Imagination in Robert Burton's "Anatomy of Melancholy" (1621) and in Renaissance Thought

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2003

24 Pages, Grade: 2,7



1. Introduction
1.1. The Scientific Method
1.1.1. In the Renaissance
1.1.2. Burton's Scientific Method
1.2. The Role of Imagination

2. Imagination in the Medical Sphere
2.1. Embryology
2.2. Influence on Health and Body
2.2.1. Imagination as Cause of Illness, Death and Transformations
2.2.2. The Curing Powers of Imagination

3. Imagination and Dreams

4. Interaction of Imagination with the Supernatural
4.1. Devil and his Demons
4.2. Witches and Magicians

5. Conclusion

1. Introduction

The word 'imagination' has and had various meanings as this extract from The Oxford English Dictionary illustrates:

1. The action of imagining, or forming a mental concept of what is not actually present to the senses [...]; the result of this process, a mental image or idea (often with implication that the conception does not correspond to the reality of things, hence freq. vain (false, etc.) imagination [...]
2. The mental consideration of actions or events not yet in existence a. Scheming or devising; a device, contrivance, plan, scheme, plot, a fancyful project [...] b. Impression as to what is likely; expectation, anticipation.
3. That faculty of the mind by which are formed images or concepts of external objects not present to the senses, and of their relations (to each other or to the subject); hence frequently including memory. (Sometimes called the 'reproductive imagination') [...]
4. The power which the mind has of forming concepts beyond those derived from external objects (the 'productive imagination'). a. The operation of fantastic thought; fancy. [...] b. The creative faculty of the mind in its highest aspect; the power of framing new and striking intellectual conceptions; poetic genius. [...]
5. The mind, or a department of the mind, when engaged in imagining; hence the operation of the mind generally; thinking; thought, opinion. (669)

These are the definitions that existed in the Renaissance period. But as I am going to show in my essay with the example of Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), imagination played a more influential role during that period and was believed to have and had a big impact on different spheres of life. Of course, there was no homogeneous opinion about its influence.

As Katherine Park notes, the debate over the force of imagination 'was complicated by the fact that the most ardent defenders of the power of imagination included both the most credulous - writers like Paracelsus who would believe any story - as well as the least superstitious - writers like Pomponazzi and Montaigne for whom the imagination provided a credible and natural explanation for some of the more far-fetched claims of popular magic and religion.' (Huet 14)

So I will point out to what extent Burton's ideas about it correspond to the views of his contemporaries and also how far they are more influenced by tradition. I am going to start with a passage about the contemporary development of the scientific method and an introduction to the circulating thoughts about imagination. Based on this, I will show how some trends of thinking are reflected and I will take a closer look at the contexts in which imagination or fancy appear in The Anatomy of Melancholy. Apart from the part entitled "Of the Force of Imagination", this mental power resonates in many other sections, too. It is connected to the medical sphere where it influences the unborn child and the health, as well as to dreams and to the supernatural - not just in the sense that demons and witches are the monstrous products of fantasy. They were also thought to have a strong influence on the imagination itself.

Having a distance of nearly four hundred years during which a huge part of the belief in the strength and the effects of imagination was lost, it will be interesting to see that doubts started to appear even before the seventeenth century and how elaborately they had to be proven, especially because Burton seems to be not that critical and rather eager to believe and to feed his imagination as Lawrence Babb states in his book Sanity in Bedlam (1959):

He is fascinated not only by the exotic and remote but also by the bizarre. He is an industrious collector of incredibilities: the Japanese god the deflowers a maiden each month [...], palm trees mutually enamoured [...], the ship dug out of a Swiss mountain containing the carcasses of forty-eight men [...], showers of 'Stones, Frogs, Mice, &c. Rats'. (40)

In the more strictly psychiatric parts of the Anatomy one finds many tales of strange hallucinations. There is a tale of a man who, because of flatulent rumblings in his viscera, thought that he had frogs in the belly. Before he found relief, he studied physic for seven years at one university after another seeking the cause of his ailment and the remedy for it [...]. There are stories of men who think that they are kings and emperors, of men who have strange notions concerning their own persons - they are wolves, dogs, bears; they are made of glass, of butter-, of men who see ecstatic visions and believe themselves prophets.

In the 'Digression of the Air' Burton makes an imaginary aerial journey through the world to investigate the many wonders of which he has read. If he could actually make such an investigation, the disillusionments would be painful to him, for he gets great imaginative pleasure from the contemplation of the marvellous. He probably would rather believe than doubt that there are 'birds that live continually in the air, and are never seen on ground but dead'. (41)

1.1. The Scientific Method

1.1.1. In the Renaissance

In the sixties and seventies of the sixteenth century, the heyday of the belief in signs and omens began in England. Ascending the throne in 1558, Elizabeth I contributed (unintentionally) to the 'Monstrous Regiment of Women' that John Knox had denounced. This belief waned in the beginning of the seventeenth century (see D & P 222). At that time, the "philosophy of the supernatural" (as Lorraine Daston and Katharine Park call it) reached its peak (see D & P 260). Its supporters, medical and philosophical authors, included wonderful effects of all sorts, even gave the empirical and the magic spheres an outstanding meaning and practised new methods of research as well as new kinds of physical explanation (see D & P 161). They were more and more concerned with phenomena that were usually understood as God's signs and were convinced that these anomalies can be explained by natural causes in the end (see D & P 260-1).

