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Casting Characters in the Dark Ink of Melancholy: Figures of Dissent and Imprisonment in Seventeenth-Century Literature

Les « caractères » passés à l’encre noire de la mélancolie : Figures de l’emprisonnement et de la dissidence dans la littérature anglaise du dix-septième siècle
Claire Labarbe

Résumés

Les livres de caractères anglais du dix-septième siècle sont de courtes collections d’essais au format in-octavo ou in-duedecimo décrivant les différents types ou « caractères » de la ville. Ces petits pamphlets, qui connurent un grand succès tout au long du siècle, se situent à la croisée d’une grande variété de discours et empruntent notamment à la sagesse populaire, à l’enseignement humaniste, aux études théologiques, aux traités d’anatomie, à la théorie des humeurs et aux représentations de la scène. Dans cet article, je montre que la littérature des caractères reflète les interprétations multiples de la mélancolie que les diverses disciplines de l’époque proposaient. Les auteurs de caractères font usage de la notion de mélancolie pour désigner tour à tour un comportement extravagant, une dévotion excessive, une maladie de l’âme, une source d’inspiration spirituelle, une souffrance du corps ou encore un désespoir sans issue. Ce faisant, la littérature des caractères réitère les lieux communs satiriques de l’époque, notamment l’identification récurrente des dissidents religieux à des hommes atteints de mélancolie. De même que dans la théorie de Burton, ce mal mélancolique est causé tour à tour par un excès ou un manque d’amour de Dieu, prenant tour à tour la forme d’une hystérie décérébrée ou d’un désespoir mutique. Dans cet article, je montre que les nombreux « caractères » de prisons et de prisonniers offrent une représentation autre de la mélancolie. La mélancolie du prisonnier n’est ni une marque stigmatisante ni une prison psychologique de l’âme. Elle devient une forme positive d’inspiration poétique, une consolation philosophique qui lui permet d’abattre par la pensée les quatre murs de sa prison.

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1In introduction to the first edition of his Anatomy of Melancholy in 1621, Robert Burton preempted the accusation that could be made against him of having strayed and gone beyond the pale of his dedicated field of theological studies by venturing to write of melancholy:

  • 1 Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy, what it is, with all the kindes, causes, symptomes, progn (...)

That last and greatest exception is, that I being a Divine have meddled with Physicke. […] Have I so much leasure or little businesse of mine owne, as to looke after other mens matters which concerne me not? […] At this time [I] was fatally driven upon this rocke of Melancholy, and carried away by this by streame, which as a rillet is deducted from the maine channell of my other studies, in which I have pleased and busied myselfe at idle houres, as a subject most necessary and commodious.1

2Burton’s contemporary Joseph Hall had similarly been drawn away from writing yet another sermon when he published his Characters of Vices and Vertues in 1608. Hall’s collection differs from ensuing seventeenth-century English character-books because of its maintained reliance on biblical allegory when describing different types of people. It was however the first English attempt at representing human characteristics under the form of a classified series of short satirical essays or so-called “characters”. In this paper, I intend to reveal the original, valuable and little-known contribution of seventeenth-century authors of character-books to the representation and understanding of a theme which, in England and elsewhere, then and ever since, was and has been most famously associated with Burton and his Anatomy.

  • 2 “If this my Discourse be too medicinall, or savour too much of humanity, I promise thee that I will (...)
  • 3 See Joseph Hall, Characters of Vertues and Vices, In Two Bookes, London, Printed by Melchior Bradwo (...)

3In order to legitimize a discourse which in Burton’s own words ran the risk of being deemed “too-medicinall” and of “savour[ing] too much of humanity”,2 Hall mustered the authority of “The Divines of the olde Heathens” who were simultaneously “Overseers of maners, Correctors of vices, Directors of lives, Doctors of vertue”.3 Both Burton and Hall relied on Theophrastus and on ancient moral philosophy as a practicable via media between the theological and medical interpretations of the human condition: just as ancient philosophers had to deliver their moral teaching under various guises, a seventeenth-century theologian could not legitimately constrain the wide field of moral philosophy within the set boundaries of divinity.

4Such a crossover between philosophy, theology, medicine and moral literature was best evidenced in the study of melancholy: the notion received various interpretations in a number of disciplines and simultaneously encouraged the convergence of such diverse areas of study. The medical question of whether an excess of black bile could be cured thus came to overlap the religious dilemma of whether man could be saved or at least hope to be saved: as a bodily humour and as an existential condition, melancholy became central in that it posed the everlastingly unsolved riddle of the origin of evil.

5In turn, the constant shift between different types of explanations when touching upon melancholy in general terms was the cause of a growing hesitation in the ways the notion was described and explored in non-specialized literature. There seems to have been a time when about every one felt the need to express their views on the matter. While Burton’s “meddling” with medicine has been acknowledged as the most notable and exhaustive attempt at unravelling the mysterious causes of melancholy, other writers also contributed to the general attempt at “anatomizing” the disease.

  • 4 Timothy Bright, Characterie, an Arte of Shorte, Swifte and Secrete Sriting by Character, London, Pu (...)
  • 5 Joseph Hall, Meditations and Vowes, Divine and Morall: serving for direction in Christian and Civil (...)

6Timothy Bright, the Protestant physician who had found himself in Paris on the day of the outbreak of the St Bartholomew’s massacre and the author of Characterie, an Arte of Shorte, Swifte and Secrete Writing by Character (1588), a treatise on short-hand writing, also penned a medical treatise on melancholy.4 This treatise was printed in 1613 by William Stansby who later printed Hall’s Meditations and Vowes [...] Newly enlarged with Characters of Vertues and Vices (1621) as well as the first edition of John Earle’s own book of characters, Micro-cosmographie, or, a Peece of the World Discovered: in Essayes and Characters (1628), a collection which achieved considerable success, was reprinted many a time and underwent twelve editions at least in the seventeenth century only.5

7The practice and theory of the art of shorthand dealt with by Bright (1588) had a determining influence on the metaphorical and lexicological transfer of the notion of “character” from written and printed signs to the literary description of human types: the art of character portrayal parallels the art of shorthand in that it must say a great deal in a small space (multum in parvo). The medical theory of humours which Bright exposes in his Treatise of Melancholie (1613) was no doubt just as influential in the literary representations of melancholy, a theme which became a recurring commonplace in increasingly successful character collections.

  • 6 Ben Jonson, The Comicall Satyre of Every Man out of his Humor. […] With the severall character of e (...)
  • 7 [Breton’s] verse satires gained considerable popularity during the first two decades of the sevent (...)
  • 8 “Worthy Knight, I have read of many Essaies, and a kinde of Charactering of them, by such, as when (...)

8Ben Jonson, whose Works were published by that same Stansby in 1616, also had an influence on the new art of charactery by staging and encouraging a variety of theatrical and poetic revisitings of the Galenic theory of humours. In 1600, the year when his comedy Every Man out of his Humor came out,6 Ben Jonson wrote a prefatory dedication to Nicholas Breton’s Melancholicke Humours, a collection of poems which were originally conceived as part of a series of satirical pasquils.7 Nicholas Breton went on to write a book of characters, Characters upon Essaies Morall, and Divine (1615) which he dedicated to Francis Bacon. It is not known whether Bacon ever acted as a patron for Breton, but Breton’s praise of Bacon’s essays and his definition of the character form as directly derived from the essay (“I have read of many Essaies, and a kinde of Charactering of them”) provided an original theory on the chameleon-like art of character-writing.8

9Character literature thus belonged neither to the field of theology nor to that of medical studies, but rather to that of a popular literature submitted to the influence of all kinds of contemporary productions, ranging from commonplace knowledge, the curriculum of the schools, anatomical treatises and the elaborate representations of the stage. In this paper, I will show that as jumbled literary and cultural repositories, books of characters offered a particularly comprehensive insight into the variety of contemporary discourses on melancholy. Authors of characters notably made use of the notion to refer to such things as an extravagantly abnormal behaviour, an excessive show of religious devotion, an obsessive disease of the soul, an inspiring symptom of spiritual awareness, an evil possession of the body or a cause of unremitted despair.

  • 9 We neither knowe God aright, nor seeke or love or worship him as we should. And for these defects, (...)
  • 10 Ibid.
  • 11 Burton’s analysis of the different species of religious melancholy naturally follows his presentati (...)

