Robert Burton (scholar)

Robert Burton (8 February 1577 – 25 January 1640) was an English scholar and author, whose best-known work is The Anatomy of Melancholy, first published in 1621.

Robert Burton
Robert Burton by Gilbert Jackson.jpg
Portrait by Gilbert Jackson
Born8 February 1577
Died25 January 1640(1640-01-25) (aged 62)
Alma materBrasenose College, Oxford
ChurchChurch of England
WritingsThe Anatomy of Melancholy
Offices held
Vicar, rector

From a comfortably-off family, Burton attended Brasenose College, Oxford, and then Christ Church Oxford, where he settled after graduating and remained as a fellow (called a "student") for the rest of his life. He was ordained as an Anglican priest and was the incumbent of St Thomas the Martyr, Oxford, and also, later, of Walesby, Lincolnshire and then Seagrave in Leicestershire.

Burton suffered all his life from depression and The Anatomy of Melancholy was an eclectic treatise on the subject. It was an immediate success and four new editions were published between 1624 and 1638, with additional material. Among the later writers who found inspiration in the book were Samuel Johnson, Laurence Sterne, John Keats and Samuel Beckett.

Early yearsEdit

Burton was born at Lindley Hall, Leicestershire, the fourth child and second son of the nine children of Ralph Burton (1547–1619) and his wife, Dorothy, née Faunt (1560–1629).[1] His elder brother was the antiquary William Burton.[2]

Burton attended two grammar schools, one at Nuneaton and one at Sutton Coldfield.[3] Like other 16th-century scholars including Roger Ascham, he formed a low opinion of schoolmasters, finding them better at beating than at teaching.[4] From school he progressed to the University of Oxford, first at Brasenose College, at which he matriculated in 1593, at the age of sixteen. It is not certain that he began his studies immediately, but his undergraduate years were abnormally long: he did not receive his Bachelor of Arts degree until 1602, nine years after he came to the university.[2] Scholars including Burton's biographers Michael O'Connell and John Bamborough, and Julie Sanders think it probable that his studies were interrupted by depression.[n 1]

Christ ChurchEdit

In 1599, before he graduated, Burton was appointed as a student – the equivalent of a fellow at other Oxford colleges – of Christ Church. He remained there for the rest of his life; he wrote of himself, "I have lived a silent, sedentary, solitary, private life … penned up most part in my study. I have no wife nor children good or bad to provide for … I never travelled but in map or card".[6]

Latin was the prevailing academic language, and Burton was at ease in it, although his Latin verse was not regarded by his contemporaries as outstanding.[7] In 1603 he contributed a Latin poem to an Oxford collection celebrating King James I's accession to the English throne. In 1605, shortly after graduating Master of Arts, he contributed to Alba, a Latin play (now lost) performed for King James's visit to Oxford in August.[2] After the royal visit Burton published a Latin poem celebrating it. He continued to publish works in Latin: a poem commemorating the death of the Prince of Wales (1612), a preface for the second edition of a Latin-English dictionary prepared by his friend Francis Holyoke (1612),[8] and poems on the marriage of Princess Elizabeth and the death of Thomas Bodley (1613).[9]

Burton's coat of arms on the south porch of St Thomas the Martyr's Church, Oxford

In May 1614 Burton graduated Bachelor of Divinity. Bamborough observes that this may have been required by the college statutes, and notes that Burton did not proceed further to a Doctorate of Divinity.[2] He remained a student of Christ Church for the rest of his life, but was also active as a priest. In November 1616 the dean and chapter of Christ Church appointed him vicar of St Thomas the Martyr's Church, Oxford.[10] It was common for vicars to appoint curates to undertake most or all of a parish priest's functions, but Burton did not do so, discharging the duties himself.[2] At a time of religious divisions, with High Church and Puritan Christians favouring different forms of worship within the limits permitted by the Church of England, Burton was seen as leaning towards the former. He gave his parishioners the sacrament in communion wafers, rather than bread – a noted High Church practice.[11] But he was not drawn to religious controversy, and once he had gained his Bachelor of Divinity degree he did not pursue studies in divinity, which he felt led to unnecessary argument and confrontation, and he "saw no such great neede" for him to join in.[12]

At the time, an interest in astrology was not seen as incompatible with Christian religious belief, and like many of his contemporaries and near contemporaries,[13] Burton devoted much time to the study of the subject. His personal library, comprising at least 1,700 books – more than ten times as many as a typical Oxford don of that era – contained many astrological works.[2][14]

