The Robert Burton Diet

November 18, 2014 | 5 5 min read


Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) is an exhaustive dissection of the physical, mental, and behavioral causes of an epidemic disease, a massive project that also manages to anatomize the folly of the author who undertook it. In The Anatomy, Burton provides specific suggestions to mitigate melancholy through one’s diet, “the mother of diseases, let the father be what he will.”

coverThis so-called “Robert Burton Diet” is as relevant today as it was in the 17th century, for who among us can claim to be entirely free of the melancholic affliction? Atkins, South Beach, Microbiome, Paleo: all these faddish regimens might slim you down, but can they regulate your humours? I think not.

Therefore, without further ado, I give you the Robert Burton Diet.

Only those with strong constitutions should partake of beef, which engenders “gross melancholy blood.” If you must, find a cow from Portugal to eat, preferably one that is gelded or, alternatively, an old sad one that has “been tired out with labor.”

Pork is also off the menu, especially for those who “live at ease” or are otherwise “unsound of body or mind” — that is, most of us. But it’s so moist! Precisely the problem. Pork is too moist and “full of humours,” which upset sensitive stomachs and could bring on the dreaded “quartan ague,” which recurs every 72 hours.

Need we even mention goats? These “rammish,” bearded beasts clearly “breed rank and filthy substance.” For goat-lovers, a kid is best, the younger, cuter, more tender, and less rammish the better.

“All venison,” pleasant meat though it may be, “is melancholy, and begets bad blood.” Should you decide to treat yourself, break out those bows or rifles, because hunted deer is supposedly better than store-bought for those of melancholic disposition.

Anything is preferable to hare, a “black meat, melancholy, and hard of digestion” that breeds incubus and “causeth fearful dreams.” (Burton doesn’t say whether these nightmares will be worse if you kill the rabbit yourself.)

And what of heads, feet, bowels, brains, entrails, marrow, fat, blood, skins, inward parts (heart, liver, spleen, etc.)? Sure, if you want to keep moping around forever, dig in.

OK, so meat is pretty much verboten. Perhaps we should look elsewhere in the animal kingdom for sustenance?

Don’t even think about fowl, especially those morally suspect avian creatures flying in from Northern Europe and Russia: “Though these be fair in feathers, pleasant in taste, and have a good outside, like hypocrites, white in plumes, and soft, their flesh is hard, black, unwholesome, dangerous, melancholy meat.” If there’s one thing I can’t abide eating, it’s a dissembling bird.

The Burton Diet doesn’t sound great so far, but maybe fish will provide us with sumptuous delights…

Easy on the seafood, which yields “little and humorous nutriment.” You don’t want to end up like the Carthusian monks, who are “subject to more melancholy than any other Order” because of their fish-eating and solitary living.

Though classical opinion varies widely, Burton is willing to roll the dice on lobster, crab, and lampreys, quoting Paulus Jovius’s opinion that none speak against the latter but inepti [fools] and scrupulosi [the scrupulous].” Far be it from me to gainsay Burton, but after Googling an image of a lamprey, I wouldn’t eat one.

I know what you’re all dying to ask: Can I eat carp? Unfortunately, for once Burton doesn’t have the answer. Who would have thought that this lowly fish could stump one of the most learned minds in Europe? “Carp is a fish of which I know not what to determine,” Burton admits with an air of melancholy resignation.

Depressed yet? Well, nothing cheers one up quite like milk and cookies, but only if it’s asses’ milk washing down those chocolate chips. Every other milk increases melancholy.

coverAnd cheese-lovers beware, because the older, stronger, and harder cheeses are especially troublesome for the melancholic. If you’re hankering for a slice, make it Banbury, which Shakespeare lovers will instantly recognize from this memorable burn delivered to Slender in The Merry Wives of Windsor: “You Banbury cheese!”

Denied as we are most meats, fish, and dairy products, perhaps adherents of the Burton Diet can compensate with fruit?

Fruits “infect the blood, and putrefy it.” (Though apples, along with pearmains and sweetings, are “good against melancholy.”)