10Both the Galenic theory of humours and Aristotle’s golden mean define virtue as a fragile equilibrium between two opposite extremes. By taking up this idea of virtue as a negation or prevention of excess, authors of characters provided a gallery of melancholic types reminiscent of the three forms of religious melancholy defined by Robert Burton in his Anatomy. Authors of characters expectedly paid more attention to the symptoms than to the causes or remedies of such melancholy. Nonetheless, the melancholic behaviour of some of their characters does seem to be caused in turn by an excess of religious zeal, a defect of faith or simply the character’s realization of his earthly condition. Whereas Burton identifies the first two forms of melancholy as in need of a cure (“according to those two extreames of Excesse and Defect”),9 the third form of religious melancholy, albeit not a virtue, is perhaps best understood as a necessary evil: man “cannot love God too much”,10 writes Burton, which suggests that any believer must come to terms with the disappointing realization that he cannot love God enough.11

11In a first part, I give a brief overview of the ways in which authors of characters reinforced the commonplace representation of dissenters as melancholy men and readily turned these men’s excessive love for God into ridicule by tapping into established stereotypes of humoral imbalance and brainless folly, thus metaphorically imprisoning such characters within the caricatural categories spawned by political and religious debate.

12In a second part, I suggest that the representation of psychological or religious despair which these authors give can be taken to reflect the contemporary moral opposition between those who yearn, pray and hope to be saved and those whose adamant belief in man’s predetermined fate can at times lead to despair, between those who were ready to accept the everlasting promise of an afterlife and those for whom the message of a lifelong imprisonment had become a literal trap and religion itself a prison of the mind.

13In a third part, I show that the numerous “characters” of real-life prisons and prisoners give rise to a very different interpretation of religious melancholy, where the prisoner’s realization that man himself is his own prison is sometimes staged as a spiritual epiphany. Literal imprisonment triggers metaphorical liberation, and, in the philosophical tradition of Boethius, the melancholy caused by an “enforced solitarinesse” (Burton) can paradoxically become the prisoner’s only consolation.

“He puts his foot into Heresies tenderly as a Cat in the water”: melancholy, a verbal stigma

  • 12 The use of “melancholy” in the sense of black bile is first recorded in 1390 and that of “melanchol (...)
  • 13 The term “melancholia” was used in this same sense of pathological condition from 1607. “melancholi (...)
  • 14 “melancholic”: “Both the Latin and the Greek words are found as adjectives, designating people and (...)

14The first recorded use of the noun “melancholy” in the sense of “ill temper” dates back to 1375.12 “Melancholian” as a noun was used as early as 1340 to designate a melancholiac (1863), which is to say that the general concept of “melancholy” as a pathological condition probably appeared after the noun “melancholian” had served to describe a person whose behaviour was determined by an excess of black bile.13 The variety of adjectives used to describe those who were subject to melancholy (“melancholic” 1385,14 “melancholy” 1393, “melancholian” 1393, “melancholiant” 1400) accordingly shows that the disease was first conceived and understood through its visible effects on the blood and body of diseased individuals.

  • 15 This follows the evolution of the adjective “melancholish” as described in the OED: originally, “te (...)

15Under the influence of anatomical treatises, references to biblical “acedia” were often supplanted by descriptions of medical “melancholia” in a corpus of moral literature which could previously have been expected to rely on the established categories of the seven deadly sins. However, seventeenth-century literary representations of melancholy rarely gave in to an analysis of the medical causes of melancholy.15 Authors of seventeenth-century character-books did not pay particular attention to the medical causes of the disease, nor chose to deal with the vexed problem of ætiology: their interest lay rather in the behavioural effects of melancholy. They favoured the description of people who were inclined to melancholy.

  • 16 From 1655, the Italianate noun “melancholico” was thus used in English to refer to a hyponcondriac; (...)

16Not mentioning the medical causes of the disease naturally resulted in the melancholy man being conceived of as a culprit rather than as a victim. This was for instance reflected in the increasingly reflexive or intransitive use of the verbs “melancholy” (1492) and “melancholize” (1598), which suggested that the melancholico’s pathological condition might have been of his own doing.16 In their attempt to construct an imaginary social order in which individuals were to be reduced to a series of characteristic types, authors of characters availed themselves of the adjective “melancholy” as a derogatory label particulary fit for the satirical description of religious dissenters of all stripes. But it might be argued that while stigmatizing dissenters as diseased individuals, authors of characters somewhat contributed to reinforcing the social identity and specificity of the very social groups they relentlesstly satirized.

  • 17 “‘Religion’, even in Protestant England, was not a category isolated from other aspects of experien (...)

17In Cheap Print and Popular Piety, Tessa Watt has insisted that in spite of a certain rigidification of “puritan” culture, religious thought and imagery were omnipresent in early modern society and were in no way the “exclusive preserve of the Church”.17 Joseph Hall’s 1605 Meditations and Vowes, Divine and Morall and his 1606 Arte of Divine Meditation were highly influential in introducing continental contemplative methods to an English Protestant readership. With his 1608 Book of Vices and Virtues, the preacher intended to make his religious teaching accessible to a wider audience and insisted that his fashionable adoption of a Senecan prose style was wholly devoted to the promotion of Christian ethics. The book became a commonplace reference and the literary model for similar satirical productions throughout the seventeenth century. One of the most obvious ways in which such literature participated in the popularization of contemporary religious debates was its recurrent satire of dissidents, zealots, Catholics, hypocrites and Puritans of all kinds increasingly dubbed as “melancholy” men.

  • 18 The order was issued in 1599, when the archbishop of Canterbury and the bishop of London attempted (...)
  • 19 Hall, op. cit., “The Profane” p. 93, “The Superstitious” p. 87 and “The Hypocrite” p. 71.

18Joseph Hall’s first anonymous satire Virgidarium (1597) was prohibited and ordered to be burned in Stationers’ Hall.18 In the 1630s, Hall was suspected by the Laudian party to be too lenient in his definition of puritanism. Nonetheless, he was committed to the Tower in 1642 as a supporter of the Church and condemned by anti-Arminians as a betrayer of the cause he had formerly been accused of covertly supporting. In the ever-changing political landscape of the first half of the seventeenth century, Joseph Hall’s “orthodoxy” can only be proposed tentatively, on the grounds that he was jailed as a perceived supporter of the established Church at the start of the Civil War, for instance, or in consideration of the fact that he reiterated commonplace satirical representations of contemporary heterodoxies. His 1608 characters of “the Hypocrite” and “The Superstitious” were hardly veiled attacks on Roman Catholicism. His character of “the Profane” gave him an opportunity to oppose the Catholic adoration of idols in received iconoclastic terms: “The Superstitious hath too manie Gods, the Prophane none at all.”19 While in later books of characters “Hypocrites” were for the most part Puritans, Hall’s minor originality in describing a Catholic under the label of a “Hypocrite” was probably in keeping with his later refusal to identify Puritanism with systematic dissimulation, a position which would render him suspect to the Laudian party.

  • 20 Ibid., “Characterism of the Male-content”, p. 98.

19Hall’s opposition between the superstitious and the prophane, whose faults are respectively caused by an excess or a lack of love for God, matches Burton’s distinction between the two main trends of religious melancholy. Hall’s characters of “the Male-content” and of “the Unconstant” fall into the first category of religious nonconformity. The malcontent’s general dissatisfaction with the world – “He speaks nothing but Satyres, and libels, and lodgeth no guests in his heart but rebels” – is ultimately directed towards God, whom the misbeliever is daring enough to treat as his equal: “If but an unseasonable shower crosse his recreation, he is ready to fall out with heaven, and thinkes hee is wronged if God will not take his times when to raine, when to shine.”20 The malcontent projects his own inconstancy onto the world by protesting against the unruliness of natural elements and creates doctrinal havoc by turning the hierarchy of the divine order upside down and projecting himself as the centre of the universe. As for the “Unconstant”, a newly converted Anabaptist who is “of late leapt from Rome to Munster”, he is but an ill-assorted jumble of contradictory beliefs and opinions, whom nothing can satisfy for long:

  • 21 Ibid., “The Unconstant”, p. 110-111.

20Manna it selfe growes tedious with age [...]. Varietie carries him away with delight, and no uniforme pleasure can be without an irksome fulnesse. Hee is so transformable into all opinions, maners, qualities, that he seemes rather made immediatly of the first matter than of well tempered elements; and therefore is in possibilitie any thing, or everie thing; nothing in present substance.21

  • 22 “A Discontented man does and undoes, that hee may doe againe: thinking to loose his humor in variet (...)
  • 23 “[A Scepticke in Religion] is […] a man guiltier of credulity then he is taken to bee; for it is ou (...)
  • 24 “[A Discontented Man] is one that is falne out with the world, and will bee revengd’ [sic.] on hims (...)

