Surveying the world outside his study in Christ Church, Oxford in The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), Robert Burton diagnosed an epidemic. Melancholy was now, he wrote, ‘a disease so frequent . . . in these our daies, so often happening . . . in our miserable times, as few there are that feele not the smart of it’. It being ‘a disease so grievous, so common’, he claimed to ‘know not wherein to do a more generall service, and spend my time better, then to prescribe means how to prevent and cure so universall a malady, an Epidemicall disease, that so often, so much crucifies the body and minde’.1 Burton had little difficulty in finding a range of neoteric philosophical and medical authorities to support his diagnosis. Whilst examining the spleen and its role in generating hypochondriacal melancholy in the 1552...

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