Author: Cláudio Alexandre S. Carvalho
Part of: Coimbra Between Sciences and Education (coord. by Mário Santiago de Carvalho)
Peer-Reviewed: Yes
Published: June, 12th, 2020
DOI: 10.5281/zenodo.3891109

The latest version of this entry may be cited as follows: Carvalho, Cláudio Alexandre S., “Robert Burton and Coimbra”, Encyclopedia, Mário Santiago de Carvalho, Simone Guidi (eds.), doi = “10.5281/zenodo.3891109”, URL = “”, latest revision: June, 12th, 2020.

Notes on Burton’s life and work

Biographical data and the purposes of Burton’s project

Born in a landed gentry family of Leicestershire, Robert Burton (Lindley, 1577 – Oxford, 1640) will follow the footsteps of his older brother, the antiquarian William Burton, moving to Oxford to pursue his humanistic education. In 1599, six years after his matriculation in Brasenose College, he is elected a “life fellow” of Christ Church, the college where he will spend most of his days in a life he describes, in a mixt of disappointment and resignation, as «silent, sedentary, solitary» (AM I, p. 17). Later, already pronounced bachelor of divinity (1614), he becomes vicar of St Thomas’ Church in Oxford (1616) and rector of Seagrave in Leicestershire (1630), minor positions he understood as the consequence of the increasing distancing of the scholars towards the centres of decision. That malcontent sentiment, well expressed in his life’s project, The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), is essential to understand Burton’s exploration of the congenital and adventitious manifestations of what had became a fashionable disease enabling, parallel to the encyclopaedic presentation of melancholy’s medical and philosophical dimensions, both a stringent critique of his own society and the utopian project of its reformation. In that sense, the frequent categorization of the Anatomy as a mapping of the inner landscape, in counterpointed with Bacon’s mathematization of the “external” world, may obliterate how melancholy provides a viewpoint on every scientific discipline, but also the transformative aims of the book. Beginning with the adoption of the persona of Democritus Junior, Burton indicates a deliberate retreat from the world which, in manner of the Abderian Democritus, allows incursions to the city’s harbour to «laugh heartily» at the vanities of its citizens. His growing discontent with patronage and political power, will lead him to convert his book into a public podium that allows his observation of the ways of the world, a venting of the spleen which, under the guise of satirical and ironical amusement, has a serious intent. However, the Anatomy’s self-professed intent, consolidated along its successive editions (1624, 1628, 1632, 1638, and 1651) is curative. Personal experience of the disease bestows Burton with the authority to inspect and criticize the theories on the causes, manifestations and treatments of that condition, leading the reader, his «fellow traveller», in an informative and therapeutic path. The Anatomy’s greatest therapeutic achievement consists in supplementing the natural –dietary and pharmacological- and preternatural (astral, magic and alchemic) prescriptions to the ever-expanding forms of melancholy, with the rhetorical constitution of a dialogue that proposes the identification and correction of one’s passions. It is safe to say that, along with the recognition of a particular kind of «embodied interactionism» (Radden 2017), with his phenomenology of the passions, Burton suspends the observation of melancholy that dominated medical treatises, presenting a complex form of “melancholic observation”.

Burton’s early considerations of the Society of Jesus

Is was only in 1861, already at the twilight of the romantic revival of the Anatomy, that it became clear that prior to his magnum opus¸ Burton had written at least two plays, Alba (1605), a pastoral comedy now lost, and a lengthy comedy, also written in Latin, titled Philosophaster. This latter play, first composed in 1606 and rewritten in 1615 for its staging before James I in the occasion of his visit to Oxford, displays a debased picture of the Jesuits, detracting both their teaching methods and political intents. Part of those reproaches, deeply influenced by the international context –the spectre of the Anglo-Spanish war and the gunpowder plot, both credited on the Jesuits- are preserved in the Anatomy, sometimes retaining verbatim the expressions used throughout the play. However, that satirical denigration is in deep contrast with Burton’s use of the Jesuit’s accomplishments, including not only the literary and scientific results of their «network of intellectual centres», but also the geographical and ethnographic discoveries issuing from the «overseas network of missionaries» (Harris 1999: 233). This resort on those he considered the Pope’s «prætorian soldiers», may appear as puzzling. Besides the appreciation of the scientific value of various Jesuits and the accounts provided from distant people and lands, we may speculate that Burton is expressing his tribute to Arthur Faunt, his maternal grandfather, which adhered to the Society of Jesus.

