Melancholy, Phrensie, and Madnesse, Oh My!


Burton, Robert, Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, PR2223 .A1 1628, Special Collections Research Center, George Mason University Libraries.

In the 1600’s, Robert Burton wrote Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, to describe illnesses such as “phrensie,” “madnesse,” and lycanthropia or “wolfe madnesse.”

Melancholy was defined by Burton as an illness that “goes and comes upon every small occasion of sorrow, need, sickness, trouble, feare, griefe, passion, perturbation of the mid, any matter of care, discontent, or thought which causes anguish and vexation of the spirits” (Burton 11). Burton also defined a few other “diseases of the minde” which are all to some degree related or a result of melancholy:

Phrensie – “disease of the mind with continual madnesse or dotage, which hath an acute feaver annexed or else an inflammation of the Braine or the Membranes or Kells of it with an accute fever which causeth Madnesse and Dotage”(Burton  8).

Madnesse – “vehement dotage without fever, farre more violent than melancholy. Full of anger and clamor, horrible lookes, actions, gestures, troubling the Patient with farre greater vehemency both of body and minde without all feare and sorroe, with such impetuous force and boldness that sometimes three or four men cannot hold them” (Burton 8).

Lycanthropia or “Wolfe-madnesse” – “men runne howling about graves and fields in the nights, and will not be persuaded but that they are wolves or some such beasts” (Burton 9).

Some of the causes listed by Burton for melancholy involve witches, devils, sedentary lifestyles, bad diet, quantity of diet, quantity and quality of sleep, sorrow, anger, fear, old age, stars, passions, and too much studying.

Ways to cure melancholy include dietary changes, eating a variety of lean meats, broths, wholesome herbs and drinking plenty of water, not overeating, moderate exercise in fresh and clean air, sleeping two or three hours after dinner in a cool and humid room, surrounding yourself with music and merry company, and taking a mixture of simple herbs and vegetables that are appropriate for this disease.


Gunn, John C., Gunn’s New Domestic Physician or Home Book of Health, RC81 .G91 1861, Special Collections Research Center, George Mason University Libraries.

Gunn’s New Domestic Physician (1861) features a variety of remedies for many illnesses and diseases. A few focus on illnesses of the mind such as melancholy, hypochondria, and hysteria. Gunn defines melancholy as the incipient stage or mild degree of madness or mental derangement, and the highest form of hypochondria. A person with melancholy may:

  • Shun society
  • Seek to be alone
  • Be low spirited, fretful, suspicious, or inquisitive
  • Have a distaste for everything
  • Dwell upon a single circumstance or misfortune (Gunn 654)

Similarly, he defined hypochondria as a disease of the general nervous system, often connected with dyspepsia and derangement of the liver. A person with a melancholic temperament, and especially one with a sedentary lifestyle, is more liable to get the disease. Some symptoms are:

  • Depression of spirits
  • Absurd and ridiculous fancies and apprehensions
  • Disturbed mind
  • Fear of death from one cause of another
  • Belief of already having a disease or multiple diseases
  • Dyspeptic symptoms
  • Heart palpitations
  • Wakefulness

To treat either of these illnesses, Gunn suggested that the best treatment is to divert the mind from gloomy subjects by surrounding oneself with cheerful company, agreeable amusements, interesting scenery, travelling, exercise, bathing daily, avoiding green tea and coffee, and taking anti-dyspeptic or liver pills (Gunn 655-657).

Hysteria, on the other hand, was defined as an affection peculiar to women, typically from puberty to age 35. Some experiences include:

  • Sense of suffocation
  • Stupor
  • Rumbling noise in the bowels
  • Sometimes convulsions
  • Laughing or crying without cause
  • Interrupted sleep
  • Heart palpitations
  • Anxiety

Gunn stated that there was no treatment for a fit, but loosening the dress for better circulation and respiration, sprinkling water on her face, and maintaining good exercise and a light, digestible diet are helpful in alleviating symptoms. He suggested an emetic of Lobelia and Ipecac to remove phlegm and mucus and equalize circulation. Pills made from Asafoetida, Carbonate of Ammonia, pulverized Opium, and Macrotin were also used to settle females after hysteric fits (Gunn 617-618).


More information and further reading:

Mental Health America

National Alliance for Mental Illness

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention

Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy

Gunn’s New Domestic Physician

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