One might not come away with this feeling by reading Lund’s book before Burton’s. One problem is that, for her 250 pages, we have to take seriously the whole absurd business of early medicine, with its humours of black and yellow bile, of choler and phlegm; of the influence of the planets, and of, particularly, the influence of religion and indeed God himself. Did any medicine in those days, you could be forgiven for asking, actually work? But the fact that it didn’t, or not much, is one of the reasons Burton’s book is so humane, so equivocal and so ultimately forgiving.
The question of why read The Anatomy of Melancholy may be easier to answer than the question of how. In A User’s Guide, Mary Ann Lund offers a lucid and systematic approach to the how. A scholar of Renaissance literature, Lund is deeply versed in the age in which Burton lived. Echoing the structure of Burton’s own book, her Guide is divided into three sections — on Causes, Symptoms and Cures of Melancholy — so that the whole (Sorrow and Fear, Body and Mind, The Supernatural, Delusions, Love and Sex, Despair, The Non-Naturals, Medicine and Surgery, Lifting the Spirits) becomes more manageable. Lund sets out the facts of Burton’s life, traces the sources of the huge variety of material upon which he drew, and outlines with clarity how the theory of the four humours shaped how he and his contemporaries conceived human life and fate.