Book preview: Melancholy and Mysticism

This blog post discusses elements of Chapter 3 of my forthcoming book due out in April 2019. You can find out more about the monograph here.

One of the most devastating charges levelled at mysticism in the early modern period was the claim that is was nothing more than ‘gross enthusiasm’. It caused those who claimed authority through mystical visions to be questioned with greater scepticism than ever before. The result of this process was the association of mysticism with delusion, fancy and overactive imagination.

What caused this overwhelming negative reaction to mysticism? The answer comes in two parts. Firstly, much of the debate about mysticism as enthusiasm came from Church of England apologists from the mid-1650s onwards. These were writers who sought to situate the Church of England as the rational and placid ‘middle ground’ between the excesses of sectarianism and the superstition of Catholicism. The second was a renewed focus on melancholy as a source of religious delusion. Polemical writers harnessed medical knowledge and the concept of ‘religious melancholy’ to attack the mystical and prophetic experiences of Catholics and sectarians alike. Writers like Robert Burton brought medical debates about melancholy into the polemical and political spheres by constructing his criticisms within a wider medical frame of reference. Both of these attacks merged to devastating effect in the mid-to-late seventeenth century.

Meric Casaubon (artist unknown)

One of the most prolific critics of mysticism as ‘enthusiasm’ was Meric Casaubon. Born in Geneva in 1599, he eventually settled in England, taking his B.A. degree in 1618 and his M.A. in 1621 at Christ Church, Oxford. His father Isaac, before his death in 1614, had struck a blow to those adhering to alchemical beliefs by proving that the writings of Hermes Trismegistus, known as the Corpus Hermeticum, were not written by an ancient Egyptian writer, but actually produced by second or third century Christians.

Scepticism seemed to be something of a family business, as Meric Casaubon’s A Treatise Concerning Enthusiasme (1654) took aim at a range of prophetic and mystical experiences throughout history. Casaubon, of course, had an axe to grind with the radicalism of the Civil Wars, which he saw as the main cause of the downfall of the Church of England. He also had much to say about the sanctity of Catholic figures due to the danger he saw ‘papists’ posing in England.

Casaubon attacked both groups through a naturalist critique, seeking to prove those that had been praised as prophets or worshipped as saints had been receiving visions caused by natural, and explainable, causes. One example he focussed on in detail was that of Catherine de Jésus, a French Carmelite nun whose Life had been published in Paris in 1628. He sought to show how this ‘melancholick maid’ had come to be revered in the Catholic Church, despite the fact that her visionary experiences had natural causes which included poor diet, the composition of the female brain, and an unbalancing of the bodily humours. These were symptoms seen throughout Christian history that had, for a multitude of reasons, tricked men into believing such visions were authentic. Casaubon laid much of the blame for Catherine’s fame at the door of those who had, either through ignorance or superstition, failed to see that there was ‘some means for the cure of her melancholy’.

Ultimately Casaubon believed mysticism to be a plague promoted in both sectarian and Catholic circles, something ‘much cried up’ by those claiming to have obtained spiritual perfection which brought nothing but delusion. He believed it to be a theology or system of belief that was used to justify enthusiasm by giving it a language and framework through which individuals legitimized their false religious experiences.

Chapter 3 of my monograph explores writers like Burton and Casaubon in greater detail, tracing a line of argument about mysticism and enthusiasm throughout the seventeenth century.

Mysticism in Early Modern England is available to pre-order/buy now by following this link