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Beyond MelancholySadness and Selfhood in Renaissance England$

Erin Sullivan

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9780198739654

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: April 2016

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198739654.001.0001

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Sadness and Self-authorship

(p.198) Conclusion
Beyond Melancholy

Erin Sullivan

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

The book concludes with a consideration of how deeply embedded sadness was in Renaissance medical, philosophical, and theological conceptions of selfhood, and also points to the relevance of such issues today. Reflecting on the trend in early modern literary studies to read most representations of passion as articulations of humoral materialism, it argues for greater emotional pluralism in the period and for an understanding of Renaissance sadness that stretches beyond melancholy. While all affective experience offered opportunities for self-definition, it suggests that sadness was especially and even exceptionally generative of self-identity given its intensely contradictory valuation in medico-philosophical and religious writings. In this sense it was among the most powerfully self-revelatory emotions of the period, enabling forms of emotive improvisation that recognized, reconfigured, and also refuted cultural expectations about the nature of passion and its place in human life.

Keywords:   sadness, selfhood, melancholy, Renaissance, Galenic humoralism, emotive improvisation

Whether diseased or damning, holy or humorous, empowering or enrapturing, sadness in Renaissance England was never far from sight. ‘Nowe are the causes of mans sorrowes many’, George Puttenham (1529–90/1) wrote in The Arte of English Poesie (1589), with ‘the death of his parents, frends, allies, and children’, ‘the losse of goods and worldly promotions, honour and good renowne’, and ‘the travails and torments of love forlorne’ numbering just a few of the misfortunes that might visit people during the course of their lives.1 Indeed, in a society in which the average life expectancy barely pushed beyond 40, in which infant mortality rates could be as high as one in three, and in which mortality levels across the entire population were typically two to three times what they are today, the terrible losses of illness and death, and the social, political, and financial uncertainties that often came with them, could hardly be avoided.2 In addition to such ‘worldly’ losses, philosophers and physicians also suggested that persistent, malignant sadness could arise from seemingly no cause at all, and theologians in turn warned that the profusion of sin in the world, rooted in mankind’s fall, would almost certainly lead to further anguish. It perhaps comes as little surprise, then, that Robert Burton characterized life in this period as one shot through with recurrent gloom: ‘from these Melancholy Dispositions, no man living is free, no Stoicke, none so wise, none so happy, none so patient, so generous, so godly, so divine’. Such discontent was ‘the Character of Mortalitie’, he concluded, summing up his comments with a verse from Job: ‘Man that is borne of a woman, is of short continuance, and full of trouble’ (14:1).3

But if this brief catalogue of Renaissance sorrows paints a rather bleak picture of the emotional life of the period, then the preceding chapters have told a somewhat different story. In them we have seen how sadness could indeed be pervasive, but that it need not follow that it was also destructive. Physicians, philosophers, theologians, and laymen all widely believed that intense sorrow could harm the body even to death, but they also agreed that not all sorrows were created alike. Sad (p.199) feelings could arise in different parts of the mind, body, and soul, and though these three entities constantly worked together to produce the Renaissance ‘self’, they remained distinct from one another in significant ways. Sorrows of the divine soul were regularly separated from those of the embodied mind, and as a result the kind of pious selfhood arising from penitential sadness for sin could be viewed as fundamentally different from that created by extended mourning for worldly losses. At the same time, the distinction was not as simple as religious sorrow being good and earthly sorrow being bad: as we have seen throughout this book, every category of sadness retained scope for a wide range of positive and negative associations, whether in terms of the feelings themselves or the kinds of emotive selfhood that they might produce.

