Melancholy: A New Anatomy - multidisciplinary exhibition reflects on 400 years of mental health therapies

29 September 2021-20 March 2022 
Weston Library, Bodleian Libraries, Oxford 
Free admission, no booking required 

In 1621 Robert Burton, an Oxford scholar, published the first edition of his encyclopaedic book, The Anatomy of Melancholy. Four hundred years later, the Bodleian Libraries are hosting an exhibition (Melancholy: A New Anatomy) which draws parallels between Burton’s holistic recommendations for cures and contemporary research into mental wellbeing, comparing 17th-century ideas of the causes and treatment of melancholy with modern remedies for what we would now call depression. 

Image of the frontispiece of The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton

Curated by a diverse group of academics from the University of Oxford’s Departments of Psychiatry, English and Clinical Neurosciences, the exhibition shows how Burton’s Anatomy anticipated contemporary research into the role of diet, sleep, faith, exercise, and the concept of greenspace in mental health. Burton was himself a melancholic, who used reading, research, and the writing of his book as a soothing distraction, long before our modern interest in bibliotherapy (therapeutic reading) and scriptotherapy (therapeutic writing). These two concepts are explored in the exhibition through treasures from the Bodleian’s collections, including a well-worn and bloodied copy of the Pickwick Papers in Russian, which offered comfort to a soldier in the Crimean War; the first issue of The Hydra magazine, written by, and for, the patients of Craiglockhart War Hospital, notably including Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon; and the 1822 Journal of Sorrow by Mary Shelley. 

Burton’s Anatomy was hugely successful, receiving five revised editions in the seventeenth century, and read for pleasure and comfort ever since. Highlights in the exhibition include a 5th edition of The Anatomy of Melancholy (published in 1638), the beautifully illustrated 17th-century Tradescants’ Orchard focusing on garden fruits, and a complete 18th-century manuscript of the Al-Sahifa al-Sajjadiyya, a Shia Muslim text describing the relationship between man and God.  

At this time of increasingly pressured and isolated lives, when our mental health faces many challenges, Melancholy: A New Anatomy uses objects from the Bodleian Libraries to highlight common experiences and connections over four centuries. Visitors to the exhibition may be surprised to see the similarities between Burton’s suggestions to eat good food and exercise, to laugh, read, and spend time with friends, and the remedies at the forefront of mental health research today. 

Lead Curator and Head of the Department of Psychiatry, University of Oxford, Professor John Geddes said:  

When I moved to Sheffield to do my initial training in Psychiatry, I discovered a three-volume, 19th-century copy of The Anatomy of Melancholy in a secondhand bookshop. It's been with me ever since. I continually refer to it because it draws upon Burton’s in-depth and personal experience of melancholy and takes a very broad approach to melancholy, which we might now call depression. 

This exhibition, focusing on the broad range of early modern approaches, therapies and treatments for melancholy, also shows surprising similarities with modern approaches. The nature of - and evidence-base for - modern therapies may have changed, but they often bear a remarkable resemblance to those first suggested by Robert Burton 400 years ago: from the suggestion to 'be not solitary, be not idle' to looking for 'Mirth and merry Company'. We can still learn a lot from reading Burton.


Richard Ovenden OBE, Bodley’s Librarian at the Bodleian Libraries, said:  

With all the challenges facing our mental health at this present time, Melancholy: A New Anatomy provides a unique perspective on the importance of caring for ourselves, highlighting simple approaches to improving our mental health. Laid out four centuries ago by Robert Burton, an early user of the Bodleian Library, these ideas have been reconsidered by Oxford’s leading researchers and revealed to have striking parallels with our modern lives. I hope the exhibition will help visitors find new insights into this crucial topic, and to feel a connection to others sharing the same issues.