Book Review: Diseases of the Imagination and Imaginary Disease in the Early Modern Period–by Dan Mills

Haskell, Yasmin (ed.). Diseases of the Imagination and Imaginary Disease in the Early Modern Period. Turnhout: Brepols Publishers, 2011. xxvi+424 pp (HB) €95,00 ISBN: 978-2503527963

Yasmin Haskell’s 2011 collection, Diseases of the Imagination and Imaginary Disease in the Early Modern Period, offers fourteen essays that explore the early modern understanding of mental illness through the perspective of the “imaginary” nature of such maladies and the ways in which such illnesses result from a malfunction of the imagination. Through the use of archival scholarship, the essays in the collection provide new and provocative insights into the early modern understanding of psychology and melancholy. In the background of all of these essays sits Robert Burton’s (1577-1640) Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), popularly considered the authoritative early modern text on mental illness. Many of the essays in this volume implicitly seek to challenge the place of Burton’s text and through rigorous historical scholarship succeed in this endeavor.

The collection begins with a preface by psychiatrist and history of science professor German Berrios, who examines the nature of clinical and non-clinical research and what he calls the “medicalization of madness,” a phenomenon he argues began in the nineteenth century. Prior to this “medicalization,” mental illness existed in a nebulous realm that brought together scientifically-based medical knowledge along with humoural theory, which resulted in differing beliefs and numerous texts on the subject in the early modern period. The subject of melancholy thus resulted in significant and diverse medical and cultural attention in the early modern period, and the essays in this collection reflect these diverse beliefs and the wide-ranging influence these beliefs of diseased imagination had on the history, culture, and literature of the early modern period. The collection understandably addresses a similarly wide-ranging number of topics. In the collection’s introduction, editor Yasmin Haskell provides a rationale for the disparate nature of the essays’ topics: “[w]e have aimed to ensure a measure of class, confessional, temporal, and geographical diversity usually absent from all but the most synoptic monograph studies” (7). Haskell’s words indeed ring true, as book-length criticism on the early modern period often falls into the familiar trap of over-specialization and insularity. This collection, on the other hand, provides a very balanced selection of approaches to the topic of imaginary disease and melancholy, with two essays by intellectual historians, three by historians, three by literary critics, two by professors of European languages, one by a historian of science and one by a classicist.

In the collection’s first essay, “Coping with Inner and Outer Demons: Marsilio Ficino’s Theory of the Imagination,” Guido Giglioni distinguishes between the imaginative and the imaginary in the writings of Italian Neo-Platonist philosopher Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499) to trace “the comprehensive interpretation of the imagination, seen as a faculty sufficiently flexible to stretch from the lower reaches of the intellect down to the regions of the vegetative life of the body” (22). Ficino, in other words, foreshadowed Burton’s encyclopedic Anatomy of Melancholy in his coupling of mental and physical melancholic suffering. The second essay, by Burton scholar Angus Gowland, “Melancholy, Imagination, and Dreaming in Renaissance Learning,” explores the written history of the relationship between melancholy and dreaming, beginning with a discussion of Aristotle’s Parva naturalia and moving through the classical medical theories of Galen and Avicenna and others with a particular focus on their engagement with Aristotle’s work. The first two essays offer a solid foundation about early modern notions of melancholy and serve as an introduction to the rest of the collections essays, many of which address much more narrow topics.

Gowland’s engagement with classical texts provides an appropriate preface for the three essays by historians, which address the diseased mind (perceived or otherwise) among two relatively marginalized groups in the early modern period: women and children. In “The Melancholic Nun in Late Renaissance Italy,” Sharon T. Strocchia examines several case studies of early modern Italian nuns who experienced debilitating melancholy in an attempt to map these nuns’ social and private lives. Strocchia connects these case studies to show how these melancholic nuns at times found their positions in their respective convents threatened. For example, Strocchia opens her essay with a summary of the melancholic experiences of sixteenth-century Florentine nun Fede Rosselli, who suffered such severe physical and psychological maladies that she could not participate in communal activities in her own convent. Like Giglioni, Strocchia engages with the writings of Marsilio Ficino. Historian Judith Bonzol describes similarly severe physical and psychological illness, but with a focus on suffering children. In “Afflicted Children: Supernatural Illness, Fear, and Anxiety in Early Modern England,” Bonzol begins with an anecdote about a seventeenth-century English girl in such pain that doctors deemed it necessary to bleed her and induce vomiting, both common but extreme practices in Elizabethan England. Bonzol connects melancholy to the early modern belief that children were susceptible to possession and witchcraft because of physical violence prevalent in the schools. Both Strocchia and Bonzol highlight the extent to which people in the early modern period believed that melancholy could afflict virtually anyone, even the presumably “innocent” victims of women and children.

