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The Collation

Better than a Pound of Sorrow: Antidotes for Melancholy in Early Modern England

The title of the book followed by a square image of a dancing faun-like figure surrounded by a circle of tiny dancers.
The title of the book followed by a square image of a dancing faun-like figure surrounded by a circle of tiny dancers.

If you read an ad today for “An antidote for Melancholy made up in pills”, what would be your first thought? Probably Prozac, or some other antidepressant. If you were in early modern England, instead you’d think: funny songs!

Since Elizabethan times, many books were advertised as antidotes or cures for melancholy. For example, in 1599, publisher William White edited A Pil to Purge Melancholie. In 1602, Nicholas Breton issued another volume with a very descriptive title: Wonders worth the hearing, Which being read or heard in a winters evening, by a good fire, or a summers morning, in the greene fields: may serve both to purge melancholy from the minde, & grosse humours from the body. These were miscellaneous collections of ballads, songs, catches, jokes, short stories, poems, and prologues or epilogues of plays, aimed at a broad public. They were pocket editions, usually in octavo or duodecimo, and sold relatively cheap: between one and three shillings. Of course, not all songbooks and miscellanies were marketed as cures for melancholy, but throughout the early modern period dozens of them were, and some went through several editions and reprints.

Below the title of the book is an image divided into a top half and a bottom half between two decorative columns. In the top half a group of elaborately dressed men with labeled names dine at a table while two musicians play. In the bottom image, a group of more humbly dressed people drink around a table, one playing bagpipes and another dancing to the side.
Frontispiece for An Antidote Against Melancholy: Made Up in Pills. Compounded of Witty Ballads, Jovian Songs, and Merry Catches (London: John Playford, 1669). The Folger Shakespeare Library D66B

The titles in these books usually featured some recurrent keywords, such as “antidote”, “purges”, and “pills.” The expression “pills to purge melancholy” had been used in 1596 by the Elizabethan writer, translator, courtier, and inventor of the flush toilet Sir John Harrington in a Rabeleisian passage of the prologue to The Metamorphosis of Ajax, where he explained his invention.1 With time it became almost a catchphrase in these collections which presented merry songs and stories as metaphorical ready-made compounds of convenient size to expel black bile.

A partially colored and labeled sketch of a water closet with the main mechanism labeled as The Cesterne. Over the sink is a quote.
C. Walter Hodges, The Metamorphosis of Ajax. Sketch for a proposed reconstruction of Sir John Harington's original water-closet invention of 1596 (for Robin Howard's Elizabethan Rooms). The Folger Shakespeare Library. ART Box H688 no.10.6

Sometimes, the repetition of keywords in the titles signaled a continuing editorial enterprise. That is the case with probably the most famous of these collections: An Antidote Against Melancholy: Made Up in Pills, published in 1661 by John Playford, a royalist printer who made a living as a supplier of liturgical texts for the Royal Chapel, Westminster Abbey, and Canterbury Cathedral during the Restoration. Playford, and later his son Henry, who eventually took over the business, printed several editions of this collection, which varied its title over time: An Antidote Against Melancholy: Made Up in Pills (1669), Wit and Mirth: An Antidote Against Melancholy (1682 and 1684), Wit and Mirth: Or, Pills to Purge Melancholy (1699). This last version added scores, and it was later continued by other publishers. Between 1719 and 1720, Jacob Tonson published a six-volume edition of Wit and Mirth, compiled by the prolific playwright and singer Thomas D’Urfey. This version became very famous. In the late 18th century, philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder translated some of its songs into German and included them in his Volkslieder. Later, Wit and Mirth became a useful source for folklorists and musicologists and, in May 2025, some of its political songs will be featured in the Kings and Commonwealth concert by the Folger Consort. So, save the date!

The title of the book followed by a square image of a dancing faun-like figure surrounded by a circle of tiny dancers.
Frontispiece of Robin Good-Fellovv, His Mad Prankes and Merry Iests.: Full of Honest Mirth, and is a fit Medicine for Melancholy (London: By Thomas Cotes, and are to be sold by Francis Groue, 1639). The Folger Shakespeare Library STC 12017

On the other hand, since the 18th century, we can find comic variations of these titles, such as A Tory Pill, to Purge Whig Melancholy or A Pill to Purge State-Melancholy (both printed in 1715, possibly by the infamous Edmund Curll). Other books mentioned conditions closely related to melancholy, for example: The Merry Musician: Or, A Cure for the Spleen (1716), A Collection of Merry Poems […] Proposed as a pleasant cure for the Hyp- and Spleen (1735) or The Gallant Companion: Or, An Antidote for the Hyp and Vapours (1746).

The opening of a book showing a blank page on the left and the title page on the right.
Frontispiece of The Merry Musician, or, a Cure for the Spleen: Being a Collection of the Most Diverting Dongs and Pleasant Ballads, Set to Musick (London: Printed by H. Meere, for J. Walsh, J. Hare, A. Bettesworth, and J. Brown, 1716). The Folger Shakespeare Library M1738.M4 Cage.

