From ArticleWorld

The concept of Melancholia as a kind of deep sadness accompanied by physical distress goes back to the 5th century BCE when the humor theory of illness was formed. In the 17th century it went from being a set of symptoms and individual characteristics to a cultural phenomenon of near-epidemic proportions among artistic men. Melancholia corresponds closely to today's clinical diagnosis of depression.


Melancholia was thought to be caused by an excess of black bile. Greek and Roman philosophers and physicians, most notably Hippocrates, believed that the body was composed of four substances called humors. A balance of the four was essential to maintain good health and happiness. The substances – blood, phlegm, black bile, yellow bile – all caused certain physical and behavioural symptoms in individuals. Blood caused a person to be sanguine, phlegm made one phlegmatic, and yellow bile increased choler.


An excess of black bile, as well as grief and fear caused an "aversion to food, despondency, sleeplessness, irritability, restlessness," and the most commonly recognised characteristics, overwhelming feelings of sadness and lack of interest in pleasurable things.

Melancholia, angst, and anomie

The best known sufferer and scholar of melancholia is Robert Burton whose encyclopaedic Anatomy of Melancholia (1638) provided detailed descriptions, symptoms, offshoots, musings and much more, all to do with the subject. The 17th century saw a veritable wave of melancholia sweeping men of the arts and letters, including John Donne, Sir Thomas Browne, Albrecht Dürer, and composer John Dowland who said of himself 'Semper Dowland, semper dolens', or 'Always Dowland, Always Dolorous'. The literary and cultural focus shifted shortly after, during the Restoration, but Burton's work remains an encyclopedic and sensitive classic about depression.

Some scholars suggest that the wave of melancholia could be related to the passing with Queen Elizabeth I the buoyant period in English history named after her. Shakespeare's joyous Elizabethan era had given way to a more somber mood affected by the Reformation and its concerns about sin and salvation. This is often compared to the melancholy of the 18th century Romanticists, with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther being the symbol of that movement, and the 20th century existential 'anomie' and 'angst'.