21As shown in this passage, the representation of religious dissent and ideological indetermination was soon associated with elemental chaos and humoral imbalance, and in turn with melancholia. From 1615 onwards, authors of character-books identified melancholy as one of the “types” or characteristics of heterodox figures. Earle’s 1628 “Scepticke in Religion” is as inconstant as Stephens’s earlier “Discontented Man” (1615),22 as “unfix’t” in his opinions as a wandering star and as eager to stay dry as a melancholy cat.’23 Once religious dissent had become associated with melancholy, the latter naturally started to ressemble another quality which was already commonly associated with religious dissent, namely hypocrisy. In Earle’s character of a “Discontented Man” (1628), the term melancholy is used twice in the same paragraph to refer to the affected posture and stiff upper lip of a vexed Puritan.24 Albeit in verse, Jordan’s “Mellancholy Man” (1631) constitutes a rather close rewriting of Earle’s earlier “Discontented Man”:

  • 25 Thomas Jordan, Pictures of Passions, Fancies, and Affections, Poetically Deciphered, in Variety of (...)

[A Melancholly Man] is one that lives in singlenesse of folly, Whose Summum bonum is his Melancholly:[…] In company you’l finde him by these types, He gnaws his gloves, cuts trenchers, or breaks pipes […] He’s the contriver of crosse arms, fixt eyes, […] His practise are strange looks, and doth professe The egregious garb of studied carelesnesse […] He’s no Religion, though he do insist, Much on the Tenents of a Separatist.25

22Jordan’s self-proclaimed Separatist is just as contrived and affected in his melancholy as was Earle’s Puritan. But the very fact that those characters can put on the garb of melancholy and willingly adopt a melancholic stance makes for an irony which partly debunks the satire, since in this instance the satirist is cornered into accusing those characters of being precisely that which they choose to be.

“Put a bird in a cage, and he will die for sullenness”: thwarted spirits and unfathomable despair

23Those who methodically put on the fashionable appearance of contrived melancholy do not feel melancholy: their “folly” is to be vainly superficial, and they only ever affect to be truly affected by the disease. Their attempt at deluding others is lampooned as a ridiculous instance of self-delusion, a foolishness which is too benign to make tears flow. At the other end of the melancholy spectrum feature characters who have been led to distraction by their distempered melancholy. Their pain is beyond words, beyond cure, and has become the prison which they cannot escape. Instead of being made the laughing stock of the world, such melancholy characters serve as a dreadful reminder of the deadly despair the destructive delusions of the mind can cause.

  • 26 Earle, op. cit., sig. [B12v].

24In his character of a “Mellancholy Man” (1631), Jordan takes up two of the three causes which were given by Earle as possible explanations for the melancholy of his own “Discontented Man”, namely “a hard father, a peevish wench, or his Ambition thwarted”26:

  • 27 Jordan, op. cit., sig. [B6v].

If this disease proceed from being crost / In Love, [...] / There’s nothing more his extasie can move, / Then sad Romancies, where men die for Love; [...] / But if the rancour of this disposition; / Take root from being thwarted in Ambition, / The fierce resentments make him male-content, / And (growing great) proves oft a punishment, / To peaceful Nations [...].27

25Jordan’s and Earle’s descriptions of what might have caused their characters’ melancholy however stand as an exception: because it is most often perceived as a faked condition, the melancholy humour of rebellious dissenters is very rarely accounted for. Authors generally paid more attention to the cause of despair when the latter was understood as a genuine source of suffering and when their aim was to warn the reader rather than merely entertain him.

26In his essay “Of Discontents”, Stephens singles out excessive curiosity as a most common cause of dangerous humoral imbalance:

  • 28 Stephens, op. cit., p. 147.

[...] and indeed the most curious witts which seeke a reason for every trifle be a distemperature, or affliction to themselves [...]. Euclides did therfore answere well, when one would presse him in many nice questions of divinitye; Cetera quidem nescio, illud Scio quòd dii oderunt curiosos. / Thus much I know the Gods detest a curiosity.28

27But while Euclides is quoted as a model of intellectual temperance because of his submissive recognition of the limits of human knowledge, the author cannot help contradicting himself by recounting Aristotle’s legendary suicide and excepting the philosopher’s desperate desire to know more as “excuseable”, if not as worthy of commendation:

  • 29 Ibid., p. 151. For a more extravagant account of the same death, see Thomas Browne’s description en (...)

And lesse blameable was that sound Philosopher, who made the Ocean capable of him, because he was not capable of reason for the Ebbe and Flow; rather then such as ashamed to live, when either needinesse, [...] or disappointments contradict them. [...] But then to dye for ignorance may seeme excuseable.29

28The juxtaposition of the adjective “sound” and of the poetically euphemistic evocation of Aristotle’s suicide (“who made the Ocean capable of him”) is much more daring than the author’s careful phrasing may have us think, since it indirectly legitimizes man’s un-Christian right to despair if his attempts at knowing more were to be defeated. Instead of condemning Aristotle’s suicide as the sinful effect of human hubris, the author invites us to sympathize with the philosopher and to consider the reasons for his acts, thus raising the fundamental question of why God would have allowed us to know only in part, or of how it could have been a sin to eat of the tree of knowledge. Aristotle’s despair might have been caused by the humiliating realization of his own incapability. But it may also have been caused by the frustrating contradiction of a God who would deny man that very knowledge he has made him capable of.

29The opposition between Euclides’ admirable humility and Aristotle’s desperate quest for knowledge is thus qualified by the fact that Aristotle could hardly be condemned for having desired to know more. Furthermore, at a time when recurrent concerns were raised about the potentially dangerous effects on the believer’s mind and constitution of religious doctrines which insisted on man’s irreductible ignorance and the necessity for him to blindly accept his condition, Euclides’ Socratic submission might just as well have been interpreted as malignant despair.

  • 30 Francis Lenton, Characterismi, or, Lentons Leasures, Expressed in Essayes and Characters, London, P (...)

30Contemporary debates on salvation opposed those who believed, as Calvin had believed, that people were saved wholly and solely by the arbitrary grace of God and those who followed the influential seventeenth-century Dutch theologian Jacobus Arminius in thinking that salvation was offered to all but only achieved by those who chose to accept it. Such debates between Calvinists and Arminians were echoed in contemporary popular literature, although not in the form of easily identifiable tenets. Albeit slightly confusedly, Francis Lenton’s character of a “Desperate man” (1631) thus touches upon the questions which such doctrines would have raised. On the one hand, the description of the character seems to borrow from the Arminian theory in which the one who lacks active faith cannot expect to be saved. The character has made himself responsible for his own fate through his literal dés-espoir and “he can apprehend no mercy from his maker” because of his lack of faith.30 On the other hand, the description seems simultaneously to take on the competing Calvinist doctrine according to which grace is wholly independent from faith. The desperate man is born “graceless” and is as a consequence irrevocably doomed.

  • 31 Numerous scholarly articles have dealt with the difficult question of the intellectual capacities o (...)
  • 32 “[A Melancholy Man] lives in the subterraneal goal of grief and his sorrows are like so many furys (...)

31The classical metaphor of the “prison of the soul” inherited from Plato played a central role in such literary re-imaginings of man’s earthly condition. In most texts, it was used as in Plato to refer to the body which the believer would leave at the time of his death. For those who hoped to be saved, the metaphor of the prison prefigured the long-awaited metempsychosis of man’s soul in the afterlife31. But, in seventeenth-century literature, the “prison of the soul” also came to be used as a metaphor for man’s tortured soul, symbolizing the gnawing despair which put his mind on the rack. Those who are truly desperate do not await death as that which will deliver their soul of its bodily prison: they seek death as the only possible means of escaping the prison in which the incessant pains of their soul hold them. Samuel Person’s “Melancholy Man” (1664) thus lives in the “subterraneal goal of grief”, “his body is his prison, [...] and this Melancholy, his Executioner”.32 Similarly, Samuel Butler describes the head of his “Melancholy Man” (1667-1669?) as a haunted house in which his soul is held prisoner “like a Mole in the Earth”:

  • 33 [Samuel Butler], The Genuine Remains in Verse and Prose of Mr. Samuel Butler, Author of Hudibras. P (...)

[A Melancholy Man’s] Head is haunted, like a House, with evil Spirits and Apparitions, that terrify and fright him out of himself, till he stands empty and forsaken. […] The Fumes and Vapours that rise from his Spleen and Hypocondries have so smutched and sullied his Brain (like a Room that smoaks) that his Understanding is blear-ey’d, and has no right Perception of any Thing. […] After a long and mortal Feud between his inward and his outward Man, they at length agree to meet without Seconds, and decide the Quarrel, in which the one drops, and the other slinks out of the Way, and makes his Escape into some foreign World, from whence it is never after heard of. 33

32This depiction of a character in the throes of a mental plague is uncanningly evocative of the symptoms of schizophrenia and dementia as they are defined by modern psychiatry.

  • 34 I have layd open howe the bodie, and corporall things affect the soule, & how the body is affected (...)