In a similar vein to Strocchia’s handling of social constructions of melancholy, historian Hans de Waardt interrogates how social forces affect private, inner lives. In “‘Lightning strikes, wherever ire dwells with power’: Johan Wier on Anger as an Illness,” he examines the writings of Dutch physician Johan Wier (1515-1588), known for his occult interests and dabbling in magic, claiming that Wier distinguishes between justified and unjustified anger, and between anger coming from internal circumstances and that coming from external circumstances (265-6). In addition, through his analysis of Weir Waardt aims to bring attention to a textual trace of melancholy that appeared long before the publication of Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy in 1621.

Indeed, Burton’s Anatomy was not the only text that addressed early modern melancholy. Three essays by literary critics in the collection examine both canonical texts as well as obscure archival material in an attempt to illustrate the pervasiveness of the early modern belief in diseased imagination. In “Witches, the Possessed, and the Diseases of the Imagination,” Donald Beecher argues that the early modern understanding of witchcraft and demonic possession was based primarily on humoural theories of melancholy and theories of diseases of the imagination (specifically those of Galen and Avicenna). Beecher explains that the early modern notion of melancholy became associated with witchcraft because the notion of a “diseased” mind suggested a diseased spirit, and by implication, spirituality and Christianity. In a more extreme form of diseased imagination, Brett Hirsch explores the oft-noted motif of lycanthropy in John Webster’s revenge tragedy, The Duchess of Malfi. In “Lycanthropy in Early Modern England: The Case of John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi,” Hirsch’s brings new insight into this inescapable aspect of Webster’s play, primarily through examinations of printed texts listed in the English Short Title Catalogues compiled by A. W. Pollard, G. R. Redgrave, and Donald Goddard Wing. Literary critic Heather Meek uses archival eighteenth-century printed texts in her essay, “‘[W]hat fatigues we fine ladies are fated to endure’: Sociosomatic Hysteria as a Female ‘English Malady.’” Meek provides the only thoroughly “gendered” study of melancholy in the volume, although her focus rests primarily on evidence from the eighteenth century. Meek takes the reader through, among other things, the typically “feminine” attribute of a “hysterical” personality and demonstrates that it actually served as a means for women to attract men.

Meek’s essay is not alone in its employment of a critical theoretical framework. In “Beyond Allegory: The Meanings of Madness in Early Modern Spain,” professor of Spanish and Portuguese Dale Shuger directly engages with Michel Foucault’s 1961 Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason by arguing that Foucault engages in “overzealous application” of his own method: “Foucault’s argument depends on an unstated assumption that literature and street correspond, that an artistic preoccupation connotes a social reality, and that the symbolic meaning we perceive in the artistic representation of madness is a verisimilar representation of how society diagnosed and interpreted madness” (183). Interestingly, Shuger explicitly relates early modern psychology to twentieth century psychoanalysis. In the other essay by a European language scholar, professor of Italian and comparative literature Monica Calabritto, Torquato Tasso receives what seems like a twentieth-century talk therapy session. Calabritto’s essay, “Tasso’s Melancholy and its Treatment: A Patient’s Uneasy Relationship with Medicine and Physicians,” explores the written correspondence between Torquato Tasso and Girolamo Mercuriale, arguing that, despite the lack of archival documents providing any concrete details about Mercuriale, historians can infer that Tasso’s interest in magic, demons, and witchcraft reflects the fear of impending danger common among melancholics in the sixteenth century (203). Calabritto eventually claims that Tasso suffered from melancholia hypochondriaca, a self-inflicted and causeless form of melancholy and disease of the imagination.

As Calabritto claims was the case with Tasso, many diagnoses of melancholy originated from the sufferer with the allegedly diseased imagination. Other diagnoses, however, came about from the perspective of physicians. In “Masquerades with the Dead: The Laughing Democritus in an Observatio on Melancholy by Pieter van Foreest,” physician and historian of medicine Thomas Rütten argues that Pieter van Foreest’s Observationum et curationum medicinalium demonstrates that written accounts of observations provided both new epistemological perspectives and repositories of for classical medical theory, both of which physicians used to better their own position in society. (234). This essay focuses on a more obscure text by a relatively obscure author but nonetheless provides a medical perspective of diseased imagination.

