The Secret Wound: Love-Melancholy and Early Modern Romance

The Secret Wound: Love-Melancholy and Early Modern Romance

The Secret Wound: Love-Melancholy and Early Modern Romance

The Secret Wound: Love-Melancholy and Early Modern Romance


This book offers a new reading of early modern romance in the light of historically contemporary accounts of mind, and specifically the medical tradition of love-melancholy. The book argues that the medical profile of the melancholic lover provides an essential context for understanding the characteristic patterns of romance: narrative deferral, epistemological uncertainty, and the endless quest for a quasi-phantasmic beloved. Unlike many recent studies of romance, this book establishes a detailed historical basis for investigating the psychological structure of romance. Wells begins by tracing the development of the medical disorder first known in the Latin west as amor hereos (lovesickness) from its earliest roots in Greek and Arabic medicine to its translation into the Latin medical tradition. Drawing on this detailed historical material, the book considers three important early modern romances: Ariosto's Orlando Furioso, Tasso's Gerusalemme Liberata, and Spenser's The Faerie Queene, concluding with a brief consideration of the significance of this literary and medical legacy for Romanticism. Most broadly, the interdisciplinary nature of this study allows the author to investigate the central critical problem of early modern subjectivity in substantially new ways.


But this love of ours is immoderate, inordinate, and not to be
comprehended in any bounds. It … is a wandering, extravagant, a
domineering, a boundless, an irrefragable, a destructive passion.

—Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy

The pathological extensions of love not only touch upon but overlap
with normal experience, and it is not always easy to accept that one
of our most valued experiences may merge into psychopathology.

—P. E. Mullen and M. Pathé, “The Pathological Extensions of Love”

In his Discourse of the Preservation of Sight, first published in 1597, the physician André Du Laurens provides a portrait of what he calls “amorous melancholie” that is representative of the many medieval and early modern treatments of the topic informing his own:

[T]he man is quite undone and cast away, the sences are wandring to and
fro, up and downe, reason is confounded, the imagination corrupted, the
talk fond and senceless; the sillie loving worme cannot any more look upon
any thing but his idol: all the functions of the bodie are likewise perverted,
he becommeth pale, leane, swouning, without any stomacke to his meate,
hollow and sunke eyed…. You shall finde him weeping, sobbing, sighing,
and redoubling his sighs, and in continuall restlessness, avoyding company,
loving solitariness, the better to feed and follow his foolish imaginations.

This passage vividly captures both the psychological and the physical aspects of the disease: the sufferer’s imagination is corrupted and, likewise, “all the functions of the bodie are … perverted.” Du Laurens and his medical colleagues describe the effects of this “violent and extreame love” in terms of specific psychophysiological processes, usually beginning with the perception of an object that “setteth concupiscence on fire.” The overheating of the spirits traveling from heart to brain disturbs the estimative faculty, which is concerned with making judgments about the world. The . . .

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