Before Depression
1660 - 1800


Depression, like other forms of mental illness, has been a much-discussed issue in modern societies. Yet depression as a psychiatric term dates only from the middle years of the nineteenth century, when it acquired its currency in both medical and literary usage. Before depression, a wide range of terms was employed to describe, with varying emphases, the mental and physical experience of lowness of spirits, terms that, overlapping and even synonymous though they seem, had cultural and scientific resonance within different social fields at different times.

'Melancholy' carried enormous weight, culturally and medically, and, sustained by its classical pedigree and its humoral basis, maintained its currency well into the nineteenth century. 'Hypochondria', with its gendered inflection and strong sense of physicality, was also a consistent presence. Other terms held specialised niches in popular and scientific discourse until the increasing consolidation of psychiatric language began to assert dominance over the expression of mental suffering. The term 'depression' can be found in the middle and later years of the seventeenth century, but is not, for example, defined in its modern sense by Samuel Johnson in his 1755 Dictionary, though 'to Depress' is given as 'To Humble; to Deject; to Sink', with illustrative quotations from Locke and Addison concerning despondency and gloom of mind.

'Before Depression' is an interdisciplinary project designed to address the question: 'what was depression like before it was depression?' It is exploring its development and persistence within British culture of the long eighteenth century. The Enlightenment period saw influential and lasting reorientations in literary, scientific, medical and philosophical discourse in Britain and on the continent. It affords, in the years after 1660, consideration of cultural and religious confrontations between Restoration court values and Nonconformists and, by 1800, the beginnings of literary and philosophical Romanticism with its new promotion of abnormal mental states. The focus of the project will be primarily literary, though 'literature' will be defined to include poetry, fiction and drama, and also letters, journals, pamphlets and biographical and autobiographical work. Methodologically the analysis of texts is comparative and contextual. Literary writing allows particularly revealing insight into historical cultures and mentalities, more so when considered alongside material from adjacent fields, specifically, in this case, the history of medicine and science, social and cultural history and art history. The project is undertaking a comparative analysis of representations of a state of mind that permeated a culture.

This is a collaborative project, combining expertise in eighteenth-century studies from two neighbouring universities. The directors, who have a record of joint research activities, have publications that include madness, writing and visual representation (Ingram), the cultural history of medicine (Lawlor), literature and the history of ideas (Terry) and philosophy, fiction and Nonconformist writing (Sim). They are joined by a specialist postdoctoral researcher (Wetherall-Dickson), based at Northumbria, who specialises in women's writing of the period and is now working on depressive autobiographical writing of all kinds.

'Project Associates' whose assistance is facilitating the delivery of specific features of dissemination include Professor Murray Brown (Georgia State University), and Professors Elisabeth Détis (University of Montpellier 3) and Thomas Bremer (University of Halle-Wittenberg). Through Professor Détis the project is linked to the Montpellier research group 'Institut de Recherches sur la Renaissance, l'Age Classique et les Lumières' (IRCL).

There are two postgraduate studentships associated with the project and these are held by Diane Buie (Sunderland), working on 'Depression and the Idle Lifestyle', and Pauline Morris (Northumbria), working on 'Literary Depression'.

The main activities of the project, and its outcomes are:

  • series of visiting speakers for the three years of the project, with talks taking place at Northumbria and Sunderland
  • international conference on 'Depression in Europe in the Eighteenth Century' hosted at Northumbria from 19-21 June 2008
  • public exhibition of visual materials at the Shipley Gallery in Gateshead between June and September 2008
  • publication at the end of year 3 of an edition of Studies in the Literary Imagination on 'Depression in the Enlightenment' including essays based on the public lectures
  • publication at the end of year 3 of special edition of The European Spectator (University of Montpellier) comprising selected papers from the conference (articles in English or French)
  • publication at the end of year 3 of edited anthology of eighteenth-century autobiographical writing
  • publication at the end of year 3 of co-authored volume by core team, Before Depression, based on the specialised interests of the members
  • two doctoral awards
  • This project addresses a state of mind that is still little understood, particularly in its historical dimensions. Its distinctiveness is in its interdisciplinarity, its cultural and historical focus on what was later confined within more strictly mental and psychiatric terms, and in the choice of a critical period in the development both of British culture and of the history of medicine.

    This site is updated regularly: 8/09/11
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