Indeed, although grief for loss of love, friends, reputation, and life was typically characterized as physically and morally harmful if taken too far, it could also evolve into a powerful form of social or political resistance, acting as a marker of one’s opposition to the reigning moral order. In other instances, it could be repositioned as a kind of spiritual insight, enabling unusual understanding and even prophetic knowledge despite its potentially damaging effects on the body and mind. Likewise, while godly sorrow was widely considered a virtuous and spiritually enhancing form of feeling, if it became disassociated from the parallel affections of joy for God’s love and hope in salvation then it might instead move into the realm of dreaded and damning despair. Such differences, we have seen, were often determined by the social contexts in which instances of sadness arose and the active interpretations that sufferers, healers, and communities ascribed to them. If, as we saw in Chapter 1, sadness or ‘sӕd-ness’ was at its heart a kind of fullness or overabundance of experience, then it was up to those affected by this potent feeling to try to determine what exactly constituted it, as well as what its personal, social, and political ramifications might be. In some cases these judgements closely followed prevailing teachings or ‘scripts’ about the nature and consequences of sadness, but in others they moved in strikingly different directions, offering a form of alternative interpretation known throughout this book as emotive improvisation.

Such improvisation was more common than we as emotions historians have perhaps realized. Although ample attention has been paid to the social and cultural construction, definition, and coding of emotion over time, the ways in which individuals have elaborated upon and reworked these collectively shared emotional scripts have received less sustained consideration. Perhaps this is partly due to the fact that in recent years the history of emotions as a discipline has tended to stay away from the more imaginative and improvisatory sources in which such deviance most often surfaces—that is, literary and other mimetic, ‘world-creating’ texts. One of the aims of this book has been to show how literary sources and methods can be integrated into cultural histories of the emotions in ways that foreground the diversity, complexity, and at times idiosyncrasy of emotional experience, without losing sight of the wider and more collectively agreed-upon view. Such sources often bear the marks of sustained emotional effort or ‘work’, not only in terms of the passionate experiences they enact within the lives of their own characters, but also the intense feelings and forms of knowledge they can generate among readers. (p.200) By combining sustained literary analysis of such sources with the historical investigation of influential medical, philosophical, and religious texts, this study has aimed to bring together the most important emotional scripts and the most striking emotive improvisations that made up the understanding and experience of sadness at this time.

Throughout this book the focus has remained fixed on the emotional life of Renaissance England, with some occasional and brief forays into adjacent countries and periods. But it is worth emphasizing the potential relevance of such discussion to the study of emotional experience in other times and places, including our own. Although the way we talk about sadness and its different manifestations has certainly changed over time, the idea that sorrow continues to mark our lives, and often in very meaningful and self-altering ways, is one that even the strictest social constructivists would, I think, struggle to refute. Belief in humoral melancholy may be long gone, but we still have very embodied ways of understanding profound dejection, which we may at times contrast to more mood-related or spiritually imbued varieties of unhappiness. Who we look to for help in making sense of such experiences (doctors, pastors, nutritionists, therapists, artists) can deeply influence how we understand the nature of our sorrows, as well as what we think, ultimately, we should do about them. According to the writer and philosopher Alain de Botton, ‘[t]he largest part of what we call “personality” is determined by how we’ve opted to defend ourselves against anxiety and sadness’, and in our own times these defences may take the shape of organized religions, prescription medications, exercise regimes, personal hobbies, career choices, or indeed the people with whom we choose to spend our lives.4 As in the past, the kinds of sadness we experience today and the way we choose to respond to them are part of a constant process of self-exploration and authorship that occurs both from the inside out (what we might call naturally or ‘ontologically’) as well as from the outside in (what we might call culturally or ‘technologically’).

