This is part of a bi-weekly series here at TSS: Early Modern and Open Access regularly showcases peer-reviewed articles (or other resources) of interest to early modernists that are freely available in open access formats.
Seventeenth-century English character-books were popular collections of short essays cataloguing the different types or “characters” of the city. These octavo or duodecimo pamphlets belonged neither to the field of theology nor to that of medical studies. They borrowed from a multitude of discourses, ranging from commonplace wisdom, the curriculum of the schools, anatomical treatises and the elaborate representations of the stage. In this essay, I show that as jumbled literary and cultural repositories, books of characters offer a particularly comprehensive insight into the variety of contemporary interpretations of melancholy. Authors of characters made use of the notion of melancholy to refer in turn to an extravagantly abnormal behaviour, an excessive show of religious devotion, an obsessive disease of the soul, an inspiring symptom of spiritual awareness, an evil possession of the body or a cause of unremitted despair. Such characterizations reinforced the commonplace satire of dissenters as melancholy men by tapping into established stereotypes of humoral imbalance and brainless folly. In this paper, I show that the numerous “characters” of real-life prisons and prisoners however give rise to another representation of melancholy. In such representations, melancholy is neither an ideological stigma nor a psychological prison of the soul. It is a positive manifestation of poetic inspiration which allows the prisoner to metaphorically escape the four walls of his prison.