640px-Dürer_Melancholia_Istone of madness

Before exploring the causes and treatments for melancholy and madness during the Renaissance and Early Modern Period, I think it is important to have an understanding of what both terms actually mean. It is difficult to define ‘madness’ and ‘melancholy’ in general, let alone when in the context of the Renaissance and Early Modern Periods, because then, arguably as it is now, the terms are perceived as “one of those words which mean almost everything and nothing.”[1] The symptoms of both madness and melancholy were thought to be linked with passion, crazed urges, obsession and foolishness. For instance, Shakespeare even likened lovers & poets to madmen & lunatics when he spoke of their passion, irrationality, fantasies and desires[2].Even today, this idea of a link between love and madness persists, whether it is in literature, film or, as Diana Ross demonstrated, in music, with her song entitled ‘Why do fools fall in love?’ Interestingly at this time, both in the Renaissance period and the early modern period, ‘madness’ was more often linked with women as opposed to men, particularly if they were thought to be overly passionate or excitable[3]. For example, if they publicly displayed sexual desires, or were frank and outspoken, they were more likely to be accused of madness, which, amongst other things, would have been damning for their reputation and position in society.


Melancholy, on the other hand, was originally a pathological condition, thought to result from an excess of cholera dust, otherwise known as black bile – one of the four cardinal humours. It was distinguished, mainly through emotional symptoms, or an inclination of these symptoms, particularly sullenness, irascibility, sadness and pathological depression. Another addition was head melancholy, which was notable for coming and going upon every small occasion of sorrow, need, sickness, trouble, fear, grief, passion, or perturbation of the mind[4]. It is notable that both melancholy and madness were seen as the work of the Devil, and this, understandably in a religious society, influenced people’s empathetic attitudes towards them at the time. This essay will explore the different causes of madness and melancholy in the Renaissance and Early Modern periods, as well as the various treatments, which initially were very harsh, but over time began to mellow out so that they became more humane, though arguably not by our standards in the twenty-first century.


There were many different generalised explanations given during the Renaissance and early modern periods to make sense of melancholy and madness. People wanted to be able to make sense of conditions they couldn’t understand, much like today, but without the inclusion of scientific developments. According to Angus Gowland, there were several causes leading people into mental madness such as “a variety of social factors including spiritual and intellectual malaise, economic depression, and the threat of Spanish invasion”[5].This indicates that there were lots of things happening at once that had a profound effect on people’s lives, and people did not know how to cope with the sudden upheaval and strain. This provoked a damaging mental reaction when they found that they could not handle the constraints these events placed on their lives. As Roberts said, “Fear and sorrow are the true characters and inseparable companions of the most melancholy”[6], and it is these factors which led to the ‘health and behavioural’ patterns associated with madness and melancholy. I think this suggests that the human ability to feel fear and sorrow is pivotal in dictating our mental states and actions. The social concerns of the Renaissance period seem to have propelled people into states of melancholy and madness; there were harsh environmental conditions and severe concerns about food, especially because with the bad harvest.


Other possible causes of melancholy during this period were thought to be bad air quality, poverty, bad diet and a lack of education.[7] According to Burton these were the common aspects of general melancholy in the Renaissance period, and it was thought that these could lead to more serious bodily melancholy over time[8]. I definitely think that each of these elements could have been likely factors in contributing to people’s mental states, and I can see why people at the time believed this to be true. However, because I am approaching this with an awareness of scientific fact, I know that these alone cannot be labelled as the sole causes for melancholy. Melancholy was also seen to be a physical illness, thought to be caused by an excess of black bile, which, as I mentioned in the introduction, was one of the four cardinal humours (black bile, phlegm, yellow bile and blood). At the time, these four humours were thought to control the human condition. As Lemnius, a translator wrote, the humoral complexion was always, “suffering change and alteration” through a range of internal and external ‘non-natural’ factors — such as diet or mental perturbations[9].


