restricted access Scurvy Vapors and the Devil's Claw: Religion and the Body in Seventeenth-Century Women's Melancholy
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Scurvy Vapors and the Devil's Claw:
Religion and the Body in Seventeenth-Century Women's Melancholy

In the winter of 1606-07, Dionys Fitzherbert, a daughter of the gentry in her late twenties, fell into a state of crisis which included raving, hallucinations, blasphemy, and a range of confusions about herself, her family, and death. She imagined that she was choking, that she would vomit up enough matter to cover the entire yard, that her body was coming to pieces, and that she was damned after having committed unforgivable sins against God. She failed to recognize her kinsfolk when they visited her, and offered her neck to their swords; she thought she was going to be left naked, struggled with her attendants, and had her hands bound. She could not tell night from day. She thought she had stolen all her possessions. She believed her doctor had made the heavens and earth, and called him her master; she was convinced that he and his family intended to torment and kill her, but also that she could never die, and that there was no such thing as death.

We know about this because—very unusually—Fitzherbert left a manuscript account of her experiences, recording her delusions, her suffering, and her eventual recovery.1 Her primary aim in this account is to demonstrate that despite the extreme state of confusion and disturbance she describes, what she had been undergoing was a spiritual trial, and that those who called her melancholy or mad were grievously mistaken. She wishes to support and comfort those poor souls who have fallen into similar distresses, against people who though "otherwise worthy of all respect are too ready ... to attribute ytt to melancholly or I know not what turning of the brayne" (MS Sion E47 f. 7r). Is it not bad enough, she asks, that those in such conditions are in a state of desperate misery because they believe themselves to have lost the favor of God, without additionally having to face "the miserable imputation of madnes and all wretchedness" (MS Sion E47 f. 7r)? Her experience, she insists, was a special trial, which for God's unknown reasons looked like mental disorder of some kind, but which should properly be understood and treated in a spiritual framework. [End Page 1] There was nothing wrong with her body; her suffering was in her heart and her spirit.

That Fitzherbert's dramatic and extreme symptoms result in a diagnosis of melancholy reminds us of the shift that takes place in the meanings of the word in the course of the seventeenth century. Fear, anxiety, and unhappiness are certainly central elements in melancholy before the Enlightenment—"Fear and sorrow are the inseparable symptoms of this miserable passion," according to Jacques Ferrand (235). And general unhappiness is closely related to melancholy, as Robert Burton describes ordinary "transitory Melancholy," in his magisterial compendium The Anatomy of Melancholy, published in 1624: it "goes and comes upon every small occasion of sorrow, need, sickness, trouble, fear, grief, passion, or perturbation of the mind, any manner of care, discontent, or thought, which causeth anguish, dullness, heaviness and vexation of spirit, any ways opposite to pleasure, mirth, joy, delight" (1: 165). As Burton observes, "from these melancholy dispositions no man living is free" (1: 165). But in its proper form it is not only "an habit ... a chronick or continute disease, a settled humour," which embeds and fixes these sorrowful dispositions of the mind (1: 167); it is also a corruption of reason and imagination, leading sufferers into wild errors, making them "suppose many absurd & ridiculous things" (1: 195). The relation between melancholy and madness, as Fitzherbert's phrasing suggests, is close. If depression summons up the imagery of sinking, melancholy is an upheaval, a "turning of the brain."

In the humoral system, the dominant way of mapping the human organism in this period both psychologically and physiologically, melancholy was seen as the consequence of corrupted humors: vapors rose from corrupted black bile to the brain, obscuring clarity of perception and clouding the mind to produce delusions. As Timothy Bright describes it in his Treatise on Melancholy, first published in 1586, "the...