33Interestingly, Butler and Person use the metaphor of the prison of the soul to refer both to the bodily frame of their characters and to the psychological torments they are submitted to. As a consequence, the characters’ escape is presented as simultaneously possible and impossible. The theological and medical causes of despair which Timothy Bright had taken pains to carefully distinguish in his Treatise34 are artistically combined into a meddley of images and vapours which shroud the character’s “final Escape into some foreign World” in an indecisive poetical blur, making it impossible for the reader to decide whether the character is a guilty sinner or a diseased victim.

  • 35 “And ’tis not the least part of his happiness, to be so long in chusing his Religion, (if he be yet (...)

34Most authors, however, seemed to agree that such deviations must be contained. Under the deleterious influence of various dissenting factions, Flecknoe’s irresolute Quaker goes stark raving mad and ends up in the asylum.35 As for Lenton’s “Desperate Man”, all he can hope for is to be executed as he truly deserves to be:

  • 36 Lenton, op. cit., sig. [G11v].

A desperate man, is one who hath forgot, God, the world, the Divel his Neighbor and himselfe [...]. He is a man of no faith at all, the reason he can apprehend no mercy from his maker, but all Justice. […] New-gate or a worse place, wil shortly take possession of him, if he mend not his manners, for a gracelesse man is good for nought but a gallowes.36

  • 37 “His Soul lives in his Body, like a Mole in the Earth, that labours in the Dark, and casts up Doubt (...)

35As illustrated by Aristotle’s mythical death, despair acts on the mind like a Pandora’s box, it is the contagious plague which opens all the unanswerable questions which man is forbidden to ask.37 It must as a consequence be silenced. While demented bigotry and an excessive love for God are the broad way to Bedlam, rebellious and inquisitive atheism is the highway to prison and hell.

“The walls of a prison can never hold me”: early modern imprisonment and the consolation of melancholy

  • 38 Thomas Overbury, Sir Thomas Overbury his Wife. With addition of many new elegies upon his untimely (...)
  • 39 For instance, both John Stephens’s 1615 collection and Richard Brathwaite’s Whimzies: or, a New Cas (...)
  • 40 Sandra Clark, The Elizabethan Pamphleteers: Popular Moralistic Pamphlets 1580-1640, London, Athlone (...)
  • 41 On the abstract detachment from such grim realities in earlier forms of prison-writing and the evol (...)
  • 42 John Stow, A Survey of London, written in the year 1598, revised in 1603, ed. Henry Morley, 1994, G (...)
  • 43 Donald Lupton, London and the Countrey Carbonadoed and Quartred into Several Characters, London, N. (...)

36Because of their diminutive format, character-books were particularly well fitted to describe the city and its inhabitants as a microcosmic reflection of the whole world as well as to depict places where all types met, such as public houses or prisons. The first “character of a prison” was published in the ninth edition of the Overburian characters compiled by Lawrence Lisle in 1616,38 and from then on it became common practice to include the character of a prison in any character collection.39 Sandra Clark has shown that the vogue for such “characterization” of prisons was on the whole rather conventional, the aim of their authors being “to display a talent for writing in a concise, witty, and morally penetrating manner, and not to describe personal experience or to expose abuses and enormities”.40 The very fact that a place could be described in the way humans were however suggests that the institution of the prison was perceived in more personal terms than simply four stone walls. As was suggested by Ruth Ahnert, the focus on the physical realities of the prison was in itself a literary innovation.41 In London and the Countrey Carbonadoed and Quartred into several Characters (1632), Donald Lupton’s projection of the human anatomy onto the city’s streets and buildings goes beyond the ready-made analogy of the city as an externalized body. Lupton’s topical descriptions follow on John Stow’s historical and architectural survey of the city,42 the physical structure of the city providing him with a novel topic for literary representation. Lupton’s collection takes on the form of an early urban psychogeography in which “characters” of such places as Bridewell, Ludgate or Newgate exert a palpable influence on those who inhabit it.43

  • 44 The OED cites early uses of the adjective “melancholy” to describe a place: “I’m as melancholy now (...)
  • 45 See for instance [Oscar Wilde], The Ballad of Reading Gaol, London, Leonard Smithers, 1898 [4th ed. (...)
  • 46 See the analysis of Dürer’s engraving of “Melancholia” in relation to Renaissance philosophy in Erw (...)

37In such representations, places themselves can be “melancholy”.44 In turn, the idea that a man’s disposition might be somewhat determined by his surroundings could be seen as a part decriminalisation of his melancholy thoughts. In most prison characters, it is in fact difficult to tell whether an individual’s desperate condition is used to legitimize his imprisonment or rather diagnosed as the dire effect on him of the dreadful atmosphere of the prison. The description of real-life prisons in character literature thus favoured another representation of melancholy, not as an ideological stigma but rather as a state of mind simultaneously determined by an internal humour and by an external environment, that of the prison. In that sense, prison characters foreshadow much later romanticized depictions of the prisoner’s melancholy as a form of poetic inspiration.45 They also hark back to earlier interpretations of melancholy as a self-reflexive sign of philosophical genius.46

  • 47 Burton, “Democritus Ivnior to the Reader”, op. cit., p. 39.
  • 48 “Nemo in nostra civitate mendicus esto, [let there be no beggars in our state], saith Plato: he wil (...)
  • 49 Ibid., p. 32.
  • 50 Ibid., p. 51.
  • 51 Ibid., p. 44.

38When Burton states that “all transgressours must needs be fooles”,47 he does not intend to say that all transgressors will be turned into madmen by a society which wishes to silence them irreversibly. He means that transgressors are deluded men who must be excluded from society in order to preserve the happy state of the commonwealth. But while Burton reiterates Plato’s idea that idle beggars should be purged from society “as a bad humour from the body”,48 he also acknowledges that there is no justice in this sublunar world, since “Many poor men […] are compelled to beg or steal […] and then hanged for theft”.49 And while Burton readily draws on the moralistic commonplace that phlegmatic characters who “had rather beg or loiter, and be ready to starve, than work”50 deserve their hapless fate, his medical understanding of melancholy makes him more likely to identify culprits as victims: “Put a bird in a cage he will die for sullennesse, or a beast in a penne, or take his yong ones or companions from him, and see what effect it will cause?”51

  • 52 See for instance Thomas Harman’s influential Groundworke of Conny-catching, the Manner of their Ped (...)
  • 53 Sandra Clark points out that four of the six characters dealing with prison life which appeared in (...)
  • 54 Geoffrey Mynshul, Essayes and Characters of a Prison and Prisoners, London, Printed for M. Walbanck (...)
  • 55 William Fennor, The Miseries of a Jaile: or A True Description of a Prison, with many remarkeable d (...)
  • 56 Mynshul, op. cit., sig. A3r. By contrast, John Taylor’s own anagrammatic account of prison life (Th (...)
  • 57 Mynshul, op. cit. sig. [A4v]. On the value of poetic inspiration as a cure for ennui (aegritudo ou (...)
  • 58 Burton, “Democritus Ivnior to the Reader”, op. cit., p. 6. Francis Wortley describes the cathartic (...)

39Prison characters reflect the popular discourse against social parasites inherited from sixteenth-century English caveat literature.52 But this does not prevent them from reviewing the physical and psychological pressure exerted by the actual experience of prison life. Among those authors who devoted not only one character but a whole character collection to the topic are Thomas Dekker (who is most likely to have authored the prison characters in the 1616 re-edition of the Overburian Characters),53 Geoffrey Mynshul (1618),54 and William Fennor (1619),55 who all spent time in prison at some stage. These authors make use of the highly conventional form of the character to express their own personal experience of prison life – “Characters of such things as by my owne experience I could say, probatum est.”56 Mynshul’s introductory statement that he made use of writing as a safeguard against the tediousness of the prison – “Courteous reader, only to banish melancholly, and to wade through tedious times, tedious in respect of this place, I gathered a few essayes and Characters”57 is echoed in Burton’s own conception of writing – and more specifically of what he calls “melancholizing” – as the best cure for melancholy : “I write of melancholy, by being busie to avoid melancholy. There is no greater cause of melancholy than idlenesse, no better cure than businesse as Rhasis holds.”58 For Burton and Mynshull, poetical melancholy can be sought after as a remedy against physical or circumstantial melancholy.

  • 59 Charles d’Orléans, L’Écolier de mélancolie, ed. Claudio Galderisi, Paris, Libraire Générale Françai (...)
  • 60 The beginning of the passage reads as follows: “Et pour que nul espoir de délivrance ne puisse adou (...)

