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  • A Body of Glass:The Case of El licenciado Vidriera
  • Elena Fabietti (bio)

It is sometime around the year 1560; the location is most probably the Spanish region around Valladolid. An illustrious though unnamed man believes he has become a glass vase and consequently avoids any contact with other humans for fear of breaking. To heal him, he is locked by his doctor into a room all covered with straw, and the room is then set to fire. The man cries for help, banging desperately on the door. His guardians, outside, respond to his cries by asking him why, if he really is made of glass, wouldn’t he break with all that banging. To these inquiries he replies with the following words: “Open, I am begging you, my friends and dearest servants, because I don’t think I am a glass vase but just the most miserable of all men; especially if you will let this fire put an end to my life.”1

This striking short case is recorded in a book written around 1569 by a Spanish doctor, Alonso Ponce de Santa Cruz, and published only decades later by his son Antonio, a doctor himself, in 1622.2 When Miguel de Cervantes, in the first years of 1600, was writing his short story, the ‘novela ejemplar’ El licenciado Vidriera, translated as The Glass Graduate, he might have been familiar with this case—definitely he was with the symptomatology shown by the mad man portrayed in it, who believed himself made of glass: a certainly strange, but not unheard of, disorder of the mind, which medical texts of the time concerned with melancholy most often report among a plethora of similar yet different delusions.3 Glass men are mentioned in several treatises, appearing [End Page 327] not just in Spain, but all over Europe, from England to Italy to France to the Netherlands, therefore attesting for a large-scale cultural phenomenon.4 The first Early Modern attestation of this syndrome is included in a treatise written by Dutch physician Levinus Lemnius in 1561, who reported the case of a man who believed his buttocks were made of glass.5 In a French work on melancholy from 1597 by doctor André Du Laurens, we read of a great Lord who thought he was made of glass and who could nonetheless speak marvelously well of any other thing.6

More anecdotal sources tell us that French king Charles VI suffered from this delusion already around 1392,7 and a mention of it even appears in Descartes’ Meditationes (1641) alongside other delusions that would exemplarily account for madness (Descartes 1986, 13). As one possible expression of the broad-spectrum phenomenon of melancholy, we find the glass delusion mentioned even in the eighteenth century, namely in Diderot’s Encyclopedie, and accompanied by the narration of a short case that is worth reporting, if anything for the peculiar variation on the therapeutic methods:

Another example is a patient that believed he had legs of glass; in fear of breaking them, he made no movement. A sorrowful handmaid was advised to approach him and thrash him with a wooden plank. The melancholic man became violently angry, so much so that he lifted the handmaid and then ran after her to beat her. When kinetic abilities had returned to him, he was very surprised to be able to support himself on his legs and to be cured.8 [End Page 328]

Why did this figure circulate so widely for at least two hundred years?9 What did it mean to become a glass man, around 1600? As I will show, the figure of the glass man embodies the ambivalence of the cultural phenomenon of melancholy, broadly distributed along the two lines of pathological attributions on the one hand, and of intellectual endowment on the other. As I shall argue, this intrinsic ambivalence, clearly recognized and codified by scholarship, and usually played out along different traditions of the melancholic discourse, finds an ideally unified display in the glass delusion itself. In other words, the glass body of the melancholic becomes the site where distinct and often conflicting strains of melancholy, namely the pathological discourse and the...