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The Anatomy of Melancholy and DongUiBoGam

One of the best things about working in the Bethlem Museum of Mind for my work-placement was that I was able to learn about the brilliant book, The Anatomy of Melancholy. The book written by Robert Burton was an early seventeenth-century bestseller but still resonates with contemporary readers in many aspects. This surprisingly witty and humorous book has also incredibly clever interpretations and diverse perspectives that are sometimes philosophical, sometimes religious or even scientific, crossing many boundaries.

The idea of a caring mind and social relationships for curing illness that Burton repeatedly emphasizes throughout his book was quite familiar to me. This is because the close interaction between mind and body is the core concept in the field of traditional medicine in my country, South Korea, as well.

Traditionally, Korean people have believed that the mind and body are intimately related to each other. The core concept in oriental medicine is specifically explained in an irreplaceable classical medical text of South Korea, DongUiBoGam, which was written by Heo Jun between 1596 and 1610. DongUiBoGam has introduced principles and practices of the field of oriental medicine with sophisticated explanations of symptoms and treatments for many diseases. It contains specific information about helpful food for particular diseases as well as natural herbal medicine so that ordinary people were able to treat their illness by themselves with common vegetables or natural medicine without spending too much money. The book has been broadly acclaimed as the best medical book in East Asia and the value of caring for poor people was widely acknowledged. The book has been listed as one of the national treasures of South Korea and is registered with UNESCO as well. The original edition of DongUiBoGam is currently preserved by the Korean National Library but an abbreviated version, which was translated into English, is also available online.

I have found that the book also includes some information about similar symptoms to melancholia. In DongUiBoGam, Heo Jun mentioned 울증(Ool-Jeong) which is similar to melancholia in perspectives of contemporary medicine. He said there are six types Ool-Jeong and they are all related to 기(Gi) which is a kind of energy within the body, related to body temperature and blood flow.

There are several interesting points of comparison between the two books, The Anatomy of Melancholy and DongUiBoGam, both were written in the same century; one was from the UK and the other from Korea.

Cause of melancholia and Ool- Jeong

Burton saw the cause of Melancholia mostly in excess of black bile (Melancholy) in the body because people at that time had, since ancient times, believed that there were four humours in human bodies, which are black bile (Melancholy), yellow bile (choler), blood and phlegm. Each substance should be balanced within the body to keep our body and mind healthy. In DongUiBoGam, it was believed that most disease were generated due to imbalances in food, emotion or problems in circulation in bodily organ systems – the five viscera (lung, liver, kidney, heart, spleen) and the gallbladder. Although the liver and spleen were thought to be the most closely related to Melancholia in The Anatomy of Melancholy, the heart and lungs seem to be more crucial than other organs in the oriental medical perspective, which is illustrated below using a diagram from a medical report which researched the relationship between different emotions and bodily organ systems referenced in DongUiBoGam.

Hongs Blog

Cure and treatment

The Anatomy of Melancholy proposed lots of ways of treating mental illness, from natural herbs to bloodletting. Burton also regarded socializing as important and suggested their patients pay close attention to personal hygiene.

Whereas, throughout the series of DongUiBoGam (25 books in total), natural herbs or traditional medicines to enhance the balance of energy and reduce body heat were introduced for mitigating pains and recovering from each disease. Furthermore, specific information for acupuncture in which thin needles are inserted into the body and cupping, which is also a kind of bloodletting, has been described in DongUiBoGam.

It may not be easy to compare the specific treatments for particular symptoms regarding mental illness, since perspectives of the two authors and the writing styles are very different from each other. However, while I was comparing those two texts, I wondered what would happen if the two authors met each other in the 17th century. They might be able to discuss patients’ symptoms and help each other. Below are some imaginary conversations between them. Both books mostly consisted of surprisingly scientific and reliable information but I picked a funny part for this imaginary story. The story was extracted and referenced from the two books and the prescription was also written based on the original books.

Cartoon final

Hong has created this cartoon depiction of a page from The Anatomy of Melancholy - this page studies the use of placebos in treating melancholia and is currently displayed in the Museum foyer until the end of July 2019.