Another essay goes well beyond the notion of a diseased imagination and veers into the realm of folklore and fantasy. In “Vampires as Creatures of the Imagination: Theories of Body, Soul, and Imagination in Early Modern Vampire Tracts (1659–1755),” Koen Vermeir draws from seventeenth- and eighteenth-century printed texts in German, Italian, and Latin to establish an early modern notion of the vampire. While he concedes that the “modern” notion of a vampire did not appear until well into the eighteenth century, Vermeir suggests that a notion of “vampires” did exist in the early modern imagination (he points out that they did not suck blood until the seventeenth century) and that vampirism was understood to be a part of an imaginary disease, or disease of the imagination. Vermeir’s larger purpose in this essay is to use early modern notions of vampires to trace the changing views of the imagination in the early modern period, concluding that melancholy became a possible malady for anyone and not just the mentally ill.

Using Burton and his Anatomy has generated sound and insightful scholarship in this volume. In the “The Anatomy of Hypochondria: Malachias Geiger’s Microcosmus hypochondriacus (Munich, 1652),” classicist and collection editor Yasmin Haskell explicitly challenges Robert Burton’s longstanding position as the definitive source of early modern psychological theory. Through an analysis of a little-known German text, Haskell wishes “to expose the need for a history (histories) or an earlier, possibly even more hypochondriac,” age, one that dawned before the publication of Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy in 1621 and which seems to have climaxed in the mid- to late seventeenth century, in the aftermath of the English Civil and Thirty Years’ Wars” (176). Of the essays that attempt to resituate the notion of melancholy before Robert Burton, this one makes the most compelling case for pre-Burtonian notions of early modern melancholy.

The book concludes with a section entitled “Envoi: The Afterlife of Maladies Imaginaires” by cultural historian George S. Rousseau, who offers somewhat of an apologia from the volume and introduces the notions of phrenology, physiognomy and the tortured artists as residual effects of the early modern obsessions with melancholy. These essays may not be as valuable for undergraduate students, but they should prove useful for new and established scholars in early modern studies, regardless of their discipline.

Dan Mills


Dan Mills is a PhD student at Georgia State University where he is defending my dissertation on early modern utopian literature in July 2013. He has articles in the journals Pedagogy, Cahiers Elisabethans, and In-Between: Essays and Studies in Literary Criticism and has forthcoming articles in edited collections on critical theory and early modern literature and early modern Western encounters with the East.

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2 thoughts on “Book Review: Diseases of the Imagination and Imaginary Disease in the Early Modern Period–by Dan Mills”

  1. It really does not seem that the reviewer read my essay carefully enough to see that the analysis is not limited to Tasso’s correspondence with Girolamo Mercuriale. I am aware that we do not have Mercuriale’s answer to Tasso’s letter, but some of the physician’s replies can be gathered from some of the letters that Tasso wrote to other individuals (see essay). My essay takes also into consideration the epistolary exchange between Tasso and several other physicians, among whom Mercuriale was the most famous. Furthermore, I am perplexed by the comment that the reviewer makes about the lack of archival evidence regarding concrete details about Mercuriale. I state clearly in the first pages of the essay that my goal is to compare the way Tasso and the physicians who treated him dealt with melancholy on the one hand, and the narrative, diagnosis and cure Mercuriale offers his patients in his medical _consilia_ which are all printed at the beginning of the XVII century, on the other. This comparison can in part make up for the absence of Mercuriale’s replies to Tasso. One should also note that the treatment and cure of patients affected by melancholia hypocondriaca was more or less the same throughout the XVI century (see, beside Mercuriale’s, consilia by Da Monte, Claudini, Capodivacca et alii). Another element that should be kept in mind is that Tasso was a peculiar patient, as he knew well enough the medical language used by physicians to treat melancholy to even criticize some of the doctors with whom he corresponed (this is all in the essay)
    I was also a bit confused when the reviewer states that my essay “seems like a twentieth-century talk therapy session”. In which way? How does he substantiate this claim?
    Finally, as a sort of clarification: even though I was born and raised in Europe where I received my “laurea” degree in Classics, I did my Ph.D in the USA in comparative literature, and I have been teaching Italian literature, Comparative literature, and Italian language at the undergraduate and graduate level for 12 years at Hunter College and at the Graduate Center, City University of New York
    Sincerely,

    Monica Calabritto

  2. Dan MIlls said:

    Dear Professor Calabritto,
    I am very sorry if I misrepresented your essay. I was in fact referring to the lack of Mercuriale’s response to Tasso as you mention on pages 202-3, although I do see that the implication is that there is NO material on Mercuriale. And I certainly did not mean anything negative by referring to talk-therapy. I found your essay engaging because of its focus on a single notable individual. I think I tried to do too much in too few words to adequately summarize your article, and for that I do apologize.
    Respectfully,
    Dan Mills

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