Before Depression
1660 - 1800

'Melancholy and the Talking Cure in the Sixteenth Century'

Professor Jenny Richards (University of Newcastle)

In sixteenth-century England there were two prevailing explanations for melancholy: a medical theory that emphasised humoral imbalance and a moral explanation that stressed the role of turbulent emotions. Consequently, treatments for melancholy included well-established medical therapies - such as regimen and purgation - but also, more controversially, moral philosophy. Moral physic could take several forms: participation in merry and 'honest' company or in formal prayers, but also, as Thomas Elyot advises in A Castle of Healthe (1539), reflection on the 'holsome counsayles founde in holy scripture, and in the bokes of morall doctrine'.
This paper is concerned with this last kind of therapy which emphasised the relationship between mental and corporeal health. My argument develops from the recent work of historians who are re-evaluating the place of morality in early modern medicine. I will argue that moral philosophy is understood as an empowering therapy for melancholics in the sixteenth century partly because it liberates a sufferer from the tyranny of the body and the physician. Most importantly, though, it is empowering because it provides a sufferer with the rhetorical resources to understand his or her condition and to reintegrate into society. Moral philosophy is not just a series of tenets - e.g. be temperate and patient. It is also a process of reasoning that is dialogic in form. Indeed, as I will suggest, there is a crucial relationship between this therapeutic innovation in humanist medicine and the growing concern with 'dialogue' as a therapy for the social-political ills of the body politic. This constitutes an early modern 'talking cure'.

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