Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

"As Melancholy as a Sick Parrot": Depressed(?) Women at the Beginning of the Long Eighteenth Century

Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

"As Melancholy as a Sick Parrot": Depressed(?) Women at the Beginning of the Long Eighteenth Century

Article excerpt

"Lord, Madam, you are as melancholy as a sick Parrot," Jacinta chides her mistress Julia at the opening of a scene in Aphra Behn's 1681 play The False Count: Or, a New Way to Play an Old Game (2.1.1). The goal of this essay is to begin to establish, through a discussion of accounts written by women about the experience of melancholy, what could have been meant by this somewhat startling ejaculation. The picture that will emerge is not a neat one. In the late 1600s there were various, sometimes explicitly competing, models that were used to define or prescribe for melancholy. (1) And while at times the symptoms described sound very like modern "depression," sometimes the combination of features serves as a firm warning of the need not to indulge in retrospective diagnosis by assuming that we can easily assimilate what emerges into a "history of depression." The texts are, though, fascinating, and certainly deserve and require further exploration in any endeavor to understand what existed "before depression."

A key place to start when exploring how women's melancholy might have been understood at the beginning of the long eighteenth century is with midwifery manuals. Unlike their continental cousins in France, Germany and the Netherlands, where state training and registration of midwives produced an assured market for books on pregnancy and childbirth, British midwifery manuals were addressed at least as much to a general reader and provide plentiful evidence of the kind of ideas that were commonly repeated. (2) Jane Sharps The Midwives Book is particularly helpful when seeking to establish how women might have understood melancholy: Sharp compiled her book from several other popular texts, cutting and revising her male-authored sources when her own perspective differed from theirs, and presenting herself on her title page as an expert, a "Practitioner in the Art of Midwifry above thirty years." (3)

Sharps first substantial discussion of melancholy occurs in the section of her book dedicated to explaining "What must be done after the woman is delivered." She recommends the use of a sheepskin or hate's skirl to warm the mother's abdomen, "two hours in winter, and but one hour in Summer," so as to "expel all ill melancholly blood from those parts" (162). The instructions continue:

    Let her not sleep till about four hours after she is delivered, but
   give her some nourishing broth or Cawdle to comfort her; let her eat
   flesh till two dayes at least be over, for she may not use a full
   after so great loss of blood suddenly, as she grows stronger she may
   begin with meats of easie digestion, as Chickens, or Pullets; ... Let
   drink her Beer or Ale with a tost, she may drink a decoction of
   Raisins of the Sun and a little Cinnamon: if the child be a boy she
   lye in thirty dayes, if a girl forty daies, and remember that it is
   time of her purification that her husband must abstain from her.

Fundamental to Sharp's prescriptions here are the essential tenets of humoral theory: ill-health is caused by a disturbance in the body's natural balance or "complexion" through an excess of blood, choler, melancholy (also known as black choler), or phlegm. A return to health is achieved through attention to six features known (confusingly to the modern reader) as "non-naturals": air, food and drink, sleep and waking, motion and rest, excretion and retention (including sexual activity), and the passions of the soul (emotions) (Wear 156). The chief danger after childbirth, Sharp indicates, is an accumulation of "ill melancholly blood," and this is addressed through controlling the mother's diet, sleep, rest, and sexual relations with her husband, while her body performs the normal excretion of postpartum bleeding ("her purification"). Without such efforts, women might be overcome by the cold, dry humor that predominates in "ill melancholly blood."

It is not only in the aftermath of childbirth, however, that women are at risk of such an excess of melancholy. …

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