The Anatomy of Melancholy

One of the most oddly popular books of its time.


Value: 2£, 10s (new)

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, to give the book it’s full and glorious title, is by Robert Burton and was first published in 1621.

Some doctors of the time considered it a medical text, and there are certainly plenty of references to Galen and Hippocrates, humoral theory, miasmas etc. Philosophers considered it philosophy and religious men saw it as a meditation upon something or other, possibly God, but possibly some humanist abstraction or other. It has extensive buttressing of every point with quotes from ancient and modern authorities, footnotes (and footnotes to the footnotes), layered parentheses, and convoluted sub-clauses. It attempts to cram the entirety of human negative emotion, all of it’s possible causes, both within this universe and in the metaphysical beyond, plus all the possible treatments, proven, unproven and conjectural, physical and spiritual, between two bits of card and 900 pages of dried wood pulp.

This is a book about depression written by a self-confessed depressive, but it is anything but a miserable read. It is filled with an erudite dry wit and acute and humorous observation. Robert Burton died in 1640, hanging himself in his chambers in Christ Church, a bit of a mystery man to his end. People that knew him in Oxford say he was a shy, extremely scholarly type who smiled and laughed at nothing except the utterly profane swearing and cursing the barge men used on each other as they jostled under the bridge. First published in 1621 this book is still famous and widely read today, though the sheer size of the volume limits it to the reasonably well off and the density of its subject matter to the very well educated.


What is it good for?

1 in 6 copies will be damaged by having a cavity cut out of the pages. The thickness of the work makes it highly suitable for hiding a bottle of spirits, small pistol, or other items one might like to smuggle.

Familiarity with the book can go a long way to establishing yourself as an educated and erudite being who should be accepted in polite society, while mastery of its text can grant great insight into the workings of the mind, both biological and magical.

It takes at least two weeks of full-time study to read the work, and it is only possible to get the full depth with knowledge of Latin and Greek. A cursory reading can be done in a number of days equal to 2d6 minus the reader’s Intelligence modifier (a negative modifier increases the time required).

Gleaning anything useful from the book requires a DC 15 Intelligence check. It may be read as many times as you like, but on each reading takes the full time and requires a new Intelligence check, and imposes a -1 penalty per previous reading on the roll for the book’s effects.

In order to determine the effects of reading the book, roll 1d6 plus your Intelligence or Wisdom modifier (whichever is worse), with an additional (cumulative) +1 if you know Latin and/or Greek. The DM will inform you of the results.

The Anatomy of Melancholy

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