The “Philosopher of Conimbra”.

Affinities with the Coimbran enterprise

Although influenced by Bacon’s denunciation of a «degenerate learning» occupied with «vermiculate questions», Burton’s critique of scholasticism is primarily “stylistic”, a refusal of the monotony of logic exercises inspired, among others, by Petrarch, Erasmus and Juan Luis Vives. Beyond the aridity of syllogistic disputations, Burton pursuits a finer mode to expose the passions of the soul, unconstrained by the science «à la mode des Geométriens» (Montaigne, Les Essais II, 7). His humanism relies on a rediscovery of classical culture and the gospels, tendencies that, allied with the new challenges posed by the pedagogic and evangelising activities in eastern countries, were pervading the studium conimbrigense, most notably in the works of confrater Pedro da Fonseca, known as the “Portuguese Aristotle”, which around 1560 started coordinating what would become the Commentarii Collegii Conimbricensis Societatis Jesu (Martins 2006: 103-9). In the context of the so-called ‘second scholastic’ we must note that «[n]either the Italian Averroism nor the Counter-Reformation Thomism of the late sixteenth century should be seen as medieval throwbacks; both incorporated the philological sophistication of the humanists and their appreciation of the powers of printing, as well as a good many of the new Greek sources» (Park & Kessler 2007: 462).

First references to the Philosopher[s] of Conimbra

Reflecting the influence of Giovanni Botero’s Delle cause della grandezza delle città (1588) and the enthusiasm with the increasing scope and precision of cartographic works, the Anatomy of Melancholy has plenty of descriptions of European and distant cities. Coimbra remains outside those attempts of mapping the economic and socio-political factors of urban development, and is mentioned exclusively in association with its Philosophical School. A first reference to the Coimbra commentators appears in the initial partition of The Anatomy of Melancholy, which inquires on the causes of melancholy, so that «knowing them (…) [we] may better avoid the effects, or at least endure them with more patience» (AM I.3.3.1, p. 418). After his exposition of the causes of the three types of melancholy – head, hypochondriacal and general –, Burton mentions a symptom of all those forms; the obstinate attachment to the lost object, opportunity or person. But there is a problem in his attempt of categorization. These symptoms, as it often occurs in melancholy, are also causes, since they provoke (or retroact in further) biopsychic disturbances (Miller 1997). Stored in the memory as an image, the impression of the ‘loved object’ is retained and rekindled through the imagination, occasioning a significant consumption of vital spirits: «Why students and lovers are so often melancholy and mad, the philosopher of Conimbra assigns this reason, because by a vehement & continual meditation of that wherewith they are affected, they fetch up the spirits into the brain, and with the heat brought with them, they incend it beyond measure: and the cells of the inner senses dissolve their temperature, which being dissolved, they cannot perform their offices as they ought». To this excerpt, Burton adds a footnote: «In pro. Li. de coelo. Vehemens et assidua cogitatio rei erga quam afficitur, spiritus in cerebrum evocat» (AM I.3.3.1, p. 421). Burton refers to the proemium to the Commentaries on De Coelo, but the Latin citation belongs to the final paragraph of the In Librum de Vita et Morte, included in the Commentarii Collegii Conimbricensis Societatis Iesu In libros Aristotelis, qui Parva Naturalia appellantur: «vehemens, et assidua cogitatio rei, erga quam afficiuntur, spiritus in cerebrum euocat, et calore iis aduecto cerebrum, atque internorum sensuum officinas ultra modum accendit, earumque temperiem dissoluit, qua dissoluta nequeunt potentiae suis muneribus rite, ac recte fungi» (In Librum de Vita et Morte c.8, a18, in Con. PN, p. 95).

The question of geniality

In the next paragraph, Burton addresses a problem that, although stated, remains dormant throughout the Anatomy; «Why melancholy men are witty, which Aristotle hath long since maintained in his problems ; and that all learned men, famous philosophers, and lawgivers, ad unum fere omnes melancholici, have still been melancholy, is a problem much controverted.» (AM I.3.3.1, p. 421). In fact, the Commentarii Collegii Conimbricensis societatis Jesu are far from ignoring the aristotelic tradition inaugurated by the Problemata Physica: «constat eos, qui ingenio claruerunt, sive in philosophiae studijs, sive in Republica administranda, sive in carmine pangendo, aut artibus exercendis, malancholicos fuisse, ut Herculem, Aiacem, Bellerophontem, Lysandrum, Empedoclem, Socratem, atque Platonem» (Con. GC, II, c.8, q.4, a.2, p. 462). They add Cicero’s hesitant remark that, in light of such high achievements, perhaps he shouldn’t be so harsh on himself on the occasions he was gloomier (Tusc. Disp. I, XXXIII). Such “melancholicorum laus”, attributed to Ficino’s De triplici vita and the commentaries of Thoma a Veiga Eborensi (1513-1579), contrasts with the dominant medical doctrine which, following Galen and the late systematization of the temperaments proposed by physicians such as Francisco Vallés or Andrés Velásquez, praises sanguine complexion and refuses the hypothesis that innate abilities may derive from the humours, particularly from «melancholia naturalis» which remains associated with animic torpor (Con. GC, II. c.8, q.4, a.3, p. 464).

