Melancholy: A New Anatomy

About the exhibition

'Who is not a Foole, who is free from Melancholy?’, asked Robert Burton, 400 years ago, and answered his own question: ‘all the world is mad, is melancholy, dotes’.

Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, first published in 1621, is a huge and innovative encyclopaedia of mental and emotional disorder, as understood in the late Renaissance. 

A scholar and clergyman in Christ Church, Oxford, Burton was one of the early users of the Bodleian Library and left many of the books in his own substantial collection to the Bodleian.

The Anatomy examines the causes and symptoms of melancholy or, as we would call it today, depression. Its remedies range from good food and exercise, to laughter, reading, friends, and music. Its closing page recommends that the reader ‘be not solitary, be not idle’, and the distraction provided by reading the Anatomy itself is one suggested cure.

Four hundred years later – as our mental health faces many challenges – this exhibition revisited the Anatomy, using objects from the Bodleian Libraries to highlight common experiences and connections over time.

Curated by Oxford experts in mental health research and the humanities, the exhibition showed how Burton’s holistic and multifaceted conception of cure finds surprising echoes in contemporary psychiatry and prescriptions for mental health.

Explore the exhibition themes

Watch our curators

Watch each of our curators discuss their research area in more detail:

Psalms for self-reflection exercise

Robert Burton saw a crucial role for prayer in relation to melancholy and times of crisis. 

We have developed a film resource for anyone interested in using psalms as a tool for self-reflection. It is for people of any faith or none. 

Watch the psalms for self-reflection film

Listen to the exhibition audio guide

Each curator picked an object in the case to explore their theme – drawing on the similarities and differences of mental health prevention over time.



Generously supported by The Guy and Elinor Meynell Charitable Trust