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 revisits 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 shows how Burton’s holistic and multifaceted conception of cure finds surprising echoes in contemporary psychiatry and prescriptions for mental health.


Watch each of our curators discuss their research area in more detail on our YouTube playlist

  Virtual exhibition opening panel

Watch the opening panel on YouTube

Chair: Niall Boyce, Editor of The Lancet Psychiatry


  • Professor John Geddes, Head of Department of Psychiatry
  • Dr Kathryn Murphy, Faculty of English
  • Sister Stephanie-Therese, Sisters of the Love of God
  • Sir Philip Pullman CBE

Introduced by Richard Ovenden OBE, Bodley’s Librarian


Generously supported by The Guy and Elinor Meynell Charitable Trust

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