De Botton talks about the precautions people take against sadness, and the varieties of personality or selfhood such defences produce, but thinking back to the Renaissance we might also speak of the measures people took towards sadness, and the opportunities for self-authorship that could come with it. Reflecting on the value of solitude in a digitally networked world, the comedian Louis C.K. has celebrated the occasional experience of loneliness and the introspective sadness it may bring: ‘Sadness is poetic. You’re lucky to live sad moments.’5 Renaissance writers probably would not have gone so far as to call sadness ‘lucky’, but they did at times position it as useful, productive, life-enhancing, and enlightening. Sadness helped create difference, and that difference enabled the possibility of seeing the world, and the self, from a new point of view. Things changed when looked at with sad eyes, be they (p.201) the shadowy perspectives haunting the court in Shakespeare’s Richard II, the sublimating nature of physical suffering in Donne’s Devotions, man’s humbled prayers to God in Herbert’s The Temple, or the stark logic of predestination in Perkins’s ‘Table’. Though Renaissance philosophers, doctors, and preachers regularly described sadness as the most dangerous, disease-inducing, and even damning of passions, this book has shown how it could also be one of the most spiritually transformative and personally enriching kinds of feeling. And while all passions at this time brought with them the potential for self-expression and definition, none did so in such dramatically contrasting ways as sadness. No passion proved more fatal in the London Bills of Mortality, and yet none demonstrated heartbreaking, soul-saving humility more clearly in Protestant devotional writings. In this sense, we might say that sadness was one of the most self-generative passions in the period, opening up an extraordinarily diverse range of possibility in the lives of its sufferers.

Previous studies have considered the complex cultural meanings and values associated with melancholy, but a central aim of this study has been to show how melancholy was just one part of a wider field of affective experience related to Renaissance sadness. It was, of course, a very important part, and it is also true that contemporary writers like Burton would have very likely categorized all of the forms of sadness discussed in this book as one variety of melancholy or another. But, as we have seen, many other writers would not have been as happy with such a designation. Though melancholy had the potential in some texts to expand out to all parts of selfhood and life, for many people it remained first and foremost associated with the over-bilious body, and the manifold mental, abdominal, and gastric problems that came with it. By taking sadness beyond melancholy, many writers in the Renaissance, particularly those of a godly disposition, laid claim to a world of sorrow that had less to do with physical disruption and more to do with spiritual intervention. In this sense they also took the experience of passion beyond the body, and hopefully this book has shown that scholars of the period might do so too.

Passion in Renaissance England was always a pluralistic affair, and frequently also a polarizing one. There was no one way to read and judge a person’s experience of passionate feeling, even if expository texts from the period sometimes suggested otherwise. This was particularly true in the case of sadness: down in the depths of this potent, tumultuous fullness lay the power to kill, to discover truth, to be made a laughing stock, to demonstrate genius, to speak to God, to atone for sin, to face damnation, to seek salvation. To return to the very beginning of this book, we can perhaps understand why Antonio from The Merchant of Venice is at such pains to ‘know’ his sadness, since in learning more about it he will almost certainly come closer to knowing himself. In this sense sadness was in no way a mere ‘disease’ of the body and soul, as some writers would have had it; rather, it was both a product of selfhood and a key to understanding and even creating it. Not all people believed equally in each of sadness’s possible guises, but they did agree on one thing: sadness always revealed something important about the relationship between the mental, physical, and spiritual self, and for this reason it was, and remains, a defining experience in culture and in life.


(1) George Puttenham, The Arte of English Poesie (London, 1589), 38.

(2) These figures are from Ralph Houlbrooke, Death, Religion and the Family in England 1480–1750 (Oxford, 1998), 5–18, which offers a synthesis of major studies of early modern demographics, the most central being Edward Anthony Wrigley and Roger Schofield, The Population History of England 1541–1871: A Reconstruction (Cambridge, 1981).

(3) Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy, ed. Thomas C. Faulkner, Nicolas K. Kiessling, and Rhonda L. Blair, 6 vols (Oxford, 1989–2000), 1.136.19–24.

(4) Alain de Botton, Twitter post, http://twitter.com/alaindebotton/status/191413884811350016 [accessed 15 April 2012, no longer available]. De Botton has described Twitter as an ideal forum for modern-day aphorisms, and he uses it as such.

(5) Quoted in Neetzan Zimmerman, ‘Louis C.K.’s explanation of why he hates smartphones is sad, brilliant’, Gawker, 20 September 2013, http://gawker.com/louis-c-k-s-explanation-of-why-he-hates-smartphones-is-1354954625.