In addition, during the Renaissance and early modern period the clergy considered madness and melancholy as ‘the work of the devil’[10]. Certainly, the idea of early demonic possession of the human body and soul was predominant as victims were thought to be possessed by evil spirits. It was believed that the devil could take possession of a person’s mind, and give them certain images and thoughts. It was also believed that, once possessed, the Devil could get people to do his bidding -“the stone of madness”. Consequently, this was believed to be a sign of weak faith in the early Renaissance period, and therefore a cause for condemnation. Furthermore, it was thought that not being religious and following the teachings of God led individuals to more madness. For example, men losing themselves and becoming faint-hearted by falling too much for lust and love were also thought to lead to deeper depression or, in this context, melancholy and madness. In other words, in the eyes of the church all early thoughts of madness and melancholy were effectively mixed up with religion, and this, in turn, influenced the way people approached the conditions.


This in turn influenced the way people thought about treating both melancholy and madness. Initially the treatments were crude and harsh. They involved a variety of techniques, depending a lot on the approach the individual took when putting them into practice. The religious approach involved a copious amount of prayer and, in many cases, exorcism. This often involved throwing water, designed to cast out the Devil and any other evil spirits. Another treatment used in the early modern period was Physical Restraints, in such institutions such as Bethlem hospital, which specialised in madness and melancholy for a few centuries. Some of the treatments they had included shackles and strait waistcoats (or strait jackets, as we would recognise them now).


Surgery was also used as a treatment. The procedure of trepanation – cutting a hole in the skull to remove the stone of madness – would have been one of the cures practiced[11]. Robert Burton thought that taking the stone of madness would solve the illness and the problems that were the result of the human soul being possessed by the devil. At one point between the Renaissance and early modern period they started using physical beating in reaction. They believed it would stop them from doing certain repetitive symptoms, which were a sign of mental melancholy and madness.

In 1782, The Gilbert Act was introduced. This was a legislation to help “the sick and the infirm” to be able to finance and find long-term care for sick people[12]. I think this Act is hugely significant in showing a sign of long-term commitment to the mentally mad and ill in the early modern period, and the ‘moral implication’ of this was that treatments were getting more humane, and people were thinking of pragmatic solutions. According to Robert Burton, some of the treatment for health, social and personal aspects of the human being can be as simple as going for a nice stroll in the countryside and breathing nice fresh air – taking a break from city life and eating different types of food, engaging socially with other people, and even reading poetry.


In the early modern period there were many different cures for the raving mad and melancholic, such as early forms of restraints and specialised hospitals dedicated to cure mental madness or to look after the afflicted. Certain body parts of the patient would be restrained, maybe to teach them not to self-harm, and to keep them out of reach of others at the risk of them unintentionally causing anyone any harm. Referring to certain images I found from an archive from Bethlem hospital[13], there has been a development for cures for mental madness in terms of devices used, such as an early form of a “talking chair”[14]. They started developing specialised hospitals for the raving mad and those affected by melancholy, such as ‘Bethlem Royal Hospital’. This hospital was well known for having early forms of treatment in the early modern period, as I mentioned before, such as shackles and methods of restraint. In the Renaissance period they started setting up hospitals for the clinically mad and melancholic. Around the 1400s, there was a hospital set up to be specialised for the same purpose, but it was not until the eighteenth century that they started funding providing hospital facilities for the “clinically mad”[15]. Another point to mention is that they had special rooms to place the mentally mad, such as a ‘mad house’ and ‘asylum rooms’, to keep them safe.

In 1845, the ‘Lunacy Act and Irish Lunatics Asylums Act’, was put into place. This Act gave more powers to hospitals, allowing them to create a better environment for the care and refuge for the mentally ill[16]. It also gave them safe houses as well as ‘medical offices’ in order to make sure the treatment of the inmates of the ‘insane’ and ‘mad’ we kept up to moral standards.


By the early 19 century, the hospital started to use procedures to determine whether patients fit the criteria for melancholy and madness before receiving treatment. One such example shows a lady being admitted to a mental institution and her receiving a long process of questions and critical analysis[17].I think this shows that there is an understanding of how they would go about giving the patient a diagnosis, and what type of condition and reports they have on a regular for future references. This made significant improvements in the early modern period, especially in the nineteenth century, by developing an understanding of madness and melancholy, as well as the adapting style of psychiatric and diagnostic treatment. There were advances in the medical aspect too, as ‘sedative drugs’ such as tincture of opium began to be used[18]. People had also started to invent new forms of treatment, like the ‘bath of surprise’[19]. This was a hot tub of water that patients would have to use, and it was more of a universal treatment as opposed to one for specific symptoms of the illnesses. There was more of a growing awareness in the early eighteenth and nineteenth centuries for more humane treatments, and this is demonstrated, as mentioned before, through the use of laws to protect the safety of patients.