40As a prisoner who calls upon the Muses to contemplate his sorry fate, Mynshull belongs to the tradition of poets, philosophers, rebels and kings who, after Ovid and Boethius, find a consolation in expressing their melancholy or despair at being exiled or imprisoned. Charles of Orleans, imprisoned in the Tower of London between 1415 and 1440 and having thus spent most of his life in exile, described himself as the disciple of melancholy in a series of movingly plaintive ballads and rondeaux : “Et comment l’entendez-vous, / Ennui et Mélancolie ? / Voulez-vous toute ma vie / Me tourmenter en courroux?”59 All that is left to the poet Théophile de Viau when imprisoned towards the end of his life, around 1623, is the ability to write about his hope of an impossible escape from the Conciergerie where he is cruelly confined. He compares this hope of escape to the desperate and doomed attempts of a drowning man to survive: “le naufragé, en pleine mer, submergé par les vagues et luttant inutilement, aurait une mort plus terrible, s’il ne lui était pas permis, en se servant librement de ses membres pour nager, de prolonger encore sa fin. N’est-ce pas un peu être libre que de songer à gagner la liberté?”60

41Similarly, Mynshul’s hackneyed metaphors have become the only consolatory thread to be followed in the labyrinthine complexities of the jail:

  • 61 Mynshul, op. cit., sig. B2r.

[A Prison] is a Microcosmus, a little world of woe, it is a map of misery, it is a place that will learne a young man more villany, if he be apt to take it, in one halfe yeare, then he can learne at twenty dicing-houses, bowling-allies, Brothell-houses or Ordinaries […]. It is as intricate a place as Rosamunds Labyrinth, and is as full of blinde Meanders, and crooked turnings that it is impossible to find the way out.61

  • 62 For an analysis of this passage in Fennor, see Claire Labarbe, “‘Mises en abyme’ and Satirical Desc (...)

42Even if the comforting images of the prison as a microcosmos are emotionally challenged by the author’s personal frustration at not being able to escape the dark corners of the prison, Mynshul finds a remedy to his melancholy in writing. Fennor’s account of prison life is made even more directly personal by the fact that his character of “a prisoner” assumes the role of first-person narrator. In an elaborate mise en abyme, Fennor stages the prisoner writing “the character of a prison”, a poetical description of the prison which is then inserted in Fennor’s text as the prisoner’s own melancholy production.62

  • 63 “A prison wall was round us both, / Two outcast men we were: / The world had thrurst us from its he (...)
  • 64 [A Prison] “Here, they talk any thing, for still they cry, / They can but be in Prison; and to die (...)
  • 65 “Thus these comparisons doe well agree, / Man to a Jayle may fitly likened bee: / The thought where (...)

43In seventeenth-century prison characters, just as in Oscar Wilde’s later visionary prison writings,63 the use of religious, mystical or metaphysical vocabulary and imagery in order to depict the terrible ordeal of physical and moral imprisonment was a favourite conveyer of deep feelings of despair and anxiety. Thomas Jordan describes the prison as “a fit Embleme for the latter Day”, a purgatory between heaven and hell where the prisoner must wait and doubt with no other prospect than death.64 As for John Taylor, he makes the most of the commonplace of the prison of the soul in order to turn the social threat of enforced imprisonment into a Christian memento mori, in the hope that the contemplation of the image of a prison may serve as an incentive for those who wish to gain the salvation of their soul.65

  • 66 Mynshul, op. cit., “Of Prisoners”, p. 5.

44Conversely, many authors advertised the ways in which philosophical and Christian contemplation could be of “great avail” for those undergoing actual imprisonment. In Mynshul’s essays, the consolation of the prisoner lies in the melancholic realization that those who believe themselves to be free are no freer than those who are held prisoner between four stone walls: “hadst thou the whole Country to walke in, yet thy soule is still imprisoned in thy corrupted body.”66 The prisoner’s strength to resist physical and mental oppression and human injustices can only be acquired through the stoic acceptance of his fate, just as a man’s final liberation in the afterlife requires him to accept his mortal condition. But when transforming the emprisonment he is unwillingly submitted to into something he actively abstracts himself from, the prisoner engages in a form of intense contemplation free men have no access to.

  • 67 See for instance the two characters of “A Discontented Man” by Stephens and by Earle (quoted in foo (...)
  • 68 Wortley, op. cit., “Upon a true contented Prisoner”, p. 55-58.
  • 69 Wye Saltonstall, Picturae Loquentes, or Pictures drawn forth in Characters, with a Poeme of a Maid, (...)

45By exploring and revealing the nooks and crannies of London’s grim prisons, seventeenth-century authors of character-books simultaneously “anatomized” the melancholy humours of their inmates. Through their minute description of the physical environment of prisons, they contributed to a rehabilitation of melancholy, no longer conceived in the strict medical sense of a humoural imbalance but rather as an inspiring state of mind. Satirists had tended to identify melancholy with political dissidence and religious hypocrisy. But while authors such as John Stephens (1615) and John Earle (1638) lampoon religious “melancholists” for their perpetual discontent and their fleeting allegiances,67 Wye Saltonstall’s character of “A Melancholy Man” (1631) and Francis Wortley’s character of a “true contented Prisoner” (1646)68 offer the positive model of figures who are engaged in deep and soothing contemplation: “When other men strive to seeme what they are not, hee alone is what he seemes not, being content in the knowledge of himselfe, and not waying his owne worth in the ballance of other mens opinions.”69 Books of characters, whose intention was to gather an entire human world in the diminutive format of an in-8 or an in-12, were particularly fit to encompass the myriad of seventeenth-century moods and behaviours which drew on earlier moral, poetical, medical and political representations of melancholy and contributed to its new literary understanding as a complex mental state under the influence of one’s immediate physical milieu.

  • 70 “Cosen German to Idlenesse, and a concomitating cause, which goes hand in hand with it, is nimia so (...)
  • 71 On “The Force of the Memory”, see Saint Augustines confessions translated [] By William Watts, rec (...)
  • 72 The quotation is from Wilhelm Reich. The “trap” which Reich refers to is not the bodily frame which (...)

46There has never been a more appropriate environment to poetically express one’s melancholy than a prison. While being deprived of everything, including their books and libraries, famous authors have had to break the shackles of their minds in order to free themselves from their “inforced solitariness”. In Burton’s terminology, “solitariness” can be a cause of lethal melancholy when it is imposed on the individual against his will. But when it is sought after as an enviable form of isolation, “solitariness” is on the contrary “most pleasant to such as are Melancholy given”.70 The prisoner can paradoxically make the most of his solitary confinement. His memory will revive the sense of things past or lost more vividly than they were originally perceived. And as the personified figure of Philosophy promises Boethius’ first-person narrator, the prisoner’s memory will re-locate the absent physical library on the shelves of his mind: “it is not the walls of your library with their glass and ivory decoration that I am looking for, but the seat of your mind. That is the place where I once stored away not my books, but the thing that makes them have any value, the philosophy they contain”.71 The experience of physical emprisonment allows one to better understand the folly of men, the illusions of those who freely walk imprisoned in their own bodies and souls. Such an experience could even serve to redefine human emprisonment as a universal condition and the “escape” as a form of moral and intellectual liberation from the illusion of freedom, since, to quote Wilhelm Reich, “It is possible to get out of a trap. However, in order to break out of a prison, one first must confess to being in a prison.”72

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Notes

1 Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy, what it is, with all the kindes, causes, symptomes, prognostickes, and severall cures of it. In three main partitions with their severall sections, members, and subsections. Philosophically, Medicinally, Historically, Opened and cut up […], Oxford, Printed by John Lichfield and James Short, for Henry Cripps, 1621, “Democritus Ivnior to the Reader”, p. 10.

2 “If this my Discourse be too medicinall, or savour too much of humanity, I promise thee that I will hereafter make thee amends in some Divine Treatise. […] I am so affected for my part, and hope as Theophrastus did by his Characters, that our posteritie ô friend Policles, shall be the better for this which we have written, by correcting and rectifying that which is amisse in themselves by our examples, and applying our precepts and cautions to their own use”; ibid., p. 13-14.

3 See Joseph Hall, Characters of Vertues and Vices, In Two Bookes, London, Printed by Melchior Bradwood, for Eleazar Edgar and Samuel Macham, 1608, “A Premonition of the Title and Use of Characters”, sig. A4r.

4 Timothy Bright, Characterie, an Arte of Shorte, Swifte and Secrete Sriting by Character, London, Published by Lond. J. Windet, at the assigne of Tim. Bright, 1588; Timothy Bright, A Treatise of Melancholie. Containing the causes thereof […] with the phisicke cure, and spirituall consolation for such as have thereto adjyned an afflicted conscience, etc., London, Printed by William Stansby, 1613.

5 Joseph Hall, Meditations and Vowes, Divine and Morall: serving for direction in Christian and Civill Practice: Newly enlarged with Characters of Vertues and Vices, London, Printed by William Stansby for Henrie Fetherstone, 1621; John Earle, Micro-cosmographie, or, a Peece of the World Discovered: in Essayes and Characters, London, Printed by William Stanby for Edward Blount, 1628.

