“If You Want A Job Done Properly …”

Edinburgh Castle (Photo: David Monniaux (CC BY-SA 3.0))

Turning once again to the pages of the Ipswich Journal for April 15th, 1721, we find this fascinating report of a criminal trial held in Edinburgh, at which one James Campbell of Burbank, “late of the Stores in Edinburgh Castle”, was indicted:

… for Rape, administering Poison, and being privy to, and aiding in the Barbarous Murder committed on the Body of Margaret Hall, by Nichol Musket of Boghal, her Husband, who was executed for it some time since.

Evidence was brought forward against Campbell, backed up by Musket’s confession, that he had been paid fifty pounds [around £100,000 in today’s purchasing power] by Musket to help him get a divorce from his wife.

The hapless Campbell began by hatching a plot to give Musket the incontrovertible evidence of adultery he thought would get him the divorce he wanted. He got Margaret Hall drunk to the stage where she passed out, then put her into bed (and presumably raped her), calling in her husband and other witnesses to witness this act of “adultery” on his wife’s part.

When this supposed instance of finding the poor woman in flagrant delicate failed to achieve the required divorce, he tried to kill Margaret by giving her poison. Quite why she would accept anything at his hand, and why she didn’t bring a charge of rape against him, isn’t made clear. However, this too failed and the woman survived.

At that point, Nichol Musket had clearly had enough of Campbell’s incompetence and killed his wife himself.

According to the article, Campbell made “a very good Defence”. Quite how he did so is not explained. What “good defence” could you make against overwhelming evidence of rape and attempted murder? Nevertheless, the court found that, since Campbell had not actually murdered the woman successfully, he should only be sentenced to transportation, with the threat of “perpetual imprisonment” should he ever return to Scotland.

As already noted, the murderous husband had already been executed, so poor Margaret’s death was at least partially atoned for. Such was eighteenth-century justice.

Posted in Crime

“Great Cry and Little Wooll …”

Former Theatre Royal Dublin (photo: Marcia Stubbeman (CC))

One of the joys of looking through editions of early eighteenth-century newspapers is finding the unexpected. Only last week, I was browsing through the pages of the Ipswich Journal for April 15th, 1721, when I came across this gem: the verse prologue attached to a performance of Shakespeare given at the Theatre Royal in Dublin on April 1st of that year, and written by no less a person than Dr. Jonathan Swift (1667 – 1745), the author of Gulliver’s Travels.

On the 1st of this Month the gentlemen of the Theatre Royal in Dublin acted the Tragedy of Hamlet Prince of Denmark, for the benefit of the Weavers; when a new Prologue and Epilogue was spoke … suitable to the Occasion, which were receiv’d with great Applause there, as written by the celebrated Dr. Swift, we here present our Readers with the Prologue,as follows:

It’s too long to reproduce in full here, but I’ll give you some excerpts.

Great Cry and Little Wooll— is now become,
The Plague and Proverb of the Weaver’s Loom.
No Wooll to Work on, neither Weft nor Warp,
Their Pockets empty, and their Stomachs sharp.
Provok’d in loud Complaints, to you they cry,
Ladies, relieve the Weavers, or they Die.
Forsake your Silks for Stuffs, nor think it strange
To shift your Cloaths, since you delight in Change.
One thing with Freedom I’ll presume to tell,
The Men will like You ev’ry Bit as well.

Thus it continues, stressing the beauty and utility of woollen clothing and even trying to convince people that silk or calico (cotton now being imported from India) are inferior thanks to the dubious sources of their fibres.

Our Wooll from Lambs of Innocence proceeds,
Silk comes from Maggots,
are Weeds.
Hence ’tis by sad Experience that we find,
Ladies in Silks to Vapours much inclin’d,
And what are they but Maggots in the Mind?

The prologue ends with a burst of heartfelt praise directed at women who choose to dress themselves in wool, thus providing much-needed work for the weavers.