The traditional science was not really a science at all in the modern sense of the word. To us the word science implies an experimental and inductive study of nature which is systematic and highly exact. It implies continual growth and modification, continual extension of accepted knowledges, continual progress toward a goal which continually recedes. The branches of Renaissance learning which dealt with physical nature had no such characteristics. We call them sciences for lack of a better word [...] The new science of the Renaissance is distinguished by a curiosity and an intellectual independence like those of the pre-Socratic Greeks. Its exponents turned from books to nature itself. Its accomplishment lay more in the development of a method and in the defining of an attitude than in actual scientific discovery. The method was that of observation and experiment, of careful and systematic collection of data, of inductive reasoning on the basis of such data. It was, in short, our 'scientific method.' The attitude was one of confidence - a confidence in the power of the human mind to discover the principles governing the multifarious forms of nature, a confidence in God's approval of such researches, a confidence also in the possibility of improving the physical conditions of human life through the application of scientific knowledge. This confidence was belief in progress - that is, in the possibility of progressively greater understanding of nature, of progressively greater power in the hands of men, of forms of human living progressively less laborious and more comfortable. (Babb 58-9)

The public reflected this attitude and a hunger for knowledge. As the following passage from Louis B. Wright's study about the middle-class illustrates, there was

faith in the value of information, however curious and heterogeneous, to increase man's knowledge and wisdom. The Elizabethans were particularly tolerant of undigested compilations that provided them with what they accepted as facts. Although the exact purport of the information was often not clear, the reader naively believed that it would turn to some good once he had mastered it, and if it had a dash of morality, that was sufficient to assure the utility of any work. (562)

1.1.2. Burton's Scientific Method

For a long time, it was not clear what Burton's "bracket-tables" were meant to be. Their labyrinthine appearance, the branchings that appear to be unnecessarily artificial and detailed, the obscure terminology, the putative mixture of the serious and the comic made former researchers think of a typically Burtonic joke. To them, it seemed as if he wanted to make a fool of his reader by his affected learning or as if he wanted to parody the scholastic method. But in reality, all of his causes of melancholy had to be taken seriously according to the development of medicine at that time (see Höltgen 396).

But, as Babb states, Robert Burton had to do a balancing act because he was confronted with a perplexing confusion of old and new scientific literature. On the one hand, "he had an inquisitive and receptive mind [...] [and therefore] would be inclined to accept the new. [...] [On the other hand,] he felt the respect for authority which was general among the learned, [and that is why] he [was also] disinclined to reject the old" (60). In general, he says, Burton

is much more inclined to believe than to doubt. He repeats from a great variety of sources curious instances of the nature and activity of spirits [...], of the evil powers of witches [...], of the machinations of the Devil, of strange legendary beasts, of the loves of plants [...], of the influence upon the unborn child of things seen by the mother [...], etc. He would not have seemed unusually naive, perhaps, to his contemporaries; yet, after all allowances for the fact that he lived in the seventeenth century, he still seems credulous (72)

because "[o]n a higher level the letters of [contemporary] men of science evidence the same fondness for mirabilia or impossibilities together with a deep sense of the 'beauty' or 'strangeness' of the many discoveries that filled them with delight." (Ellrodt 186) "When Burton himself drew up a lot of exercises of the mind, the absence of hierarchy and co-ordination presaged the new trend of learning. A craving for universality survived of the range of interests but was satisfied with the odds and ends of a scientific curiosity shop." (Ellrodt 188) So "Burton's Anatomy contains a great deal of information about the ideas which our ancestors held concerning the natural world and the physical nature of man. It is interesting to historians of science, but it had no genuine scientific value even in the writer's own time." (Babb 72-3)

1.1.3. The Role of Imagination

In the Renaissance, imagination is understood as a mental faculty that has the power to influence the outer world. Burton defines it as follows: "phantasy, or imagination, which some call estimative, or cogitative (confirmed, saith Fernelius, by frequent meditation), is an inner sense which doth more fully examine the species perceived by common sense, of things present or absent, and keeps them longer, recalling them to mind again, or making new of his own." (1, 159) It was common knowledge that

[b]y the means of the five outward senses, [the] soul [...] receives impressions which are judged, cogitated, and retained by the three inward senses: [...] as described by Burton - common sense (the 'judge and moderator' of the special senses), imagination or fantasy (which elaborates 'all the species communicated to him by the common sense'), and memory (which records all these 'species') - are seated respectively in the front, middle and back ventricels of the brain. (Merton 499)

So this "middle area supplie[s] the materials for the highest to work on. The highest contain[s] the supreme human faculty the reason, by which man is separated from the beasts and allied to God and the angels, with its two parts, the understanding (or wit) and the will." (Tillyard 89) "The understanding [...] [has] to sift the evidence of the senses already organized by the common sense, to examine the exuberant creations of the fancy, to summon up the right material from the memory, and on its own account to lay up the greatest possible store of knowledge and wisdom." (Tillyard 91) "It is these two highest human faculties, understanding and will, that Elizabethan ethics are based." (Tillyard 89)


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Imagination in Robert Burton's "Anatomy of Melancholy" (1621) and in Renaissance Thought
University of Frankfurt (Main)
Englische Prosa des 17. Jahrhunderts: Robert Burton und Sir Thomas Browne
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ISBN (Book)
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Imagination, Robert, Burton, Anatomy, Melancholy, Renaissance, Thought, Englische, Prosa, Jahrhunderts, Robert, Burton, Thomas, Browne
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Linda Schug (Author), 2003, Imagination in Robert Burton's "Anatomy of Melancholy" (1621) and in Renaissance Thought, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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