Burton’s adaptation of the inquiry on the senses

In discussing the physiological dimension of passional movements of the soul, still in the same section of the Anatomy of Melancholy, Burton makes another reference to the Conimbricensis, now regarding the Tractatio aliquot problematum ad quinque Sensus Spectantium. This proves that, along with the volumes already cited, Burton was acquainted with the Commentaries in tres libros de Anima which includes, besides the Tractatus de Anima Separata authored by Baltasar Álvares, that Treatise written by Cosme de Magalhães. Burton quotes that: «the voice of such as are afraid, trembles, because the heart is shaken (Conimb. prob. 6. sec. 3. de som.)» (AM I.3.3.1, p. 422), but a complete quote would be: “why does the voice of the fearful and the wrathful trembles so as the chin? A[nswer]. Because the heart is severely shaken by the heat that emanates, and therefore many beats are produced, so as in the vocal chords” [«Cur trepidantium, iratorumque vox tremula est, ac etiam mentum? Quia emigrante calore cor conquatitur, unde ictus multi suit, sicuti in laxis chordis» (Tractatio aliquot problematum ad quinque Sensus Spectantium… III, 6. In: Con. De An., p. 551)]. The citation is evidence of a selective reading which emphasizes the emotional upheavals of the heart, trivializing the physiological effects on the vocal chords [laxis chordis]. In this free adaptation of the original text, so typical of the Anatomy, Burton also supresses the mentioning on the wrathful [iratorumque], in order to identify fear as a passion typical of the melancholic temperament. Without relating them to melancholy, in the preceding paragraph Cosme de Magalhães had explored stammering and lisping, considering them the result of chilling of the organ of speech. According with the Coimbran commentator, while animals such as griffins and starlings twitter with different levels of agility, only humans, due to their resort on verbal language, experience stutter. Curiously, right after the quotation, Burton identifies those speech difficulties as melancholic symptoms and, following Girolamo Mercuriale and Elias Montaltus, provides a similar explanation based on the oscillations of temperature and humidity.

Valuing of the experimental incursions of the Jesuits

Burton praises the experimental incursions of Jesuits such as Giuseppe Biancani’s [Josephus Blancanus] application of arithmetic to geography and astronomy (AM I.3.1.1; II.2.3.1) or Nicholas Cabeus’s Philosophia magnetica (1629) on the healing properties of magnetism, particularly of loadstones (II.4.1.4). In the second partition of the Anatomy of Melancholy, devoted to “cure of melancholy”, right at the beginning of his famous “Digression of the Air” Burton counts the «Conimbricenses» (AM II.2.2.3) among the inquirers on the uses of magnetism, an expertise we can confirm in various points of the Commentaries on “practical physics” (in the sense of P. Hadot [2002: 172]), particularly on De generatione et corruptione (Con. GC, II, c.3, q.2, a.2, p. 368). The geographic perplexities over the magnetic poles lead to a review of the greatest achievements of navigation. Latter in the same section, Burton mentions the «philosophers of Conimbra» as contributors to the clarification of the questions presented by Bodin in Theatrum Universae Naturae (1605), in the context Ficino and Pico’s Hermetic-Cabalist doctrine on the relation between the two worlds, the macro and microcosmos. The Oxford scholar testifies a knowledge of the distinctive research developed by the Coimbra commentators on the influence of the “empyrean heavens” on the sublunar world, as exposed in the commentaries In Quatuor libros de Coelo Aristotelis Stagiritae.