How Sweet and Innocent’s the Country Maid,
With small Expence in Native Wooll Array’d!
Who Copies from the Fields her Homely Green,
While by her Shepherd with Delight She’s seen:
Shou’d our Fair Ladies dress like her in Wooll,
How much more Lovely, and how Beautiful,
Without their Indian Drapery they’d prove,
And Wooll wou’d help to warm us into Love,
Then like the Famous Argonauts of Greece,
We’d all contend to gain the Golden-Fleece.

The article ends by reporting that, in addition to the ticket money raised by the performance and given to the weavers, a further £200.00 was collected for them “at the Church Doors”. Since that equates to some £450,000 in today’s purchasing power, it suggests that having Dean Swift as your advertising copywriter was a shrewd move on someone’s behalf.

Posted in Theatre, Tid-bits | 2 Comments

Georgian Household Goods

Photo CC Tyssil

Much of what we can see today of the contents of a Georgian house is based on the largest and grandest properties of the time, since those are the ones preserved. It’s also inevitable that much of what was there originally had been lost or replaced during the ensuing centuries. Many interiors therefore owe as much to the taste of the Victorians as to that of their original owners.

One way we can get some notion of what Georgian houses originally contained is by looking at various listings for sale in contemporary newspapers. In certain cases, everything in a property was sold. Perhaps there was no heir and the property had to be liquidated and the value given to the Exchequer. Perhaps some heir had no need of the house or its contents and preferred to have the monetary value instead.

Either way, the sale listing in the local newspaper gives us a precious insight into what less grand and prestigious Goergian houses would contain.

I say less grand, because the houses of the artisans and labouring poor would have contained nothing beyond essentials. Even these would have been of little worth. The growing middle classes, however, had some wealth to spend on home decoration, as well as the desire to emulate their wealthier neighbours in the extent and opulence of their furnishings and fittings. Here’s one listing from the Norfolk Chronicle of 1781.

To be Sold by Auction, by James GARTHON, of Norwich, On Tuesday, June the 5th, Inst.

All the Household Furniture etc of Mr Edward MANN, at the Goat in Strumpshaw, Norfolk, consisting of Four-post Bedstands, Feather-beds, Mahogany and Oak Tables, Chairs, a handsome Brass Jack in a Mahogany Glass Case, and Eight-day Clock, a large Landscape in an elegant carved and gilt Frame, several capital Prints, fram’d and glaz’d, a good Assortment of China, Glass, and Earthen Ware, with sundry other Articles.

Note: The Goods to be viewed on the Morning before the Sale begins, which will be precisely at Ten o’Clock.

Both oak (probably more ultilitarian) and mahogany (highly fashionable) furniture, as well as purely ornamental items, such as the clock and the landscape and prints. The jack was a clockwork device for turning a piece of meat which was roasting on front of a fire. This one must have been especially precious to have its own mahogany and glass case for storage.

Here’s a listing of the contents of a substantial farmhouse, from the same date. It was going to take five days to complete the sale of everything, including all the farm stock and animals:

To be sold by Auction, by James BIRD, At the Dwelling-house and Farm of Mr Francis HICKS, at Breckles, near Watton, in Norfolk, on Tuesday, the twenty-seventh Day of March, Instant, and the Five following Days, (Sundays excepted) All the Farming Stock, Husbandry Utensils, Household Furniture, and Effects of the said Francis HICKS, consisting of a Dairy of Cows, several cart-horses, a Five Year old Hunter, several good Road Horses, Colts, Fillies, Sheep, Hogs, Waggons, Carts, Ploughs, and Harrows, large Iron Roll, and other Implements of Husbandry, two Post-chaises and Harness, Four-post Mahogany and other Bedsteads, with Damask Chintz, Check, Worsted, and other Hangings, fine Goose Feather-beds and Mattresses [sic], double and single Chest of Drawers, Jamb Glasses, in gilt and carved Frames, square, oval Mahogany, Dining, and other Tables, Plate, China, Linen, Books, Mahogany Bureau and Bookcase, Wilton and Other Carpets, Mahogany Chairs, with Horse Hair and Worsted Damask Seats, a very good Eight-day Clock, Festoon and other Window Curtains, three Dozen of Ivory Handle Knives and Forks, Dairy and Brewing Utensils, etc, etc-The Whole to be viewed on Monday before the Sale, and each Day’s Sale will begin at Ten o’Clock in the Morning.

