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Melancholy and Female Illness: Habsburg Women and Politics at the Court of Philip III Magdalena S. Sánchez In the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century, melancholy was a "popular" disease among European elites. Excessive amounts of bile in a person's body, prolonged sadness, fear, and a desire to be isolated from others were all symptoms of a melancholic individual.1 Melancholy tended to be a debilitating illness because it usually caused individuals to retreat into isolation and to be unable to perform the most mundane of tasks. Melancholy was also considered to be indicative of an artistic, creative, and sensitive person and perhaps for this reason, it was the preferred illness for many early modern nobles.2 In fact, many individuals even feigned the symptoms of the illness. For early modern aristocrats, melancholy was an acceptable explanation for inactivity, lethargy, and boredom, as well as a culturally permissible means to express sorrow and loss.3 According to the political theorist, Giovanni Botero, Spanish men were particularly susceptible to melancholy. As Botero wrote in 1603: "The men [in Spain] have more than a bit of melancholy, which makes them severe in manner, restrained and sluggish in their undertakings."4 The Baroque mentality, which reflected the religious and political confusion of the late sixteenth and the seventeenth century, was in essence a melancholic mentality. Emperor Rudolf II, who isolated himself from his family and his councillors in his castle in Prague, typified this mentality.5 In fact, melancholy often characterized rulers, and Spanish kings such as Charles V and Philip II supposedly suffered from this malady.6 Several prominent individuals at the court of Philip III (1598-1621) of Spain were diagnosed as having melancholic temperaments. Philip Ill's royal favorite, Frandsco Gómez de Sandoval y Rojas, known as the Duke of Lerma, suffered from periodic bouts of melancholy.7 The Duke of Sessa, councillor of state, ambassador to Rome, and Queen Margaret of Austria's mayordomo mayor (Lord High Steward), also had problems with melancholy .8 Empress Maria (1528-1603), Philip Ill's grandmother (and Rudolf fl's mother) who resided in the royal convent of the Descalzas Reales in Madrid, supposedly had an excess of melancholic humors which regularly interfered with her activities.9 Finally, Margaret of Austria (1584-1611), wife of Philip III, was said to have occasional problems with melancholy.10 While these individuals might have suffered from depression, and while their symptoms might have been "real," my research shows that women and men alike could use melancholy (and other illnesses) as a political © 1996 Journal of Women's History, Vol. 8 No. 2 (Summer) 82 Journal of Women's History Summer ploy and as a negotiating tool. Whether real, embellished, or imagined, melancholy could be an effective political tool. Some early modern commentators clearly made the connection between political setbacks and melancholic humors. In fact, it was the uncertainty of whether melancholy was caused by actual depression or by political forces (or a combination of both) which made it such an effective weapon in the early modern period. "Illness" for some Spanish nobles could function as a means to leave the court and isolate themselves from their critics. This was the case for the Duke of Lerma who, as Philip ΠΓ s royal favorite (or privado), was regularly the focus of gossip, critidsm, and political schemes. Although it might have been more advantageous for Lerma to remain at court and defend himself against his critics, he preferred to retreat into isolation. Early modern physidans believed that the intrigues and commotion at courts actually caused melancholy in individuals. Thus, it made logical, medical sense for Lerma to retreat from court.11 Moreover, Lerma could blame this retreat on his melancholy and not on his inability to handle critidsm. For women, however, illness could serve a further purpose. On the one hand, women could use illness to excuse their behavior, espedally when that behavior contradicted what men expeded of them. This was the case, for instance, when Spanish royal women expressed political views which differed from those of Philip Ill's councillors or those of the Duke of Lerma. Because the political realm was considered to be...


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