Scope of the CACJC’s incursion on melancholy

The textual exegesis of the Conimbricences is guided by the auctoritates, but its frequent adoption of an apologetic style, does not prevent them to address the medical, philosophical and theological problems of their own time. It is therefore unsurprising that, in the context of their exploration of Aristotle’s natural philosophy and moral psychology, which they understand as part of metaphysics, they positioned themselves in the framework of the «Intellectual Traditions of Melancholy» (Gowland 2012). They considered two main types of problems: 1) the natural and supernatural tendencies affecting the melancholic constitution or temperament and 2) the contribution towards a best knowledge of oneself.

An important dispute in early modern medicine concerned the ontological grounding of the disease. For the Coimbrans it was clear that in melancholic illness the powers dependent upon the brain become unpaired, particularly the sensus communis and the imagination. But it was vital to know whether the excess and corruption of the humours, which affected the various “seats” of the soul, would prove the corruptibility of the immaterial soul, one of the many topics absent from Burton’s reading.

On the use that Burton gave to the Commentaries

Most of Burton’s references and allusions to the “philosopher of Conimbra” are marginal notes to the major theme of his masterpiece. That may be surprising if we take into account the various places in the Commentarii where melancholy appears as theme, not limited to a gloss of topics at the intersection between medical, philosophy and theology, but discussing them while essaying answers to problems of early modern philosophy. Along with a more conventional use of the Commentarii, namely as sourcebooks, we have reasons to believe that Burton may have developed the discussion of geniality drawing on the Comentarii. At the same time, besides the reference to the magnetic experimentation of the Conimbricensis or their study of the influence exerted by the stars, there is no indication that the English scholar associated the Commentarii with a therapeutic outlook, something that, if we take into account their understanding and treatment of the passions, not to mention their insertion in a religious model of consolation, are indications of a superficial reading. Burton is clearly unaware of how that inquiry of the Coimbrans is part of the ethical and spiritual formation of the students and of its importance to the larger enterprise of the Society of Jesus, whose greater evidence is the use of the so-called Catalogous secundus (e.g. Massimi 2001).

Larger horizon of the humoral doctrine among the Jesuitical projects

The doctrine of the temperaments provided a reliable grid that could help in the fulfilment of the moral imperative to know oneself, but its use extended to the organizational management of the Society of Jesus, exposing, in the words of C. Casalini, the “real problem of the temperaments in the Company: the problem of government” (2013: 342). This enabled the recognition of the aptitude of the (exceptional) melancholic towards charismatic positions of preaching and leadership. However, facing the late sixteenth-century radicalization of the correlation between certain temperaments and the pedagogic requirements of each individual proposed by Juan Luis Vives’s De Anima (1538), the Jesuitical teaching, Coimbra included, followed Antonio Possevino’s Cultura Ingeniorum (1593), in its critique of a “positivistic” reading of the temperaments. Teaching should aim for the integral formation of men and be accomplished through a relational process of self-determination. Prior to the specialization in a certain discipline or work, naturæ impetu must be shaped by the requirements of the diverse fields of human knowledge and, it is safe to say, by the specific challenges identified by the organization. Therefore, by working on the intersection between the definition of personal and social goals, the discussion regarding talent may be understood as a semantic echo of the advent of the functional differentiation of modern society.


Within the context of the late and, at first, feeble impact of the Cursus Conimbricensis in the British Isles (restricted to the Brevissimum totius Conimbricensis logicae compendium of Hieronymum de Paiva lusitanum, cf. Casalini 2017: 159), contrasting with the importance it assumed in the formation of major authors of continental Europe, Robert Burton’s reading presents interesting singularities. Although displaying the social and political factors that obstructed its diffusion, the Anatomy of Melancholy offers a very selective reading of the CACJC which despite its imprecisions and adaptations, provides a right (although oblivious) indication of the importance that melancholy and the doctrine of the temperaments assumed to the Coimbran enterprise.

The Society of Jesus and the project of the Conimbricenses, although not deepen and frequently based on imprecise references, contributed to Burton’s double project of an “observation of melancholy”, with the scholastic discussions and synthesis of Hippocratic, Aristotelic and Galenic texts, and a “melancholic observation”, providing a glimpse of modes of social organization that nurtures an utopian exercise which proceeds from Burton’s diagnosis of the current decay of British society. It would be excessive to argue that Robert Burton contracted a theoretical debt towards the Conimbricensis’ understanding of melancholy, at least if we have in mind a debt with a similar magnitude to the one he holds to the apostolic missions that enable his safe traveling «in Mappe or Card» (AM, I, p. 4; see: Vicari 1989), and inspired a comparative approach to the customs of distant peoples, as implicitly recognized in various places of the Anatomy.