Note: Catalogues to be had at the George, at Watton, the White Hart, at Hingham, the Swan, at East Harling, the Bell, at Thetford, the Crown, at Swaffham, the Crown, at Stoke, and the Place of Sale.

Again, mahogany furniture is picked out, together with luxury items like the clock, the Wilton carpet and the knives and forks with ivory handles.

One final example:

To be Sold by Auction, by Richard BACON, on Tuesday the 23rd of this Instant January, and the following Days, The Neat and Elegant Furniture at the Dwelling house of Mr William COYE, Dyer, near White friars-bridge, Norwich; comprizing [sic] very good Beds and Furniture, and exceeding good Chamber Organ with Seven Barrels, which plays upwards of Forty Tunes, a very handsome inlaid Cabinet, some Plate, China, Glass, Kitchen Furniture, and Brewing Utensils. Also a small but choice Collection of Prints, fram’d and glaz’d.—The Goods may be viewed on the Premises previous to the Day of Sale. Catalogues to be had of the Auctioneer, of Mr J. WRIGHT, Appraiser, and at the Place of Sale.

This time the owner had a mechanical barrel-organ which could play more than forty tunes — a definite luxury! I wonder how loud it was and what his neighbours thought of the music.

Posted in Georgian Society

A Personal View of the Gordon Riots

Laetitia Hawkins (1760–1835) was the daughter of a wealthy London lawyer and magistrate. She never married, living with her bachelor brother in Twickenham after both her parents had died. Some while ago, I discovered a book, published in 1926, which contains edited extracts from a three-volume work she wrote and published between 1822 and 1824, entitled ”Anecdotes”. Her father was a long-time friend of some of the leading figures of the mid-18th century, including Dr Johnson, David Garrick and the composer Handel. As a result, she knew most of them as a child and, in her old age, collected both her own reminiscences of meetings with them and those of her father .

She was also in London to witness, first-hand, some of the events of the infamous anti-Popery “Gordon Riots” of 1780. The rioting arose following an Act of 1778, which removed some of the restrictions hitherto placed on Roman Catholics in public and private life. Angry Protestants, led by Lord George Gordon, formed a Protestant Association, hoping to overturn this law. When they failed to obtain their objective by legitimate means, the leaders stirred up rioting in London to force the government’s hand. Their action seems to have taken the authorities completely by surprise, as Laetitia Hawkins’s recollections show. For several days, the mobs roamed around central London, looting and burning at will and causing something like panic amongst its wealthier inhabitants. Not until the King, on his own initiative, called in the army was order restored. Gordon was tried and convicted for his part in events. He died in Newgate Prison in the 1793.

Since Laetitia Hawkins’s father was a leading magistrate and resident in Westminster, he was quickly involved in trying to defend certain VIPs and their houses from the violence of the mob. What follows gives a series of “snapshots” of the rioting in Laetitia’s own words.

The Rioting Starts

“My recollection of the ‘No Popery’ riots of June 1780 is particularly vivid. While returning with my mother from a morning call in South London, our carriage passed a large assembly gathered round the Obelisk in St. George’s Fields, which we took for a beanfeast. We reached our house without molestation, and had dressed for a dinner at Mr Langton’s, when my brother Henry came in, hot from Westminster, with very exciting news. The Hall had been invaded by an immense mob, while others blocked every approach to the House of Lords. […] We still had no idea of personal danger, and we were preparing to enter our carriage when the coachman came in to tell us that a lady who lived in our neighbourhood had been stopped by a mob near Charing Cross and compelled to huzza for ‘Lord George Gordon and no Popery!’ We therefore remained at home…”

The ‘Hall’ mentioned was Westminster Hall, where the Parliament sat before the present Houses of Parliament was built.

A Night of Destruction

It seems that Sir John Hawkins, Laetitia’s father, had been at the Guildhall in connection with his duties as a magistrate when the rioting broke out. He was at once called by the Earl of Mansfield, the Lord Chief Justice, to go to his house in Bloomsbury Square, where the mob was preparing to make an attack. Since Sir John knew that the constables he had with him were insufficient to hold off the mob, he persuaded Lord Mansfield to call for a detachment of the Guards. However, Mansfield insisted that they should be kept out of sight of his house. They were therefore too far away to prevent the mob ransacking and burning his home.

