'The “English disease”
: identities of melancholy in early modern England'

  • Emily Betz

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis (PhD)


This thesis explores the various identities of the disease of melancholy in England between c.1580 and 1789. Melancholy was a disease with a long and ambiguous history of symptoms and meanings which can be traced back to Classical authors. It will be argued here that this disease bourgeoned in early modern England popular discourse in a way previously unseen. This flourishing was due to the specific cultural circumstances found in the two centuries under investigation which allowed for certain traits of the melancholy disease to become predominant in impactful ways. Using the philosopher Ian Hacking’s theoretical framework on ‘transient mental illness’, this thesis examines the appearance of the different common conceptions of melancholy in their religious, political, and social iterations. It argues that different disease identities become predominant as they moved into spaces created by ‘ecological niches’, before fading away when those niches changed. While the various melancholy identities never entirely disappeared, they did become more or less popular according to the cultural contexts of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Ultimately, these changing identities of the ailment interacted with the circumstances of early modern England to produce a distinctly English reputation for melancholy in the 1700s.
Date of Award15 Jun 2023
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of St Andrews
SupervisorColin Craig Kidd (Supervisor)


  • Melancholy
  • Early modern England
  • Medicine
  • Hypochrondria
  • Hysteria

Access Status

  • Full text embargoed until
  • 23 January 2028

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