A Treatise of Melancholy. Containing the causes thereof, and reasons of the strange effects it worketh in our minds and bodies: with the physicke cure, and spirituall consolation for such as haue thereto adioyned afflicted conscience. The difference betwixt it, and Melancholy, with divers philosophicall discourses touching actions, and affections of Soule, Spirit, and Body: the particulars whereof are to be seene before the booke. By T. Bright Doctor of Phisicke. Newly Corrected and amended.
London: Printed by William Stansby, 1613.
Octavo: 14.5 x 9.4 cm. , 347,  p. (last leaf blank). A8 (A1 blank), †4, A-Y8, Z8 (Z7 and 8 blanks)
THIRD AND FINAL EDITION (The first two editions were printed in 1586).
Bound in 17th c. blind-ruled calf, rebacked in the 20th c., hinges and extremities rubbed. A nice copy with intriguing manuscript waste fragments. Contents fine with light damp-stains to the opening and closing leaves and few other places in the text, ink stains to head of leaves B3-4, small piece torn from upper margin of leaf L3 (not affecting the text), occ. light spotting. With printed flyleaves from a 16th c. edition of Agostino Dati’s “Elegantiae” and unrecorded and unstudied fragments from a 15th c. English manuscript of Ranulf Higden’s “Polychronicon” (for a discussion of which see II further below).
I. “Bright’s ‘Treatise of Melancholie’ (1586)
"THE FIRST COMPREHENSIVE DESCRIPTION OF DEPRESSION IN ENGLISH" (Garrison-Morton), and the first treatise on mental illness by an English physician. Keynes described it as "an important historical document for the psychiatrist and for the practitioner of psycho-somatic medicine", and argues convincingly that it influenced Shakespeare in the writing of Hamlet, and was definitely a source for Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy. (Keynes, “Dr. Timothie Bright 1550–1615” p. 9-13)
“Bright’s ‘Treatise of Melancholie’ (1586) was, in Shakespeare’s day, the most important work on the subject. Melancholy, the ‘sadde and fearful’ humour, was a common, even fashionable malady in Elizabethan England, especially after 1580. It was associated with sadness and abnormal psychology, but also refinement and male intellect. Melancholic poets, languishing lovers and introspective students appear frequently in the art and literature of the time. They are seen – and at times parodied – in Shakespeare’s plays, through characters such as Romeo, Jacques (‘As You Like It’), Don John and Benedick (‘Much Ado About Nothing’) and, most famously, Hamlet.
“The physician Timothy Bright (c. 1549–1615), addresses his work to an unnamed ‘melancholicke friend’, hoping to give him comfort from his ‘straunge affliction’. Bright explores the causes and treatments of ‘feare, sadness, desperation, teares, weeping, sobbing, sighing’, as well as irrational laughter (sig. A7v–A8r); and he makes a subtle distinction between melancholy and conscience which often ‘nourish’ each other.
“In his discussion of melancholy, Bright suggests that the mind and body are interdependent; melancholy affects not only the ‘bodely sense’ but also the ‘soule and spirite’ (sig. A6v). This draws on the theory of the humours, in which emotions were thought to be governed by four bodily fluids, blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile. An excess of black bile, arising from the spleen, was seen as the root of melancholy (p. 101).
Hamlet and melancholy
“There is much debate over Shakespeare’s subtle and complex portrayal of Hamlet: what explains his ‘transformation’ (2.2.5), whether his apparent ‘lunacy’ is just a ‘crafty’ deception (3.1.8) and how to ‘define true madness’ (2.2.93)? But many agree with Claudius’s claim that ‘there’s something in his soul’ which seems to be ruled by ‘melancholy’ (3.1.164–65).
“Although there is some dispute over whether Shakespeare read Bright’s ‘Treatise’, there are striking parallels with the play. These give us a strong insight into how contemporary audiences might have viewed the character. Bright says melancholy can cause ‘distrust, doubt, diffidence, or dispaire’, leading both to anger and ‘false laughter’ or sardonic wit (p. 101). Sufferers are distracted by ‘phantasticall apparations’ and ‘counterfeit goblins’ (p. 103). Their ‘dreames are fearefull’ and their ‘resolution’ delayed by ‘long deliberation’ (p. 131). Even their house may seem ‘a prison or dungeon, rather than a place of repose or rest’ (p. 263).