“In vain did the Commanding Officer protest against so absurd a disposition. Lord Mansfield proved obdurate, with the result that his house was sacked and destroyed in an incredibly short space of time. One of the young ladies of his family stayed there until she saw her grand pianoforte thrown onto a bonfire made of the books and furniture, together with a large silver tankard containing guineas!”

After that, Laetitia’s father received a request to go to Charing Cross to Northumberland House, meeting along the way a large group of rioters, who had just destroyed Newgate Prison and were ringing the stolen prison bell in triumph. This time, the owner, the Duke of Northumberland, followed Sir John’s advice. A hastily summoned detachment of soldiers were drawn up in the courtyard, facing the Strand, and the gates to the house thrown the open so that they could be seen by the rioters. That house was saved.

Personal Danger

When Sir John finally returned to his home the next morning, he was told by the parish curate that his own house was now doomed. Its street door had been marked with the figure 8, which was supposed to portend its destruction.

“We, therefore, set to work removing our furniture, clothes, books and pictures to a neighbour’s house, kindly placed at our disposal, and left our own stripped of everything but bedsteads and fixtures. We then drove to Clapton, where some friends had offered an asylum, passing en route the Hampshire Militia, which was marching along the New Road with a train of artillery. That night I counted seven conflagrations lighting up the sky of London; it was an appalling site! On the morrow, we learnt that vigorous measures had been taken to restore order with the aid of military force. Thus were the rioters brought under control …”

It seems that Laetitia Hawkins’s house was not in fact destroyed. However the family soon left it to move elsewhere within Westminster, before finally returning to their roots in Twickenham.

Posted in Georgian Society, Politics | 3 Comments

Melancholy and the Romantic Movement

First Edition of Gray’s “Elegy”

How did the concept of melancholy came to be seen as especially associated with Romanticism and creativity in the arts?

In the 18th century, the concept of sensibility—a refined feeling of emotion and delicacy of perception—was synonymous with social refinement and good breeding. However, it was soon recognised that there was a fine line between a good supply of delicate feeling and various forms of mental disarrangement. The Romantics’ emphasis on “sentiment” demanded reflection on the tragic aspects of human life; an awareness which, if prolonged, could itself lead to feelings of gloom and depression.

The melancholic was seen as brooding and restless; fearful of the future and pessimistic about the possibility of improvement. She may also see life as essentially hollow and devoid of purpose. And, in the melancholic’s constant longing for something inexpressible and unattainable, many would find the seeds of that creative yearning generally associated with great artists of every kind.

Ay, in the very temple of delight
Veil’d melancholy has her sovran shrine,
Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue
Can burst Joy’s grape against his palate fine;
His soul shall taste the sadness of her might.
And be among her cloudy trophies hung.


Melancholy became almost an inevitable by-product of the romantic outlook, with its emphasis on extremes of emotion. ‘The Sublime’ in landscape, for example, was often associated with places that were dangerous, like mountain gorges, or productive of solitude. Romantic love comes tightly yoked to the pains of love rejected or lost. Violent sensitivity can produce negative emotions as easily as positive ones. Indeed, as idealists and visionaries—at least in their own eyes—romantics were condemned to the loneliness produced by the solitude of their position. They saw the world as out of step with them; the world saw exactly the opposite. Death alone could free them from a life in which sorrow and loss were constant themes.

Romantic melancholy seems to stem, in part, from the attempt to find some correspondence between reality and the kind of idealised life the romantics espoused. They felt joy in those fleeting moments when their vision seemed to be within their grasp,  but despondency and despair when it was born in upon them that what they sought was impossible to maintain. The radical political beliefs of some, coupled with their turbulent characters,  meant they felt fundamentally at odds with the society of the day. Unable or unwilling to adjust themselves to society’s norms, they expressed their feelings of frustration in melancholy.