These miscellanies brought together texts from different authors, often obtained through plagiarism and piracy. Thus, in the second edition of An Antidote Against Melancholy, Playford complained about “some Covetous persons, who endeavouring to immitate that former Book, did publish things of that nature and out of it stole here and there a Ballad and a Song […]”. Many of these pieces were, in fact, published in other miscellanies which did not mention melancholy, and some collections were rebranded as antidotes. For instance, A Tory Pill, to Purge Whig Melancholy (1715) was a reprint of A Collection of Poems for and against Dr. Sacheverell (1710).

The works compiled in these books covered a broad range of topics: from politics and recent history to toasts in honor of members of the royal family and the nobility, and also funny verses about love, marriage, sex, or drinking, and lampoons on doctors and other professionals. However, they said little or nothing at all about melancholy.

So, was this talk about antidotes, cures, and purges just a marketing scheme? Certainly, publishers made no attempt to hide their economic interest, which probably made the books funnier. In the prologue of Wit and Mirth (1699), Henry Playford said: “[…] I present you (I mean for your Money) a Pill […]”. Humphrey Coach admitted that his England’s Jests (1687), intended for “the Melancholy Man’s Physic and Recreation”, had two ends: “Your Pleasure, and my own Profit.” And the prefatory poem to An Antidote Against Melancholy, reproduced since the 1661 edition, read almost like a commercial jingle:

Cures the Spleene, Revives the blood,
Puts thee in a Merry Mood:
Who can deny such Physic good? […]
Then be wise, and buy, not borrow,
Keep an Ounce still for to Morrow,
Better than a pound of Sorrow.

An elaborate frontispiece for a book with a series of portraits surrounding the title
Christian Le Blon (print maker), frontispiece for Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy, 3rd edition (Oxford : Printed [by John Lichfield] for Henry Cripps, 1628). The Folger Shakespeare Library STC 4161 copy 1

However, setting the commercial purpose of these collections aside, there is more to be learned from them about melancholy. Namely, the presentation of these miscellanies express the common assumption that music and humor were useful therapies for mental disorders. “Who hath not heard how David’s harmony drove away the evil spirits from King Saul?”, said Robert Burton in reference to 1 Samuel 16: 14-23. In his Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), he dedicated a subsection to music as a remedy (II, 2, IV, 3). A century later, an apothecary called Richard Browne, author of Medicina Musica (1729), took it as a well-known fact “that Singing is an Enemy to melancholy Thoughts, and a pleasant Promoter of Mirth and Joy”. Burton had also written about mirth as a method to rectify the mind (II, 2, IV, 4) and, in fact, the idea that laughter could heal madness and melancholy had ancient precedents. It was key to the tale of Hippocrates’ visit to Democritus in Abdera, from which Burton took the pseudonym Democritus Junior. It can be traced through Renaissance medical treatises, like Laurent Joubert’s Traité du ris (1579), and well into the 18th century, in Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy or in Matthew Green’s poem The Spleen:

Laugh and be well; monkeys have been
Extreme good doctors for the spleen;
And kitten, if the humour hit,
Has harlequin’d away the fit.
Since mirth is good on this behalf,
At some partic’lars let us laugh.

The medical explanations about how music and laughter healed melancholy varied throughout the early modern period. One of the most simple and persistent is that they helped divert people’s minds from sadness and bad thoughts. This conception was clearly expressed in the paratexts of these collections. The prologue to An Antidote Against Melancholy quoted above claimed that “There’s no Purge ‘gainst Melancholly; / But with Bacchus to be Jolly”. The pieces included in the 1699 edition of Wit and Mirth were like pills that if taken “twice a week, it will quicken your Spirits, drive forwards to your just business, and raise you above the sordid thoughts of too much Care”. It was a different kind of physic, as the prologue to A Collection of Merry Poems told its reader:

‘tis not doubted but the Perusal of this Collection will prove a pleasant Cure in the Hyp or Spleen.—Nay, don’t slight the Prescription because ‘tis a cheap one; you may go farther, and fare worse; for me thinks I already hear Fame say, that if the venerable Bards we have here assembled have not Wit enough to cure ye, a quantum sufficit will hardly be obtained from the Court of Æsculapius in Warwick-lane.

Of course, this does not mean that these miscellanies were intended as an alternative medicine or that they were taken as such. Rather they played on contemporary tropes about the medical corporation and the commoditization of health. However, at the same time, they expressed the belief that laughing and singing were good ways to keep a healthy mind. A bit like watching episodes of The Office or Gilmore Girls, or another “comfort show”, to relieve stress, or playing your favorite music to reduce anxiety (top of my list is Johan Sebastian Bach’s Goldberg Variations). Even in times of great political turmoil, like the 17th century, when songs and satires could be vehicles of bitter disputes and divisions, these miscellanies reminded people of the regenerative powers of music and humor.

  1. See  Cyrus L. Day, «Pills to Purge Melancholy», The Review of English Studies 8, n.o 30 (1932): 182.

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