Hellebore and borage were reputedly sovereign remedies for madness, melancholy, accidie. In Borage recently, I shared some of my excitement in reading Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, a book which is at once overwhelming and enticing. And I finished that post with a sentence which I think will become a theme for all the rest of my saying and writing:
If through weakness, folly, passion, discontent, ignorance, I have said amiss, let it be forgiven and forgotten.
But now I have got through the introductions, and the exploratory material on melancholy, and in this post I am exploring some his solutions for melancholy - leaving the the wilder channels of his thought, and the remoter backwaters, such as werewolves, witches, excessive study, and the decline in academic standards for your own exploration! It is worth exploring, but be prepared for anything, and be undisciplined in your reading, just browse at random, not trying to make sense of the whole - or you'll surely fall prey to some form of madness, and Boots is fresh out of borage and hellebore!
Burton covers a lot of things which might ameliorate, control or cure melancholy, and I quote some of them now, partly for the sake of his views, but also for his wonderful prose. Let's look at tobacco, hellebore, alcohol, and coffee.
He starts by praising tobacco as a valuable remedy, but abruptly changes tack, reporting that:
... as it is commonly abused by most men, which take it as tinkers do ale, 'tis a plague, a mischief, a violent purger of goods, land, health, hellish, devilish and damned tobacco, the ruin and overthrow of body and soul.
As for hellebore itself,
Black hellebore, that most renowned plant, and famous purger of melancholy, which all antiquity so much used and admired, was first found out by Melanpodius a shepherd ... who, seeing it to purge his goats when they raved, practised it upon Elige and Calene, King Praetus' daughters, that ruled in Arcadia, near the fountain Clitorius, and restored them to their former health ... and it was generally so much esteemed of the ancients for this disease amongst the rest, that they sent all such as were crazed, or that doted, to be purged, where this plant was in abundance to be had. ... Lilius Geraldus saith, that Hercules, after all his mad pranks upon his wife and children, was perfectly cured by a purge of hellebore, which an Anticyrian administered unto him. They that were sound commonly took it to quicken their wits, [and] Cameades the academic, when he was to write against Zeno the stoic, purged himself with hellebore first. In such esteem it continued for many ages, till at length Mesue and some other Arabians began to reject and reprehend it, upon whose authority for many following lustres, it was much debased and quite out of request, held to be poison and no medicine; and is still oppugned to this day by Crato and some junior physicians. [Quotes various "modern" objections].. and Nicholas Leonicus hath a story of Solon, that besieging, I know not what city, steeped hellebore in a spring of water, which by pipes was conveyed into the middle of the town, and so either poisoned, or else made them so feeble and weak by purging, that they were not able to bear arms. Notwithstanding all these cavils and objections, most of our late writers do much approve of it.
Amongst this number of cordials and alteratives, I do not find a more present remedy, than a cup of wine or strong drink, if it be soberly and opportunely used. It makes a man bold, hardy, courageous, "whetteth the wit," if moderately taken, (and as Plutarch saith) "it makes those which are otherwise dull, to exhale and evaporate like frankincense, or quicken" (Xenophon adds) as oil doth fire. "A famous cordial" Matthiolus in Dioscoridum calls it, "an excellent nutriment to refresh the body, it makes a good colour, a flourishing age, helps concoction, fortifies the stomach, takes away obstructions, provokes urine, drives out excrements, procures sleep, clears the blood, expels wind and cold poisons, attenuates, concocts, dissipates all thick vapours, and fuliginous humours." And that which is all in all to my purpose, it takes away fear and sorrow.
But if you don't drink, have a cup of coffee instead, described by Burton as a wondrous strange habit of the Turks (he is writing in 1621, remember):
The Turks have a drink called coffa (for they use no wine), so named of a berry as black as soot and as bitter... which they sip still of, and sup as warm as they can suffer; they spend much time in those coffa-houses, which are somewhat like our ale houses or taverns, and there they sit chatting and drinking to drive away the time, and to be merry together, because they find by experience, that kind of drink, so used, helpeth digestion and procureth alacrity.
All in all, I've enjoyed my excursions into Burton, and I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys the language and has a taste for the quirky in language or opinion. But I wouldn't invest in the whole thing, but buy some intelligently edited selection such as Kevin Jackson's. Happy reading, in all senses.