The Melancholy Genius

The eighteenth-century upper classes in England prided themselves on their refined tastes and artistic sensibility. It was to refine and educate such taste that they undertook “The Grand Tour” of Italy and other European nations deemed to possess a greater degree of artistic outlooks and achievement that dull, old, foggy England. There was also the possibility of indulging in life-styles and practices abroad that would cause scandal at home.

Horace Walpole is perhaps a good example of this type of melancholy. He was intensely self-centred and more than a little conceited about the refinement of his taste. He was also given to periods of ‘nervous disorder’. Were these brought on by his exquisite artistic sensibility? Were they due to being a secresly homosexual man who could not exercise his sexual preference openly in the high society of the time? Or were they yet more examples of his self-absorption and the lack of any significant outlet for his prodigious talents? Maybe it was all of these — or none of them. You pays your money and you takes your choice.

Dr Samuel Johnson suffered from melancholy for almost all of his life and believed he had inherited the condition. In 1773, on their tour of Scotland, Boswell reports Johnson saying:

I inherited a vile melancholy from my father, which has made me mad all my life, at least not sober.

Dr Johnson often described his melancholy as madness, even when he associated it with aspects of his body rather than his mind. In his diary for 30th March, 1777, he wrote, “I discover nothing but a barren waste of time with some disorders of body, and disturbances of the mind very near to madness.” We can see he was describing depression, but no distinction was made at the time between a general sense of artistic ennui and full-blown clinical depression.

Boswell preferred to call melancholy “hypochondria”, applying it both to himself and to Johnson. “Spleen” would have been used by some to describe the same condition. In his Dictionary, Dr Johnson defined “hypochondriacal” as “Melancholy; disordered in the imagination”.

To consider just some of those well-known people who suffered from “melancholy” under one or more of the labels of the time is to produce a listing of 18th-century artistic and philosophical achievement: John Bunyan, Mary Wollstonecraft, Samuel Johnson, James Boswell, Thomas Gray, Robert Burns, George Romney, Oliver Goldsmith, David Hume, and Joseph Wright – and so on.

Depressive states seem to hold a fascination for the creative imagination, with melancholy exerting a particular appeal in the eighteenth century. Perhaps Aristotle explains it best. He claimed that showing a tragic view of the human condition on stage had a cathartic effect, as well as revealing just how little separated us from those arbitrarily chosen by fate to experience suffering. To produce a strong emotional response inspire in your audience thus came to be seen as the principal measure of artistic success.

There is also the element of reflection common amongst melancholics: that contemplation of their past which might, amongst the religious, result in repentance and renewal, but amongst those with a more scientific and rational outlook tended to lead to disillusionment with life in general. Several poets of the 18th century produced works characterised by gloomy meditations on death. Examples include Thomas Gray, writer of “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”, Thomas Parnell, who wrote “Night-Piece on Death”, Robert Blair and Edward Young. The religious culture of the eighteenth century produced an emphasis on private devotion and reflection. That too could encourage melancholy ideas about the pointlessness of life in the face of inevitable death and dissolution.

The final instalment in this series will look at the notion, proposed at the time, that melancholy was especially associated with the rich; rather like the various multiply initialled ‘syndromes’ linked to today’s top media personalities.

Posted in Georgian Society, Medicine & Science

Fears of Terrorism and the ‘Swinish Multitude’

Cruikshank’s View of the French Revolutionaries

My series of mysteries featuring Dr Adam Bascom are all set in the early years of the struggle between Britain and revolutionary, later Napoleonic, France. Several feature the British government’s real concerns about spying, infiltration and subversion by the French. I think it makes for a good story, but is it genuine history?

It is.

For a start, France had declared war on Britain. The revolutionary government in Paris had also vowed to help foment potential republican revolutions against all other European monarchies. Britain was woefully unprepared for war, especially land warfare, so any invasion by the French — if they could get past the Royal Navy — was quite likely to succeed against the bare handful of regulars and a mass of ill-trained, poorly armed militia. After a rocky start, the French armies had recently won several stunning victories. They were well on the way to becoming seasoned veterans.

