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Robert Burton

Written by Jim Godfrey, posted on Wednesday, April 3, 2019


Illustration of Robert Burton by Jim GodfreyRobert Burton is famed for his remarkable book The Anatomy of Melancholy, to which he devoted his entire academic career. A vast encyclopaedia on the subject of depression, it is regarded as one of the greatest works of scholarship in the English language


The life of Robert Burton

Robert Burton was born 8 February 1577, the second son of a respectable but not distinguished family in Lindley, Leicestershire. In 1593 he followed his older brother, the historian William Burton, to Brasenose College and by 1599 had moved to Christ Church where he was to remain for the rest of his life. He gained his BA in 1602 and became a bachelor of divinity in 1614.

In 1616 Burton was appointed vicar of St Thomas’s Church, Becket Street, Oxford (a Christ Church living) and his coat of arms appears on the south porch there. From 1624 until his death he also served as College Librarian at Christ Church (this was before the present Library was built, so Burton worked in the ‘Old Library’ in the cloister – today student accommodation). It was this library and the Bodleian Library that he chiefly drew from when compiling his exhaustively researched Anatomy. On his death his own personal library, of at least 1700 titles, was split between the Bodleian and Christ Church.


Burton and Melancholy

‘The Anatomy of Melancholy, What it is; with all the Kindes, Causes, Symptomes, Prognostickes and Several Cures of it’ appeared in 1621, and was an instant success. It went through five editions in Burton’s lifetime alone. He continually added to it, more than doubling its size. Democritus Junior, the literary persona who addresses the reader, was chosen by Burton as his pseudonym after the Greek philosopher Democritus. He was known as ‘the laughing philosopher’, and held that the true purpose of life was happiness.

Anatomy is witty, wise and written with real human empathy, Burton wanting to amuse as well as console. The first part deals with the kinds, causes and symptoms of melancholy, the second with its cures, and a third with two special kinds; those of love and religion. Burton defines melancholy as “a kinde of dotage without a feaver, having for his ordinary companions, feare, and sadnesse, without any apparant occasion”.

A solitary, unworldly man, Burton’s preoccupation with melancholia was due, in part, to his own depressive nature. He found solace watching the bargemen at Folly Bridge “scold and storm and swear at one another at which he would set his Hands to his Sides, and laugh most profusely”. Indeed, laughter was, for him, a wonderful cure. Another remedy was to avoid being idle. As he says in Anatomy; “I write of melancholy, by being busy to avoid melancholy. There is no greater cause of melancholy than idleness, no better cure than busyness”.

It was the vast breadth of Anatomy that most impressed its readers. Burton employs virtually the entire contents of a 17th century library, with quotations from classical, medieval and renaissance authors, addressing topics as varied as digestion, goblins, and the geography of America. Read widely in the 17th century, it later lapsed into obscurity, though in the 18th century it was much admired by Dr Johnson. Indeed Boswell noted that Anatomy was “the only book that ever took him out of bed two hours sooner than he wished to rise."

Burton died in Oxford on 25 January 1640, and was buried in the Cathedral. Because he was a calculator of nativities (horoscopes relating to the time of one’s birth), it was rumoured (falsely) that he had hanged himself in his chambers at Christ Church, so his death would match his prediction! The inscription below his bust gives an earlier date for his death, due to calendar changes. The inscription, in translation, reads:-

“Known to few men, quite unknown to even fewer,
here lies Democritus Junior, for whom melancholy provided
life and death. He died on 6 January in the year of Christ 1639”


At Christ Church, a bust of Burton (colour restored in 1965), in suitably melancholic mood, can be seen on his monument in the North Transept of the Cathedral. Either side of the bust are two medallions showing a sphere and a calculation of his nativity. The College Library has a portrait of him (a copy of one at Brasenose) and a signed first edition of ‘Anatomy’.