“Hamlet is, of course, troubled by his ‘conscience’ (3.1.2). He is plagued by distrust of the Ghost’s words and Ophelia’s purity; he suffers despair over his own delay in avenging his father’s murder; and anger over his mother’s ‘o’erhasty marriage’ (2.2.57). The Prince is playfully sardonic in his interactions with the players and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. He is troubled by a ghostly ‘apparition’ whom he fears ‘may be a dev’l’ (2.2.599) or a ‘goblin damn’d’ (1.4.40). Like Bright’s melancholy man, Hamlet is tormented by ‘bad dreams’ (2.2.256) and for him ‘Denmark’s a prison’ (2.2.243).”(British Library, Discovering Shakespeare)
“In ‘A Treatise of Melancholie’, addressed 'To his melancholicke friend: M', Brigt explored the interdependence of mind (synonymous with soul) and body, and 'what the difference is betwixt natural melancholie, and that heavy hande of God upon the afflicted conscience'. To 'comfort them in that estate most comfortles', he offered 'advise of phisicke helpe: what diet, what medicine, and what other remedie is meete for persons oppressed with melancholie feare, & that kind of heavinesse of hart'. Only months before, he and his wife, Margaret, had suffered the death of one of their children. His metaphysical ‘Treatise’—'an important historical document for the psychiatrist and for the practitioner of psycho-somatic medicine' (Keynes, 8)—influenced Robert Burton's more famous ‘The Anatomy of Melancholy’ (1621), and was probably known to Shakespeare, whose Hamlet echoes Bright's language (Jordan-Smith; O'Sullivan).”(Oxford DNB)
II. The “Polychronicon” Fragments:
This copy includes two unrecorded and unstudied fragments from a 15th c. manuscript of the celebrated 14th c. universal chronicle “Polychronicon”. Written soon after 1327 by the English Benedictine monk Ranulf Higden (d. 1364), the work enjoyed immediate and lasting success (in 1352 Higden was summoned by Edward III to appear at court with his chronicle). “Many cathedral churches and larger religious houses possessed copies. In the later middle ages copies were also owned by individual clerics as well as by parish churches, Oxford and Cambridge colleges, members of the nobility, and the wealthier merchants of London.”(Oxford DNB) The book’s popularity continued unabated into the 16th c. and its influence was felt long after in the writings of other authors. “Although the influence of the ‘Polychronicon’ was to decline at the close of the middle ages, the universal outlook that it reflected lived on among the writers and antiquaries of the Tudor age.”(ODNB)
While more than 150 whole or partial manuscripts of the “Polychronicon” have survived (see references below), only a handful have been sold or changed hands in the last half-century. The most recent discovery of a previously unidentified fragment was made by Peter Kidd, who located four (paper) leaves in the University of Birmingham Library (April, 2022).
The two fragments here contain the following texts. Front fragment: portions of Book II, Ch. VIII., Parts 1 [Scythians] and 2 [Egyptians]; and of Book II, Chapter IX [The reign of Ninus and Semiramis]. Rear fragment: portions of Book II, Ch. VIII., Parts 3 [Assyrians], 5 [Greeks] and 6 [Romans].
This manuscript was written in two columns and each fragment preserves the entire width of a single column (the printed flyleaves interfere with the reading of the fragments but the text can be read continuously simply by turning those leaves.)
These chapters reflect Higden’s role in the development of a new, more expansive historiography for England. “The ‘Polychronicon’ offered to the educated and learned audience of fourteenth-century England a clear and original picture of world history based upon medieval tradition, but with a new interest in antiquity, and with the early history of Britain related as part of the whole. Higden's historical narrative is particularly notable for its description of the Roman world. An interest in the ancient world had been developing for some time in fourteenth-century England. Higden was clearly aware of this, for he says that at the request of his fellow monks he changed his plan of writing a history of his own country and decided to enlarge the scope of his work.”(Oxford DNB)
The fragment of Book II, Ch. VIII., Part 3 (the Assyrians) contains the passages describing Zoroaster “King of the Bactrians and inventor of the art of magic”, his death at the hands of Ninus, King of the Assyrians, and the subsequent burning of Zoroaster’s magic books.