The revolution in France had been driven from below, led by middle-class lawyers and intellectuals who were adept at using the urban poor as ’storm troops’ to overwhelm opposition from the upper elite. While Britain’s aristocracy had not descended to the same levels of arrogance and sense of entitlement as those in France, there was no doubt that a home-based urge towards republican reform did exist in the England of the time. There’s plenty of evidence of that. When the revolution began in France it was widely supported on this side of the Channel. Not until Robespierre and The Terror did opinion sway firmly in the opposite direction. Even then, significant groups remained who had a strong interest in producing constitutional reform. To do so, they would need to weaken the grip of the monarchy and the great landowners on the levers of power. The Opposition in parliament wanted several reforms. The many radical artisans’ societies which sprang up, such as the London Corresponding Society and its offshoots in Norwich and Sheffield, wanted many more. They appeared to profess ideological, if not political, allegiance to the types of reform now sweeping through Europe, carried by the armies of France.

The British Government’s Response

At first, it was clumsy. Parliament passed a number of draconian legislative acts aimed at repressing the parliamentary opposition and the spreading radical groups. Maybe they knew from the start that few juries were willing to convict any one charged under these laws. They were rarely used. Events proved they would even more rarely lead to convictions. However, their existence on the statute book definitely had some deterrent effect. Faced with the threat of harsh punishment for ‘seditious libel’ or simply organising a political meeting, the radical groups and their leaders either gave up or went underground. It also became clear that public opinion was not sufficiently engaged by the radicals’ ideas to produce the type of demonstrations which had begun the revolution in France. The bulk of the people remained loyal to the monarchy and highly suspicious of republican ideas. Taken together, the new laws and the lack of public response to republicanism were enough to quell most radical activities and mute any significant demands for reform.

What finally tipped the balance in favour of the status quo was an intense government campaign aimed at counteracting effects from “divers wicked and seditious writings”, such as Thomas Paine’s “The Rights of Man”. This campaign blended torrents of outrageous propaganda with secret financial support for conservative groups. Loyalist associations in most larger cities and towns were established and their marches and other activities subsidised. Spies and government informers were used to infiltrate the radical societies. Intelligence was collected from magistrates, local officials and many others and ‘subversives’ targeted. Letters were opened and scanned for any signs of espionage or treasonous intentions.

Fear of Immigrants

When the revolution began, many French refugees fled for safety to England. At first, they were welcomed. Later, as their numbers grew, sympathy turned to suspicion. Were these truly innocent refugees? How many might be agents provacteurs, spies or revolutionaries hell-bent on sabotage. Were they exploiting the English radicals to further the aims of the French government? Were they plotting with dissident Irish nationalists to stir up rebellion? Were those who expressed support for them harbouring secret notions of treason?

Following a direct threat of invasion, the climate of opinion shifted decisively against the refugees and immigrants. Fears of the large number of undocumented French still arriving caused Parliament to pass the Aliens Act. This required all ports to keep a detailed account of the identities and purposes of all immigrants entering the country. The Secretary of State was now allowed to expel any aliens he deemed suspicious. Those who did enter were not allowed to bring even personal weapons or to travel without passports. Even those foreigners already within the country had to live in specified areas, submit to registration and give up their arms.

How real was the threat?

It was almost certainly wildly overstated. Much of the intelligence supplied to the government was either dubious or false, since informers and agents were paid for the amount of ‘evidence’ they produced, giving them an incentive to exaggerate — even invent — their reports. The real climate of fear, caused by threats of invasion and insurrection, also afforded the government a chance to crush even modest moves in favour of reform. All such attempts could be represented as the slippery slope that must lead inevitably to extremism. In reality, a French-style revolution in Georgian England was never a serious proposition. However, the fact that it took until the 1830s for tentative steps to be taken towards the most necessary constitutional reforms shows the lasting impact of the invasion fears of the 1790s.

I’m not going to make comparisons with events in our own times. Readers can make up their own minds on such matters. However, what is clear is that the media and Hollywood-induced picture of late-Georgian England, based in large part on Jane Austen’s novels, is far from the reality of the time. Austen’s heroines move on a stage which purposely omits anything which might clash with a picture of upper-class polite society going about its daily business. In my books, Dr Bascom is no less a member of the upper class. I have however tried to set him more clearly in the reality of a period wracked with anxieties and fears for its very survival.

