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March 13, 2011

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Jim Harrison

To judge from the absence of comments, you don't have much company in your appreciation of Burton, which is too bad because the Anatomy is a great read. One thing, though. Burton's purported misogyny needs to be put in context. It's perfectly true that there are many libels on women in the Anatomy, but a bad opinion of women was certainly the consensus position in his age. But there's more to it than that. For example, in the last part of his book Burton attempts a talking cure of love melancholy by explaining to its (male) victims that they are better off without her. In the authoritative words of Alfred E. Neuman, "It is better to have loved and lost, much better." If bad mouthing women and the dozens of other remedies Burton proposes doesn't work, though, "The last and best Cure of Love-Melancholy is, to let them have their Desire."

More generally, readers of the Anatomy soon learn that Burton argues all sides of every issue so that determining what Burton actually believed is a tricky proposition as it often is with 16th and early 17th Century writers. What is Montaigne's definitive opinion on anything?

One last thought. In rereading Burton's section on Love Melancholy it suddenly dawned on me how similar the layout of the argument is to a famous book of Rabelais' comic novel Gargantua and Pantagruel in which Pantagruel's sidekick Panurge tries to decide whether he should get married and consults every conceivable authority without reaching a conclusion. Burton read Rabelais and in fact quotes him apropos of the inevitability of getting cuckolded, which was Panurge's chief fear, so the parallel between Burton and Rabelais is not much of a stretch, though both men were participating in a debate about the virtues of marriage and women that preoccupied learned men in that era and that probably is the basic explanation of the similarity between these two texts on marriage and the virtues of women.

Romeo  Vitelli

Thanks for your insightful post. There is no way to say for sure whether Burton was more or less misogynistic than others of his era. You do have to wonder whether his own lifelong bachelor status influenced his attitudes in any way. There certainly don't seem to have been many women in his life to moderate his views.

Dirk Hanson

Thanks for the thoughtful look at one of the world's most challenging and unusual books. It's just not the kind of book you can press on other people--they'll either read it or they won't, and probably, they won't.

Alan Hope

If I remember correctly, it wasn't possible to be a fellow of an Oxford college and be married all the way up to the 19th century. So the bachelor life would have been the norm in academic circles.

Romeo  Vitelli

But still influential for all of that. Thanks for posting.

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