For three years, from 1615, Burton served as one of the two clerks of the market, a university post overseeing the conduct of trading in the city’s market and guarding the interests of members of the university in their dealings with the traders of Oxford. O’Connell comments, "A Burton acquainted with the marketing practices of the fishmongers and brewers of Oxford suggests a worldliness at some variance with his self-portrait in the Anatomy of a scholar mewed up with his books".[15]

In 1617 his Latin play Philosophaster was performed.[16] It is a comedy, set in a fictional Spanish university with striking resemblances to the real Oxford. He had worked on it since 1606, and it may or may not have been influenced by Ben Jonson's 1610 play The Alchemist.[2][17] A. H. Bullen, a specialist in Elizabethan drama, wrote of it:

Burton's comedy is a witty exposure of the practices of professors in the art of chicanery. The manners of a fraternity of vagabonds are portrayed with considerable humour and skill, and the lyrical portions of the play are written with a light hand.[18]

The Anatomy of MelancholyEdit

Frontispiece for the 1628 edition of The Anatomy of Melancholy

Bamborough regards Philosophaster ("a cross between an academic drama and a comedy of humours") as "not without genuine merit", but he regards Burton's one great work as The Anatomy of Melancholy.[2] Ostensibly a three-part treatise on depression and its treatment, the book consists of quotations from, paraphrases of and commentary on numerous authors, in many fields of learning, ranging from classical times to his contemporaries.[19] It was first published in 1621 and, as Burton revised and expanded it, there were new editions in 1624, 1628, 1632 and 1638.[18] A sixth edition, corrected and "with severall considerable Additions" made by Burton in his last years and published posthumously in 1651, was 163,000 words longer than the original 353,369-word 1621 version.[2]

Burton wrote The Anatomy of Melancholy largely to write himself out of being a lifelong sufferer from depression. As he described his condition in the preface "Democritus Junior to the Reader", "a kind of imposthume in my head, which I was very desirous to be unladen of and could imagine no fitter evacuation than this … I write of melancholy, by being busy to avoid melancholy. There is no greater cause of melancholy than idleness, no better cure than business".[20] In his view, melancholy was "a disease so frequent ... in our miserable times, as few there are that feele not the smart of it", and he said he compiled his book "to prescribe means how to prevent and cure so universall a malady, an Epidemicall disease, that so often, so much crucifies the body and mind".[21]

The book has been described as "an enyclopedia",[22] "a commonplace book",[22] "a mine of quotations",[22] "a medical manual",[22] "a self-help book",[22] "one of the messiest books ever written",[22] and "an encyclopedic hodge-podge, full of quaint and charming bits but lacking any focus".[23] Scholars including Bamborough and Angus Gowland maintain that the book is in fact logical in structure,[2] with its material presented from a consistent humanist philosophical viewpoint.[24] It was an influence on many later writers. Authors who drew from it or admired it included Samuel Johnson, Laurence Sterne, John Keats and Samuel Beckett: Johnson said it was the only book that ever took him out of bed two hours sooner than he wished to rise,[25] Sterne drew extensively from the book in Tristram Shandy,[26] Keats drew on it, for his Lamia,[27] as did Beckett in his first novel Murphy and other works throughout his career.[28]

Later yearsEdit

In 1624 Burton received the living the parish of Walesby, Lincolnshire from the Dowager Countess of Exeter. He did not perform the ecclesiastical duties in this second parish, but employed a curate.[2] In the same year he received the advowson of the parish of Seagrave in Leicestershire from Lord Berkeley, the dedicatee of The Anatomy of Melancholy, who may have been a former student of his at Christ Church.[2] The advowson gave Burton the right to name a successor to the existing incumbent when the post became vacant. As a holder of an advowson was unable to nominate himself, Burton transferred it to his brothers and a cousin, who duly appointed him rector when the old incumbent died in 1632.[29]

Burton's most prominent university appointment was in 1626, when he became librarian of Christ Church.[30] O'Connell observes, "It must have seemed an apt post for the member who most haunted the libraries of Oxford".[30] The duties seem to have been congenial and not over-arduous.[30] After resigning the living of Walesby at a uncertain date before 1632, Burton took up the living at Seagrave. He appointed a curate, but took a more active role in parish affairs than he had at Walesby.[31]