Posted in Politics | 6 Comments

Melancholy and Madness

Engraving by Hogarth

In the eighteenth century, melancholia was thought of not as a curable mental affliction, but as one of the primary forms of madness.

Melancholia means ‘black bile’, one of the four bodily humours recognised by the Hippocratic and Galenic systems of medicine that prevailed in Britain and elsewhere well into the 18th century. It was an excess of this ‘black bile’ which was thought to cause the malady. Aristotle thought black bile might ‘ferment’ to produce the anger and depression seen as characteristic of the malady.

Whatever the differences between writers on their views of how the disease was caused, all agreed that it led to symptoms of intense mental pain, depression and a general sense of failure and gloom, which could cause people to become insane and kill themselves.

The magisterial book on all forms and concepts of the disease was written in England:

The Anatomy of Melancholy, What it is: With all the Kinds, Causes, Symptomes, Prognostickes, and Several Cures of it. In Three Maine Partitions with their several Sections, Members, and Subsections. Philosophically, Medicinally, Historically, Opened and Cut Up” Robert Burton, first published in 1621.

Treating Melancholy

There were probably as many treatments offered as there were physicians interested in the disorder, from locking people up to enemas and special dietary regimes. Burton’s own suggestions for treatment have a distinctly modern ring to them. He believed that melancholy could be dealt with by following a healthy diet, getting sufficient sleep, listening to music, and engaging in “meaningful” types of work. He also promoted talking about the problem with a friend.

Other approaches were more brutal. Amongst these, sea bathing (‘thalassotherapy’) became quite prevalent. Not our pleasant kind of splashing about in the sea, but a strict and violent form of immersion designed to induce first shock (from being plunged into cold water) then fear (by being held under until almost drowning). The purpose was, apparently, to cause the brain to ‘re-arrange’ itself into a better and more harmonious state. Others made the patient sit on a stool which whirled them around until they became dizzy and disoriented.

Benjamin Franklin even devised a primitive form of electro-convulsive therapy, using an electrostatic generator (a machine which produces electricity by rubbing material against a glass ball or cylinder turned by a crank) with a Leyden jar to stored the energy produced. On the whole, he considered his results disappointing, though he did note the propensity for electric shocks to the brain to destroy memory—something later proponents of electro-convulsive therapy seem to have missed for many decades.

Here’s an even more violent ‘cure’ for “hypochondria” (an alternative term for melancholy at the time) from Dr Benjamin Rush, an American doctor and signer of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. His answer was mercury, taken orally!

“Mercury acts in this disease, 1, by abstracting morbid excitement from the brain to the mouth. 2, by removing visceral obstructions. And, 3, by changing the cause of our patient’s complaints and fixing them wholly upon his sore mouth. The salivation will do still more service if it excite some degree of resentment against the patient’s physician or friends.”

The idea that giving you violent diarrhoea, a sore mouth and inciting your resentment against others could help lift your depression is little short of idiocy! Cure by heavy metal poisoning!

The plain fact was that medical knowledge of the time was more or less helpless in the face of most mental illnesses, so we should not be too critical. Even today, clinical depression is not treatable easily.

Non-medical Melancholy

While it’s clear that melancholy (in its artistic sense) is not the same as depression, it could be hard to avoid moving from the one into the other. Depression generally destroys motivation and induces lethargy and a pervasive sense of the hopelessness of any endeavour. Melancholy’s intensity of introspection and reflection produced in some a powerful driving force towards artistic achievement. In others, it slipped into an aesthetic flaccidness and self-indulgence.

Too often, melancholy became mostly an affectation, since its milder characteristics made the condition seem desirable, especially to the emerging Romantic Movement. There was a distinct appeal in maintaining the posture of a dignified, wistful and gloomy aloofness. It also became associated with the idea of possessing both a full amount — even an excess — of sensitivity to sentiment (itself highly regarded as an attribute of a cultured mind) and a creative mind. We will explore more of both of these aspects in a following posting.

Posted in Georgian Society, Medicine & Science | 1 Comment