The reason why the causes and treatments of melancholy and madness have changed through the centuries is because of the improvements in the development of science and research in the early modern period. This influenced people to think more pragmatically about how and why patients where getting ill. Previously, I think the main issue was the way in which people were influenced, whether it was religiously or superstitiously. They may have been aware of some of the factors that did not help the conditions, for example social or environmental, but they hadn’t developed an understanding of the actual correlation. The improvement of education definitely helped more people gain the ability to read, causing developments in medicine. There were laws put into place to ensure patients were safe and hospitals received funding from the 1800-1900s and this had a significant influence on how treatments and causes were perceived. Whilst in today’s society we have kept some of the treatments from the past, there have been clear developments and improvements in medication and psychology, with one to one work, rehabilitation, and natural and non-natural treatments. I believe that there has being a significant improvement, and the reason for this lies in people’s attitudes and the way they are influenced.




Haslam John, Madness and Melachony Including Practical Remarks On Those Disease (London:J,callow , Medical bookseller,1809).

bethlem hertiage ,Bethlem heritage, http://www.bethlemheritage.org.uk/explorebethlem/Basic-Xml%20Version/Default.html , acessed (19/11/12

bethlem Heritage , http://www.bethlemheritage.org.uk/interactive_bethlem.asp , accessed (20/11/12)

in our time , http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b010y30m , accessed (19/11/12)

work house , http://www.workhouses.org.uk/poorlaws/1782intro.shtml , accesed (19/11/12)

Bewely, T., Madness to Mental Illness: A History of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, (London, 2008),

Gowland, A., ‘The Problem of Early Modern Melancholy”, Past and Present, 191:1 (2006),

Burton, R., The Anatomy of Melancholy, What it is: With all the Kinds, Causes, Symptomes, Prognostickes, and Several Cures of it. In Three Maine Partitions with their several Sections, Members, and Subsections. Philosophically, Medicinally, Historically, Opened and Cut Up, (Britain, 1621)


Jamanetwork, http://archpsyc.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=482094 accessed (18/11/12)


Exclassics , http://www.exclassics.com/ accessed (17/11/12)


[1] Haslam John, Madness and Melachony Including Practical Remarks On Those Disease (London:J,callow , Medical bookseller,1809).P.3

[2] shakespear-online, http://www.shakespeare-online.com/plays/mids_5_1.html , (18/11/12)

[3] Gowland, A., ‘The Problem of Early Modern Melancholy”, Past and Present, 191:1 (2006), pg99

[4] Gowland, A., ‘The Problem of Early Modern Melancholy”, Past and Present, 191:1 (2006), pg.97,98,99

[5] Gowland, A., ‘The Problem of Early Modern Melancholy”, Past and Present, 191:1 (2006), pg 80

[6] Junior Democritus, Atatomy of Melancholy ( britain:Ex-classics Project,2009),p.151,152

[7] ibid.pp. 203,207, 216

[8] Junior Democritus, Atatomy of Melancholy ( Britain: Ex-classics Project,2009),p.317

[9] Gowland, A., ‘The Problem of Early Modern Melancholy”, Past and Present, 191:1 (2006), pg 98

[10] lurther martin ,

[11] jamanetwork, http://archpsyc.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=482094 (18/11/12)

[12] Work House , http://www.workhouses.org.uk/poorlaws/1782intro.shtml (19/11/12)

[13] Belthlem Heritage , http://www.bethlemheritage.org.uk/interactive_bethlem.asp (19/11/12)

[14] Bewely, T., Madness to Mental Illness: A History of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, (London, 2008),pp 7.8.9

[15] Bewely, T., Madness to Mental Illness: A History of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, (London, 2008),pp.4

[16] ibid,pp.6

[17] Behlem Heritage, http://www.bethlemheritage.org.uk/explorebethlem/Basic-Xml%20Version/Default.html (20/11/12)

[18] Bewely, T., Madness to Mental Illness: A History of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, (London, 2008),pp8

[19] ibid,pp,8


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