In August 1639 Burton drew up his last will and testament, and on 25 January 1640 he died in his rooms at Christ Church; he was buried in the north aisle of Christ Church Cathedral.[32] There was a rumour that he hanged himself in his chambers at Christ Church, so that his death would match his own astrological prediction. Bamborough dismisses the rumour on the grounds that a suicide would not have been buried in consecrated ground,[2] but in a 2006 study of Burton, Gowland does not regard this as conclusive.[33]

Notes, references and sourcesEdit


  1. ^ A prominent London physician, Simon Forman, treated a 20-year-old patient called Robert Burton for melancholia and associated ailments in 1597. O'Connell and Sanders concur that there is no proof that the patient was the Robert Burton of Brasenose, but they find the supposition plausible.[2][5]


  1. ^ O'Connell, pp. 3–4
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Bamborough, J. B. "Burton, Robert (1577–1640), writer", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004. Retrieved 6 October 2020 (subscription or UK public library membership required)
  3. ^ Gowland, p. 5
  4. ^ O'Connell, pp. 6–7
  5. ^ O'Connell, p. 8; and "The Anatomy of Melancholy", In Our Time, BBC. Retrieved 6 October 2020. Event occurs at 4:22–5:00.
  6. ^ Quoted in Brownlee, p. 4
  7. ^ O'Connell, p. 100
  8. ^ O'Connell, pp. 102–103
  9. ^ O'Connell, p. 104
  10. ^ Gowland, p. 6
  11. ^ Gowland, p. 172
  12. ^ Quoted in Bamborough, ODNB
  13. ^ Dawson, pp. 32, 41, and 48
  14. ^ O’Connell, pp. 15–17
  15. ^ O'Connell, p. 20
  16. ^ Gowland, pp. 6–7
  17. ^ O'Connell, p. 93
  18. ^ a b Bullen, A. H. "Robert Burton", Dictionary of National Biography, Smith Elder, 1886. Retrieved 7 October 2020 (subscription or UK public library membership required)
  19. ^ Birch, Dinah (ed). "Anatomy of Melancholy, The", The Oxford Companion to English Literature, Oxford University Press, 2009. Retrieved 9 October 2020 (subscription required)
  20. ^ Burton, pp. 17 and 18
  21. ^ Gowland, p. 77
  22. ^ a b c d e f Sanders, Julie. "The Anatomy of Melancholy", In Our Time, BBC. Retrieved 6 October 2020. Event occurs at 1:24–1:40.
  23. ^ Midelfort, H. C. E. "The Worlds of Renaissance Melancholy: Robert Burton in Context", Bulletin of the History of Medicine, Fall 2008, pp. 716–717
  24. ^ Gowland, p. 19
  25. ^ Boswell, p. 173
  26. ^ Overton, p. 88
  27. ^ Twitchell, p. 49
  28. ^ Murphy et al, p. 63
  29. ^ O'Connell, p. 22
  30. ^ a b c O'Connell, p. 15
  31. ^ O'Connell, pp. 22–23
  32. ^ O'Connell, pp. 30–31
  33. ^ Gowland, p. 301


  • Boswell, James (1952). Bergen Evans (ed.). The Life of Samuel Johnson. Roslyn, N.Y: Black. OCLC 1036931651.
  • Brownlee, Alexander (1965). William Shakespeare and Robert Burton. London: Mitre Press. OCLC 1151781253.
  • Burton, Robert (1896) [1621]. The Anatomy of Melancholy. London: George Bell. OCLC 1027497669.
  • Dawson, Mark S. (March 2013). "Astrology and Human Variation in Early Modern England". The Historical Journal: 31–53. (subscription required)
  • Gowland, Angus (2006). The Worlds of Renaissance Melancholy: Robert Burton in Context. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-86768-9.
  • Murphy, Peter John; Werner Huber; Rolf Breuer; Konrad Schoell (1994). Critique of Beckett Criticism. Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer. ISBN 978-1-879751-93-4.
  • O'Connell, Michael (1986). Robert Burton. Boston: Twayne. ISBN 978-0-8057-6919-7.
  • Overton, Philip (2011). The Relation of Tristram Shandy to the Life of Sterne. Berlin and Boston: De Gruyter Mouton. ISBN 978-3-11-140034-1.
  • Twitchell, James B. (1981). The Living Dead: A Study of the Vampire in Romantic Literature. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press. ISBN 978-0-8223-0789-1.

External linksEdit

Online texts