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Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies

Victoria University in the University of Toronto

CRRS Rare Book Exhibit — Spiritus Vitalis: Melancholy and Humoural Science in the Early Modern Period

Rare Book Exhibit — Spiritus Vitalis: Melancholy and Humoural Science in the Early Modern Period

Curated by Kathryn Holmes

Spiritus Vitalis Rare Book Exhibit at the CRRS

On display in this exhibit is a selection of printed books from the Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Centre’s Studies’ rare book collection. These texts were published between 1530 and 1670, and they are related to melancholy and humoural science in the early modern period. These texts reflect various literary, religious, and scientific expressions of one of the most pressing social concerns in Europe during the time period – the notion of humoural balance, and in particular the concept of melancholy.

The modern distinction between anatomy and physiology did not yet exist, and physicians were primarily concerned with analyzing the function of bodily parts and organs, as well as the study of elements, temperaments, humours, spirits and faculties. The theory of the four humours—a concept first envisaged in the Medieval period that aligned bodily fluids with corresponding temperaments, or “humour”—was still widespread in the early modern period. The four temperaments and their related ‘fluids’—sanguine (blood), choleric (yellow bile), phlegmatic (phlegm) and melancholic (black bile)—were thought to inform and provide the foundation for a person’s underlying character. Melancholy was believed to be the worst of all temperaments, leading persons predisposed to the state at risk of “suffering of the mind.” Robert Bolton’s influential text, “Instructions for a Right Comforting Afflicted Consciences” characterized melancholy as the “horrible humour”, since excessive sorrow was thought to “[grate] most upon the vitall spirits; [dry] up soonest the freshest marrow in the bones; [and] most sensibly [suck] out the purest, and refinedst bloud in the heart.”

This exhibit reflects the highly interdisciplinary nature of humoural science and melancholy. The books that have been selected – across the disciplines of humour, medicine, natural science and religion – offer a lens into the incredible discussion of early modern temperament shaped within and across print culture.

The exhibit will be featured in the E.J. Pratt library front foyer from May 22nd to June 9th, 2017. A digital version of the exhibit can also be viewed online.

About the curator: Kathryn Holmes is a Master’s of Information Candidate at the University of Toronto where she studies Library and Information Science. She holds an Honours Bachelor’s degree from the University of Western Ontario in English Literature and History. Kathryn has worked at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library as a Graduate Student Library Assistant, and collaborated on the 2015 exhibit, ‘So Long Lives This: A Celebration of Shakespeare’s Life and Works.’ She was thrilled to work with the wonderful natural and health science collection at CRRS.

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