Francis Windam, a judge in the Court of Common Pleas, gives clear evidence that the public had been exposed to maps and showed an eager interest in them. In an address "To the Reader" that begins his treatise, Blundeville documents the rising popularity of the beautifully crafted maps and charts that were appearing with increasing frequency toward the end of the century: "I daylie see many that delight to looke on Mappes, and can point to England, France, Germanie, and to the East and West Indies, and to divers other places therein described." He argues a need to "instruct" those who "looke on Mappes ... but yet for want of skill in Geography, they knowe not with what maner of lines they are traced, nor what those lines do signifie, nor yet the true use of Mappes in deed."(2)

The proliferation of maps and charts during the late 1500s and early 1600s affected many Renaissance writers of note. This was the period in history when Robert Burton, renowned author of The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), began to anatomize the melancholic "diseases" that plagued the men of his day. Burton was embarking on his exploration of melancholia at a time when the image of the world on maps was changing with unprecedented rapidity under the pressure of new geographical discoveries; the surprising connections between these two pursuits for Burton is fruitful ground for exploration.(3) That Robert Burton made a pioneering attempt to anatomize the causes and effects of melancholy is well known, but that he was well acquainted with contemporary literature on cartography and geography has only recently been documented.(4) Burton's familiarity with the exquisite new maps of the world that were printed in such unprecedented numbers during his lifetime is conspicuously evident in his Anatomy of Melancholy, but the impact of the one on the other has gone virtually unrecognized. I will argue that mapping and charting enterprises had a profound influence on both the shape and content of The Anatomy of Melancholy. Like Georg Braun, Burton was "drawne by a naturall love of Pictures and Mappes, Prospective and Chorographical delights"; we can imagine that, "when at Oxford," he "used to love to visit the bookseller's shops, there to lye gaping on maps."(5) In fact, he was one of the serious collectors of his day.

When we ask ourselves how the world might have looked to Burton and his contemporaries, living in an era of such astronomical growth, we arrive at some surprising answers. Because the exciting new geographic discoveries were assimilated into the culture through a filter of traditional beliefs in the vanity of human existence, the brave New World that was being mapped out in ever sharper outlines simply did not appear to Renaissance observers the way it might to us today. It would be inaccurate to claim that the world presented itself to Burton and his peers as a panorama of unalloyed hope and possibility.

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