6 Ben Jonson, The Comicall Satyre of Every Man out of his Humor. […] With the severall character of every person, London, Printed [by Adam Islip] for William Holme, 1600.

7 [Breton’s] verse satires gained considerable popularity during the first two decades of the seventeenth century, with passing references to their fashionable appeal in Rowland’s Tis Merrie when Gossips Meete (1602), Dekker’s The Guls Horn-Booke (1609), and Beaumont and Fletcher’s Wit without Money (1614). [] Most popular of all were his Pasquil series of 1600, including Pasquils Mad-Cappe (in two parts), Pasquils Passe, and Passeth not, Pasquils Mistresse, and Melancholike Humours (originally Pasquilles, Swullen Humours). The fact that no less than four different stationers (Bushell, Johnes, Smithicke, and Fisher) published these satires, suggests that Breton was probably hawking his manuscripts from stationer to stationer as they were completed; Michael G. Brennan, Breton, Nicholas (1554/5-c.1626), ODNB, http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/3341, last accessed 29 September 2015.

8 “Worthy Knight, I have read of many Essaies, and a kinde of Charactering of them, by such, as when I lookt into the forme, or nature of their writing, I have beene of the conceit, that they were but Imitators of your breaking the ice to their inventions […]”; Nicholas Breton, Characters upon Essaies Morall, and Divine, London, Printed by Edw. Griffin, for John Gwillim, 1615, To the Honorable, and my much worthy honored, truly learned, and Judicious Knight, Sr Francis Bacon”, sig. A3r-v.

9 We neither knowe God aright, nor seeke or love or worship him as we should. And for these defects, we involve ourselves into a multitude of errors, we swarve from this true love ad worship of God, which as a cause unto us of unspeakable miseries, running into both extreames, wee become fooles, madmen, without sence []. For methods sake I will reduce them [the parties affected] to a twofold divison, according to those two extreames of Excesse and Defect; Burton, op. cit., Part. 3, Sec. 4, Memb. I., Subs. I, p. 714.

10 Ibid.

11 Burton’s analysis of the different species of religious melancholy naturally follows his presentation of melancholic love. After an examination of the particular kind of love illustrated in the love of God (Ibid., Part. 3, Sec. 4, Memb. I., Subs. I, p. 706-717), Burton goes on to describe the two main types of religious melancholy, first that of the alumbrados, dissenters and heretics of all kinds (Ibid., p. 717-773) and second that of the desesperados, epicurians and atheists (Ibid., Part. 3, Sec. 4, Memb. 2. Subs. 5, p. 774-783).

12 The use of “melancholy” in the sense of black bile is first recorded in 1390 and that of “melancholia” in the exact same sense in 1398 (see OED).

13 The term “melancholia” was used in this same sense of pathological condition from 1607. “melancholia”: “a pathological state of despondency; severe depression; (now, Med.) severe endogenous depression, with loss of interest and pleasure in normal activities, disturbance of sleep and appetite, feelings of worthlessness and guilt, and thoughts of death or suicide. Rare in 18th century”; OED.

14 “melancholic”: “Both the Latin and the Greek words are found as adjectives, designating people and diseases, and as nouns, denoting a melancholic person”; OED.

15 This follows the evolution of the adjective “melancholish” as described in the OED: originally, “tending to cause or promote melancholy” (1562) and from the eighteenth century “inclined to melancholy; somewhat melancholy”.

16 From 1655, the Italianate noun “melancholico” was thus used in English to refer to a hyponcondriac; see OED.

17 “‘Religion’, even in Protestant England, was not a category isolated from other aspects of experience. If reformers abandoned their ambitious mid-sixteenth-century programme to create a Protestantized ‘popular culture’ of song and imagery, this did not mean a sudden divorce of religion from these media. Artisans and writers could not help but continue to embed their products with religious values and themes. Even the broadside ballads written by the early Elizabethan reformers had a life of their own well into the seventeenth century, and sometimes beyond. […] We must not think of religion as the exclusive preserve of the church, but look for ways in which ‘religious’ beliefs in the broadest sense were encountered throughout local society: in popular songs, in cloths on alehouse walls, in tables pasted up in cottages, or in accounts of grisly executions chanted out in the market-places”; Tessa Watt, Cheap Print and Popular Piety 1550-1640, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1991, p. 328.

18 The order was issued in 1599, when the archbishop of Canterbury and the bishop of London attempted to ban the publication of satire. See Richard A. McCabe, “Hall, Joseph (1574-1656)”, ODNB, http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/11976, last accessed 29 September 2015.

19 Hall, op. cit., “The Profane” p. 93, “The Superstitious” p. 87 and “The Hypocrite” p. 71.

20 Ibid., “Characterism of the Male-content”, p. 98.

21 Ibid., “The Unconstant”, p. 110-111.

22 “A Discontented man does and undoes, that hee may doe againe: thinking to loose his humor in variety”, John Stephens, Essayes and Characters, Ironicall, and Instructive, London, Printed by E. Allde for Phillip Knight, 1615, “Of Discontents”, Essay VIII, p. 153.

23 “[A Scepticke in Religion] is […] a man guiltier of credulity then he is taken to bee; for it is out of his beleefe of every thing, that hee fully beleeves nothing […]. In our differences with Rome he is strangely unfix’t, and […] you may sooner picke all Religions out of him then one”; Earle, op. cit. sig. [H12r]. On the early modern literary association between cats and melancholy, see Gail Kern Paster’s references to Edward Topsell’s Historie of the Foure-Footed Beasts (London, 1607) in his essay Melancholy Cats, Lugged Bears, and Early Modern Cosmology: Reading Shakespeare’s Psychological Materialism across the Species Barrier, in Gail Kern Paster, Katherine Rowe and Mary Floyd Wilson (eds), Reading the Early Modern Passions, Essays in the Cultural History of the Emotion, Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004, p. 113-129.

24 “[A Discontented Man] is one that is falne out with the world, and will bee revengd’ [sic.] on himselfe. Fortune ha’s deny’d him in something, and hee now takes pet, and will be miserable in spite. The roote of his disease is a selfe-humouring pride, and an accustom’d tendernesse, not to bee crost in his fancy […]. He has now forgone all but his pride, and is yet vaine glorious in the ostentation of his melancholy. His composure of himselfe is a studied carelesnesse with his armes a crosse, and a neglected hanging of his head and cloake. […] Hee never drawes his own lips higher then a smile, and frownes wrinckle him before fortie. Hee at the last fals into that deadly melancholy to bee a bitter hater of men”; Earle, op. cit. sig. [B12r].

25 Thomas Jordan, Pictures of Passions, Fancies, and Affections, Poetically Deciphered, in Variety of Characters, London, Printed by R. Wood, 1641, sig. [B5v- B6v].

26 Earle, op. cit., sig. [B12v].

27 Jordan, op. cit., sig. [B6v].

28 Stephens, op. cit., p. 147.

29 Ibid., p. 151. For a more extravagant account of the same death, see Thomas Browne’s description entitled “Of the death of Aristotle”: This Sea [Euripus] with wondrous impetuosity ebbeth and floweth foure times a day, although it be commonly said seven times, and generally opiniond, that Aristotle despairing the reason, drowned himself therein; Thomas Browne, Pseudodoxia Epidemica or, Enquiries into Very many received Tenents and commonly presumed Truths, London, Printed by T. H. for Edward Dod, 1646, book 7, chapter 13, p. 365.

30 Francis Lenton, Characterismi, or, Lentons Leasures, Expressed in Essayes and Characters, London, Printed by J[ohn] B[eale] for Roger Michell, 1631, sig. [G11v].

31 Numerous scholarly articles have dealt with the difficult question of the intellectual capacities of the soul once separated from the body, especially in relation to Platos Phaedo and his Respublica. Sylviane Bokdam offers an interesting approach to such questions in her article “La Théorie ficinienne de la vacance de l’âme dans la Theologia Platonica: Songe, Prophétie et Liberté”, Bibliothèque d'Humanisme et Renaissance, 57.3, 1995, p. 537-549.

32 “[A Melancholy Man] lives in the subterraneal goal of grief and his sorrows are like so many furys to torment him crueller, then that ancient Rhadamante, that tear him as though he were already lodg’d in Acheronta’s prisons, surely this Atrabilis is the Water of Stix or of that Laethean lake, I should call this humour Orcus, and his body Hell […]. […] his night of sorrow is come, his body is his prison, his fetters are his vexatious thoughts, and this Melancholy, his Executioner; and now you may hear his sad Catastrophe, of this Tragedy of his; O Death is the end, Exit”; Samuel Person, An Anatomical Lecture of Man, or a Map of the Little World, Delineated in Essayes and Characters, London, Printed by T. Mabb, For Samuell Ferris, 1664, p. 79.