Are leafy greens and garnishes similarly infectious?

Herbs, Roots, Vegetables, and Spices:
Cucumbers, melons and gourds are “disallowed,” but cabbage is the worst, causing troublesome dreams and bringing “heaviness to the soul.” (I always knew there was a scientific reason I hated it.) Moreover, before eating what Horace calls “bloodless meals,” recall what the great Roman poet said of such demeaning feasts:

Their lives, that each such herbs, must needs be short,
And ’tis a fearful thing to report,
That men should feed on such a kind of meat
Which very juments [beasts of burden] would refuse to eat.

Oh, and no peas either, whether eaten properly with a fork or gauchely with a knife.

Parsnips and potatoes barely make the cut, but I hope you like your food bland, because garlic and onions send “gross fumes to the brain” and “make men mad.” Pepper, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, dates, oil, vinegar, mustard, and sugar are out, as are all sweet, “sharp and sour things.”

Surely Burton would allow us some salt? He’s not a monster after all.

Alas, salt and salt-meats, being “great procurers of this disease [melancholy],” should be avoided. We need only look at those Egyptian priests who abstained from salt so “that their souls might be free from perturbations” to see the folly of our ways.

Those “perturbations” are starting to sound preferable to a life of deprivation. At any rate, give me unlimited bread and a cold one and I’ll make do.

Bread and Beer:
Hallelujah! On the controversial subject of bread, Burton proves less dogmatic than some gluten-free advocates. While warning of the “melancholy juice and wind” bread can produce, he nonetheless appears to endorse oaten loaves.

A pint isn’t great for the melancholy — a cup of cold wine is more salubrious — though imbibing black Bohemian beer, a “monstrous drink, like the River Styxx,” has an “especial virtue against melancholy” if the drinker is accustomed to such waters as plied by the ferryman Charon.

And what of all those treats not mentioned by Burton? Can we eat those?

Watch the master puncture some more dreams:

To these noxious simples we may reduce an infinite number of compound, artificial, made dishes, of which our cooks afford us a great variety, as tailors do fashions in our apparel. Such are puddings stuffed with blood…baked meats, soused indurate meats, fired and boiled, buttered meats, condite, powdered, and over-dried; all cakes, simnels, buns cracknels made with butter, spice, etc. fritters, pancakes, pies, sausages, and those several sauces, sharp or over-sweet…[that] do generally engender gross humours, fill the stomach with crudities, and all those inward parts with obstructions.

I’ll see you in hell, Burton.

The Burton Diet seems excessively restrictive, if not sadistic, but we should remember that Burton, despite his obsessive nature, is also a flexible thinker. “There is no rule so general as not to admit of some exception,” and as for diets, Burton allows that “custom doth alter nature itself.” After all, the Emperor Montezuma ate “man’s flesh raw and roasted” and Mithridates trained himself to drink poison, so how bad could some soused indurate meats be?

If we are used to certain foods, or if we particularly delight in them, then abstaining from them would mean we choose to live in “mere tyranny [to] the strict rules of physic.” And that, presumably, would only increase our melancholy.

So treat yourself to the incubus-breeding hare, to that hypocritical bird, and to that confounding carp. It would be infinitely sad, and a folly, not to.

Image Credit: Flickr/asbruff

is a staff writer for The Millions living in Durham, NC. Learn more about Matt at


  1. Excellent piece! or indurate. You accomplished two seemingly incompatible things — gently mocking the source while aiming the reader right back to it . I never knew how very much I needed to read “Anatomy of Melancholy!” The regulation of my humours demands nothing less.

  2. “There is no rule so general as not to admit of some exception,” love this– and it’s exactly what visionary nutrition expert Ellyn Satter would say — moderation in all things, even in moderation.

  3. ´Shakespeare lovers will instantly recognize from this memorable burn delivered to Slender in The Merry Wives of Windsor: “You Banbury cheese!”` You remember in your tweets some facts and I remembered As You Like It.

  4. Well, bless Google. I needed to know what Burton has to say about fish and here it is. Thank goodness he didn’t get to chocolate.

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