Higden’s sources (which he cites) are Peter Comestor’s “Historia Scholastica”, Ch. 36 (naming Zoroaster as not only the inventor of magic but of the liberal arts as well), and Isidore’s “Etymologies”, Bk. 8 Ch. 9 (which Higden quotes almost verbatim).
[Petrus, capitulo tricesimo sexto]. Ninus, filius Beli, mortuo patre obtinuit Assyriam; et civitatem Niniven, a nomine suo sic nuncupatam, caput regni sui fecit, ac trium dierum itinere ampliavit; nam prius Nemphrot eam fundaverat. Devicit etiam Chaam, qui et Zoroastes, regem Bactriae, qui septem liberales artes in quatuordecim columnis, septem aneis et septem lateritiis, contra utrumque diluvium conscripsit. Cuius etiam libros Ninus combussit. [Isidorus, Etymolog., libro octavo]. Scripsit Aristoteles de Zoroaste, quod vicies centum milia versuum in arte magicae, composuerit; quam artem Democritus postmodum tempore Hippocratis ampliavit.
Translation: “After the death of his father, Ninus, the son of Belus, obtained the kingdom of Assyria […] He defeated even Cham, who is Zoroaster, King of Bactria, who wrote the seven liberal arts on fourteen pillars (seven of brass and seven of brick), to protect them against floods. Nilus also burned Zoroaster’s books. Aristotle wrote of Zoroaster that he composed two hundred thousand verses in the art of magic; which art Democritus later amplified, during the time of Hippocrates.”
There is no consensus on the biographical details of Zoroaster (in Avestan, Zarathustra), the hazy figure associated with the foundation of the eponymous Persian religion (Zoroastrianism). Even the era in which he lived remains open to debate. Already in antiquity writers (including the Zorastrian priesthood of 4th c. BCE Achaemenid Persia) proposed dates that varied by millennia. In the Middle Ages, contradictory versions of Zoroaster’s vita abounded, each woven from the strands of disparate traditions (Persian, Arabic, Greek, Roman, etc.), but with a near consensus that he was a “magus”, variously a priest, philosopher, magician or, in John of Trevisa’s rendering of Higden’s book, the “fyndere of wycchecraft”. Due to the enormous and sustained popularity of the “Polychronicon” Higden’s version of Zoraoster became the dominant one in late Medieval England.
A note on the extant manuscripts of Higden’s “Polychronicon”:
As of February 2023, 163 manuscripts and fragments of Higden’s “Polychronicon”, in both the original Latin and the Middle English translation of John of Trevisa (and a single copy of a 15th c. English translation), have been identified. For full details see:
Lynda Dennison and Nicholas Rogers, “A Medieval Best-Seller: Some Examples of Decorated Copies of Higden’s Polychronicon,” in The Church and Learning in Late Medieval Society: Studies in Honour of Professor R.B. Dobson, Harlaxton Medieval Studies, 9 (Donnington, 2002), pp. 80-99 (listing 132 copies)
A.S.G. Edwards & James Freeman, “Further Manuscripts of Higden’s Polychronicon”, Notes and Queries, NS, Bd. 63 (2016), pp. 522-24 (15 additional copies and 16 MSS with excerpts).
Peter Kidd, “Unnoticed Leaves of Ranulf Higden's Polychronicon”, Medieval Manuscripts Provenance Blog, 10 April 2022, (4 lvs., paper)
Garrison-Morton 4918 (1st ed.); Hunter & MacAlpine, pp. 36-40; Keynes, Bright, p. 9-13; NLM/Durling 706; Osler 2128; Norman 343; Wellcome 1079; ESTC S106973 (STC 3749)