33 [Samuel Butler], The Genuine Remains in Verse and Prose of Mr. Samuel Butler, Author of Hudibras. Published from the Original Manuscripts, formerly in the Possession of W. Longueville, Esq; With Notes by R. Thyer, Keeper of the Public Library at Manchester, London, Printed for J. and R. Tonson, 1759, vol. 2, p. 134-135.

34 I have layd open howe the bodie, and corporall things affect the soule, & how the body is affected of it againe: what the difference is betwixt natural melancholie, and that heavy hande of God upon the afflicted conscience, tormented with remorse or sinne, & feare of his judgement; Bright, A Treatise of Melancholie, sig. [iij v].

35 “And ’tis not the least part of his happiness, to be so long in chusing his Religion, (if he be yet to chuse) amongst so many Sects as we have now adayes, though ’tis suppos’d he is a Quaker, by his wavering disposition; and if he be, the next news you hear from him will be from Bedlam”; Richard Flecknoe, Aenigmatical Characters. Being Rather a New Work, then New Impression of the Old, London, Printed by R. Wood for the author, 1665, p. 71-72 [1658]. For another mention of the priviledged relationship between dissenting preachers and Bedlam, see Flecknoe’s character of an Anabaptist: “[…] whilst others with their Sermons people Heaven, they with theirs onely people Bedlam and the common Goal. He [an Anabaptist, or Fifth-Monarchy man] calls Mirth Prophaneness, Melancholly Godliness, Obedience Luke-warmness, and Faction Zeal”; ibid., p. 28.

36 Lenton, op. cit., sig. [G11v].

37 “His Soul lives in his Body, like a Mole in the Earth, that labours in the Dark, and casts up Doubts and scruples of his own Imaginations, to make that rugged and uneasy, that was plain and open before”; Butler, The Genuine Remains, p. 134-135.

38 Thomas Overbury, Sir Thomas Overbury his Wife. With addition of many new elegies upon his untimely and much lamented death. As also Newes, and divers more Characters, (never before annexed) Written by Himselfe and other Learned Gentlemen. The ninth impression augmented, London, Printed by Edward Griffin for Lawrence Lisle, 1616. On this particular edition and the ways in which the editor Lisle made the most of the scandal of Overbury’s imprisonment by adding six prison characters by Thomas Dekker to the collection, see Bruce McIver, “‘A Wife Now the Widdow’: Lawrence Lisle and the Popularity of the Overburian Characters”, South Atlantic Review, 59.1, Jan. 1994, p. 38. According to McIver, “One of the newly added characters, ‘A Prisoner’, describes with uncanny accuracy the changes wrought in Overbury by the poison-spiked medications he was taking supposedly for his recovery: ‘[W]hatsoever his complexion was before, it turnes (in this place) to choller or deepe melancholy so that he needs every howre to take physicke to loose his body for that (like his estate) is very foule and corrupt and extremely hard bound’ (Paylor, Overburian 85)” ; ibid.

39 For instance, both John Stephens’s 1615 collection and Richard Brathwaite’s Whimzies: or, a New Cast of Characters, London, Printed by F[elix] K[ingston], 1631, include characters of “A Jaylor”. Thomas Jordan’s 1641 collection features the character of “A Prison”.

40 Sandra Clark, The Elizabethan Pamphleteers: Popular Moralistic Pamphlets 1580-1640, London, Athlone Press, 1983, p. 82.

41 On the abstract detachment from such grim realities in earlier forms of prison-writing and the evolution towards more “realistic” or a least directly critical forms of prison writing in the early seventeenth century, see Ruth Ahnert: “In the last years of the sixteenth century, and at the beginning of the seventeenth century, prisoners increasingly wrote satires representing prisoners, their keepers; and the conditions in which they were kept. Such texts represented the system as cruel and corrupt, and contained both implicit and expicit appeals for reform. […] By contrast, in the writing of […] earlier prisoners […] there is a marked absence of commentary upon the prisons in which they were kept, either in terms of the prisons’ physical conditions or their administration”; Ahnert, The Rise of Prison Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Cambridge and New York, Cambridge University Press, 2013, p. 22-23.

42 John Stow, A Survey of London, written in the year 1598, revised in 1603, ed. Henry Morley, 1994, Guernsey, Channel Islands, Sutton Publishing Limited, 1997.

43 Donald Lupton, London and the Countrey Carbonadoed and Quartred into Several Characters, London, N. Okes, 1632. See his characters of Bridewell, Ludgate and Counters, Newgate, but also of Christ-Hospitall and Bedlam.

44 The OED cites early uses of the adjective “melancholy” to describe a place: “I’m as melancholy now as Fleet-streete in a long vacation”; Thomas Dekker and John Webster, North-ward Hoe, London, G. Eld, 1607, I., sig. B1r, and “Padua is the most melancholy city in Europe”; William Lithgow, The Totall Discourse, of the Rare Aduentures, and Painefull Peregrinations of long nineteene yeares trauayles, London, Nicholas Okes, 1632, I., 43. Padua also happens to be the city where Boethius was emprisoned and wrote the Consolation of Philosophy.

45 See for instance [Oscar Wilde], The Ballad of Reading Gaol, London, Leonard Smithers, 1898 [4th ed., same year as the first edition] and his manuscript letter to Lord Alfred Douglas which is held at the British Library (http://www.bl.uk/collection-items/manuscript-of-de-profundis-by-oscar-wilde, last accessed on 16 November 2015.

46 See the analysis of Dürer’s engraving of “Melancholia” in relation to Renaissance philosophy in Erwin Panofsky, The Life and Art of Albretcht Dürer, with a new introduction by Jeffrey Chipps Smith, Princeton, N. J., Princeton University Press, 2005.

47 Burton, “Democritus Ivnior to the Reader”, op. cit., p. 39.

48 “Nemo in nostra civitate mendicus esto, [let there be no beggars in our state], saith Plato: he will have them purged from a comonwealth, as a bad humour from the body, they are like so many ulcers and boyles, and must be cured before the melancholy body can be eased”, ibid., p. 52. As well as the following passage: “Where they be generally riotous, and contentious, where there be many diseases, many discords, many lawes, many law suits, many lawyers, and many Physitians, it is a manifest signe of a distempered Melancholy state, as Plato long since maintained: for where such kind of men swarme, they will make worke for themselves, and make that body Politike diseased, which was otherwise sound”, Ibid., p. 48.

49 Ibid., p. 32.

50 Ibid., p. 51.

51 Ibid., p. 44.

52 See for instance Thomas Harman’s influential Groundworke of Conny-catching, the Manner of their Pedlers-French, and the Meanes to Understand the Same, with the Cunning Slights of the Counterfeit Cranke, London, by John Danter for William Barley, 1592.

53 Sandra Clark points out that four of the six characters dealing with prison life which appeared in the ninth impression of the Lisle characters duplicate subjects treated in chapters XI, XII, XIII and XVI of [Dekker’s] Villanies Discovered: “Dekker’s description of a prison in the last part of Jests is a kind of early study for it, and sufficiently similar to support the theory that he wrote the Overburian prison characters”; Clark, op. cit., p. 82. See Thomas Dekker, Jests to make you merie with the conjuring up of Cock Watt, (the walking spirit of Newgate) to tell tales. Unto which is added, the Miserie of a Prison, and a Prisoner. And a paradox in praise of serjeants. Written by T. D. and George Wilkins, Imprinted at London, By N[icholas] O[kes] for Nathaniell Butter, 1607 and The Belman of London, Bringing to light the most notorious villanies that are now practised in the Kingdome, London, for N. Butter [actually by William Stansby], 1608. On Dekker and debtors’ prisons see also Marie-Thérèse Jones-Davies, “Thomas Dekker et la prison pour dettes”, in Marie-Thérèse Jones-Davies (ed), Justice, juges, prisons dans le théâtre de Shakespeare et dans les œuvres de ses contemporains, Actes des congrès de la Société Française Shakespeare, 2, 1980, p. 113-130, http://shakespeare.revues.org/130, last accessed 7 November 2015.

54 Geoffrey Mynshul, Essayes and Characters of a Prison and Prisoners, London, Printed for M. Walbancke, 1618.

55 William Fennor, The Miseries of a Jaile: or A True Description of a Prison, with many remarkeable devices: wherein young gentlemen and novices are intangled, to their utter overthrow, and perpetuall imprisonment. With many speciall characters of serjeants, key-turners, keepers, beadles, and other officers abusing their places, themselves, and other men. Pleasant, and not unprofitable, London, Printed for R. Rounthwaite, 1619.