Need to develop a further critical study on the Conception of melancholy in the CACJC

In his reading, Burton offers a tangential recognition of the therapeutic and formative value of the systematization of melancholy proposed by the Conimbricensis. At the same time, he seems unaware of the organizational applications of that inquiry, namely how they provide an answer to the challenges experienced by the overseas missions whose results he cherishes. Truth is, four centuries later, both the contribution of the Conimbricensis for the early modern conceptions of melancholy and its connection with the larger enterprise of the Society of Jesus, the «overcoming of oneself» (Molina, 2013), remain little known. Given their peculiar gathering of medical expertise of their time and the exploration of some specificities and paradoxes of melancholy, as a substance, a condition and a illness, the Commentaries deserve a more detailed study on this particular topic.


Primary sources:

  • Burton, Robert. The Anatomy of Melancholy, ed. by Thomas C. Faulkner, Nicolas K. Kiessling, and Rhonda L. Blair, intro. J.B. Bamborough, 6 vols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989-2000).
  • Burton, Robert. Philosophaster, ed. and trans. Connie Mcquillen (New York: Centre for Medieval and Early Renaissance Studies, 1993).
  • Collegium Conimbricense. Commentarii Collegii Conimbricensis Societatis Iesu In libros Aristotelis, qui Parva Naturalia appellantur (Lisbon: Simões Lopes, 1593).
  • Collegium Conimbricense. Commentarii Collegii Conimbricensis Societatis Jesu in Quatuor libros de Coelo Aristotelis Stagiritae (Lisbon: 1593).
  • Collegium Conimbricense. In libros Ethicorum Aristotelis ad Nicomachum, aliquot Conimbricensis Cursus Disputationes in quibus praecipua quaedam Ethicae disciplinae capita continentur (Lisbon 1593).
  • Collegium Conimbricense. Commentarii Collegii Conimbricensis Societatis Jesu in duos libros Aristotelis De generatione et corruptione (Coimbra, 1597).
  • Collegium Conimbricense. Commentarii Collegii Conimbricensis Societatis Jesu, in tres libros de Anima, Aristotelis Stagiritae (Coimbra: António de Mariz, 1598).

Secondary sources:

  • Casalini, Cristiano, “Umori, troppi umori. Temperamenti e malattie dell’anima nella formazione dei primi gesuiti”, Rassegna di Pedagogia, XLVII, 2(2013), 331-350.
  • Casalini, Cristiano. Aristotle in Coimbra: The Cursus Conimbricensis and the Education at the College of Arts. Translated by Luana Salvarani. London and New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2016.
  • Gowland, Angus. ‘Burton’s Anatomy and the Intellectual Traditions of Melancholy’. Babel, no. 25 (1 December 2012): 221–57.
  • Hadot, Pierre. What Is Ancient Philosophy? Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2002.
  • Harris, Steven. ‘Mapping Jesuit Science: The Role of Travel in the Geography of Knowledge’. In The Jesuits: Cultures, Sciences, and the Arts 1540–1773, 212–40. Toronto; Buffalo; London: University of Toronto Press, 1999.
  • Park, Katharine, and Eckhard Kessler. “The Concept of Psychology.” In Cambridge History of Renaissance Philosophy, ed. C. B. Schmitt et al. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
  • Martins, António M.. “The Conimbricenses”. In: Intellect et imagination dans la Philosophie Médiévale / Intellect and Imagination in Medieval Philosophy / Intelecto e Imaginação na Filosofia Medieval. Actes du XIe Congrès International de Philosophie Médiévale de la S.I.E.P.M. (Porto, du 26 au 31 août 2002), 101-117. Eds. Mª C. Pacheco et J. Meirinhos. Turnhout: Brepols, 2006.
  • Massimi, Marina. ‘A Psicologia Dos Jesuítas: Uma Contribuição à História Das Idéias Psicológicas’. Psicologia: Reflexão e Crítica 14, no. 3 (2001): 625–33.
  • Miller, John. ‘Plotting a Cure: The Reader in Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy’. Prose Studies 20, no. 2 (August 1997): 42–71.
  • Molina, J. Michelle. To Overcome Oneself: The Jesuit Ethic and Spirit of Global Expansion, 1520-1767. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2013.
  • Radden, Jennifer. Melancholic Habits: Burton’s Anatomy & the Mind Sciences. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2017.
  • Vicari, Eleanor P. The View from Minerva’s Tower: Learning and Imagination in The Anatomy of Melancholy. Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Pr, 1989.

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