56 Mynshul, op. cit., sig. A3r. By contrast, John Taylor’s own anagrammatic account of prison life (The Praise and Vertue of a Jayle, and jaylers. With the most excellent Mysterie, and necessary use of all sorts of hanging. Also a touch at Tyburne for a Period, and the Authors free leave to let them be hanged, who are offended at the booke without cause [in verse], London, Printed by J[ohn] H[aviland] for R[ichard] B[adger], 1623) and Richard Brathwaite’s later collection (The captive-captain: or; or, The restrain’d cavalier; drawn to his full bodie in these characters; I. Of a prison. II. The anatomy of a jayler. III. A jaylers wife. IV. The porter. V. The century. VI. The fat prisoner. VII. The lean prisoner. VIII. The restrain’d cavalier, with his melancholy fancy [...], London, Printed by J. Grismond, 1665) maintained a cold distance to their subject.

57 Mynshul, op. cit. sig. [A4v]. On the value of poetic inspiration as a cure for ennui (aegritudo ou taedium vitae) according to Seneca and Renaissance humanists, see Marc Fumaroli, “La mélancolie et ses remèdes”, in La Diplomatie de l’esprit, Paris, Hermann, 1994, p. 409.

58 Burton, “Democritus Ivnior to the Reader”, op. cit., p. 6. Francis Wortley describes the cathartic effect which the entertaining composition of characters had on him in similar terms: “As for my Characters and Translations they are fruits of Phansie, and were but as Salads are to solid dishes, to sharpen the appetite: so these to my serious studies were, or as Davids Harp, to the melancholy thoughts of my imprisonment. I must acknowledge (with thanks to God) I found singular comfort in this way, and this sufferance, and that it set an edge upon my over-tyred and dulled braine […]. I wish them [my Phansies] […] such a proportion of inward comfort as may make them as happy in their Liberty as I am in prison”; Francis Wortley, Characters and Elegies, [London], 1646, “The Epistle Dedicatory”, sig. [A3v].

59 Charles d’Orléans, L’Écolier de mélancolie, ed. Claudio Galderisi, Paris, Libraire Générale Française, 1995, p. 74.

60 The beginning of the passage reads as follows: “Et pour que nul espoir de délivrance ne puisse adoucir pour moi les désagréments d’une existence si déplaisante, pour que me soit interdit, dans le découragement où me plonge une interminable captivité, le réconfort d’une tentative d’évasion même vaine, on me confine derrière vingt-deux portes, au fond d’un cachot de cette forteresse. D’une si rigoureuse prison, même un hercule ne réussirait pas à sortir. Et pourtant les malheureux trouvent quelque douceur (aussi illusoire soit-elle) à rechercher un sort meilleur”; Théophile de Viau, Théophile en prison et autres pamphlets, ed. Robert Casanova, Utrecht, Jean-Jacques Pauvert, 1967, p. 68.

61 Mynshul, op. cit., sig. B2r.

62 For an analysis of this passage in Fennor, see Claire Labarbe, “‘Mises en abyme’ and Satirical Descriptions: ‘Characters’ of Writing and Writers in Seventeenth-Century England”, Études Épistémè, 21, 2012, http://episteme.revues.org/407, last accessed 29 September 2015.

63 “A prison wall was round us both, / Two outcast men we were: / The world had thrurst us from its heart, / And God from out His care: / And the iron gin that waits for Sin / Had caught us in it snare”; Wilde, op. cit, p. 9.

64 [A Prison] “Here, they talk any thing, for still they cry, / They can but be in Prison; and to die / (Their Hopes are come to such a low Decrease) / Daunts not, ’tis but a new word for Release: / The un-hung Chambers, with the numerous Beds , / (Where open-eyed they lay their carefull Heads) / Look like Church-yards, and we may aptly say, / Is a fit Embleme for the latter Day; / Where, wth their naked arms stretch’d to the Clouds, / They rise agen with neither Shirts, nor Shrouds; / The Beds are Dust, Worms are the Lice and Fleas, / The dreadfull Summons, are the Jailors Keyes; / The Bail-dock Purgatory, and Guild-hall / A Judgement-seat, that salves, or ruines all: / All humors in this vacuum are hurl’d, / To make it an Epitome oth’ World”; Jordan, op. cit., sig. [D3v]).

65 “Thus these comparisons doe well agree, / Man to a Jayle may fitly likened bee: / The thought whereof may make him wish with speed / To have his prisoned soule releast and freed. / Thus Jayles and Meditations of a Jayle, / May serve a Christian for his great availe”; Taylor, op. cit. [B6r])

66 Mynshul, op. cit., “Of Prisoners”, p. 5.

67 See for instance the two characters of “A Discontented Man” by Stephens and by Earle (quoted in footnotes 22 and 24).

68 Wortley, op. cit., “Upon a true contented Prisoner”, p. 55-58.

69 Wye Saltonstall, Picturae Loquentes, or Pictures drawn forth in Characters, with a Poeme of a Maid, London, Printed by Tho. Cotes, and are to be sold by Tho. Slater, 1631, sig. [C8r].

70 “Cosen German to Idlenesse, and a concomitating cause, which goes hand in hand with it, is nimia solitudo, too much solitarinesse, by the testimony of all Physitians, Cause and Symptome both: but as it is heere put for a cause, it is either coact, enforced, or els voluntary. Enforced Solitarinesse is commonly seene in students, Monkes, Friers, Anchorites, that by their order and course of life, must abandon all company, and society of other men, and betake themselves to a private life; Such as live in prison, or in some desert place, and cannot have company […] This inforced solitarinesse takes place, and produceth this effect soonest in such as have spent their time Jovially peradventure in all honest, recreations, in all good company, & are upon a sudden confined, & restrained of their liberty, and barred from their ordinary associates: solitarinesse is very irkesome to such most tedious, and a sudden cause of great inconvenience. Voluntary solitarinesse is that which is familiar with Melancholy, and gently brings on as a Siren, a shooing-horne, or some Sphinx to this irrevocable gulfe, a primary cause Piso cals it, most pleasant it is at first to such as are Melancholy given, to walke alone in some solitary grove […]”; Burton, op. cit., Part. 1, Sect. 2, Memb. 2 Subs. 6, “Immoderate Exercise a cause, and how. Solitarinesse, Idleness”, p. 115.

71 On “The Force of the Memory”, see Saint Augustines confessions translated [] By William Watts, rector of St. Albanes, Woodstreete, London, Printed by John Norton, for John Partridge, 1631, Book 10, chapter 8. See also the address of personified “Philosophy” to the first-person narrator in Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy; Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy, translated with an introduction by Victor Watts, London, Penguin Classics, 1999, p. 17.

72 The quotation is from Wilhelm Reich. The “trap” which Reich refers to is not the bodily frame which the soul will be freed of in the afterlife. In his theory, “the trap is man’s emotional structure, his character structure”, including religion and its illusory promise of an afterlife: “There is little use in devising systems of thought about the nature of the trap if the only thing to do in order to get out of the trap is to know the trap and to find the exit. Everything else is utterly useless, Singing hymns about the suffering in the trap, as the enslaved Negro does; or making poems about the beauty of freedom outside the trap, dreamed of within the trap, or promising a life outside the trap after death, as Catholicism promises its congregations, or confessing a semper ignorabimus as do the resigned philosophers, or building a philosophical system about the despair of life within the trap, as did Schopenhauer […]”; Reich, The Murder of Christ, The Emotional Plague of Mankind, New York, Noonday Press, 1966, p. 3.

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Claire Labarbe, « Casting Characters in the Dark Ink of Melancholy: Figures of Dissent and Imprisonment in Seventeenth-Century Literature », Études Épistémè [En ligne], 28 | 2015, mis en ligne le 09 décembre 2015, consulté le 24 avril 2017. URL : http://episteme.revues.org/756 ; DOI : 10.4000/episteme.756

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Claire Labarbe

Claire Labarbe is in the final year of her Ph.D. at the Université Sorbonne Nouvelle - Paris 3. She teaches anglophone literature, translation and civilisation as an A.T.E.R. (assistant professor and researcher) at the Université Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense. Her thesis focuses on seventeenth-century English character-books, a form of literature which has received little critical attention although it plays a central role in seventeenth-century satire and theatre. Claire has particular interest in hand-press printing, book history, urban history, street literature, prison writing and the culture of curiosity. Published articles include ‘Mises en abyme and satirical descriptions: “characters” of writing and writers in seventeenth-century England’, Études Épistémè, 21, Spring 2012 (http://episteme.revues.org/407, last accessed 31 October 2015), and ‘“He onely reades those characters, where time hath eaten out the letters” : du vain compilateur au fin collectionneur’, 27, Autumn 2015 (http://episteme.revues.org/466, last accessed 31 October 2015). She has given papers at the Print Networks annual conference (Leicester, 2012), the Birkbeck Early Modern Society Annual Student Conference (London, 2014) and as part of the ‘Crowd Control’ panel at the RSA Annual Conference (NYC, 2014). She has also contributed a paper on playing cards at Queen Mary University (London, 2014) as a member of a project on objects in early modern literature.

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