CALL FOR PAPERS: Melancholia/æ

The religious experience of the ‘disease of the soul’ and its definitions in the early modern period: censorship, dissent and self-representation


In its various historic-artistic, medical, literary, philosophical and psychological manifestations, melancholy has been the subject of a vast literature. Moreover, ‘melancholy’ – the word itself – is a polysemic term historically associated with a large variety of groups of distinct meanings.

In particular, it underwent a sort of semantic expansion between the 16th and 17th century. It became the name of what the physiologic-medical tradition, going back to antiquity, considered a humoral pathology of the black bile, of an experience of ‘moral’ suffering and also of a mental or emotional disorder, a discomfort sometimes described by sufferers as ‘abandonment’, ‘dark night’, ‘dryness’, ‘sorrow’ etc. and often lived out in imitatio Christi. In the light of all this, the notion of melancholy became an established means for carefully analyzing a large range of cases and their various symptoms and discerning the origin (whether divine, demonic or natural) of spiritual suffering; at the same time, it became a polemical category for transgression and individual or collective patterns of behaviour that were regarded as abnormal. Within the spheres of medicine, theology and law, the idea emerged that melancholy may be the expression of dissent, of the subject’s incapacity or unwillingness to conform to social rules and customs, and went as far as to polemically present melancholy as a collective phenomenon of given social groups, to denote a ‘national’ malaise (English malady) or, by reference to seventeenth-century political and religious instability, to designate the ‘disease of the century’.

The proposed seminar aims at exploring the different meanings of the term ‘melancholy’ in early modern religion, both Protestant and Catholic.  One of its main purposes will be to enquire into, clarify, and emphasise both elements of continuity and what was specific to each of the diverse discourses on melancholy within the historical, socio-cultural, political, geographical and linguistic contexts that framed its production.

It will be, therefore, a question of analysing the ways these discourses came to be structured, who made use of them and how, how they intersected one another – for instance, what points of contact existed among the medical, philosophical, literary, artistic and religious discourses – how they changed through time and what forms of social practice and types of texts were involved. Given this point of view, an interdisciplinary and transcultural approach will be privileged, one which goes beyond the traditional confessional perspective to emphasize intersections and comparisons even among different areas of historical study from cultural to gender history, from the history of medicine to that of emotions.

Proposals may be presented (although not exclusively) on the following themes either in the form of individual case studies or in a more theoretical and methodological mode.

1) Analysis of the language(s) of melancholy with particular attention to the medical and spiritual treatments proposed for its understanding, examination and/or cure. We would like to reflect on individual and group perceptions of spiritual suffering, on discursive definitions of its causes (natural and supernatural alike) and on the lines of reasoning that contributed to the stigmatisation/censorship of the experience or, conversely, to its spiritual appraisal. Proposed topics: melancholy and devotion, melancholy as a spiritual trial, tristitia spiritualis, religious interpretations and elaborations of the theme of suicide, body/soul and ‘anatomies of the soul’, etc.

2) The derogatory use of the term ‘melancholy’ by the various confessional orthodoxies to stigmatize the unbridgeable gap that separated not only individuals but also entire groups from the imposed imperatives of social and religious models as well as deplete the term’s potential subversive power. We intend to define and study the procedures that excluded dissidents from the community and thereby fixed the borders of rightness but which, by so doing, often, paradoxically, provoked the opposite effect of legitimising groups or individual ‘sectarians’ or ‘eccentrics’, who ended up identifying precisely the stigma as the distinctive feature of their own identity. Proposed topics: melancholy as the ‘disease of the century’, melancholy and atheism, the ‘monasteries’ sickness’, the critique of scrupulous and zealous religiosity, etc.

3) The connection between melancholy, demonic possession and ‘inordinate devotions’ provided the leitmotiv for much contemporary, disputed spirituality and mysticism within the Catholic ground. On the other hand, debate in both Catholicism and various Protestant contexts on melancholy combined with the wider debate concerning religious fanaticism or ‘enthusiasm’, which terms were used to label chiliastic groups, radical sects, the early Quakers and the Camisards, all of whom became the object of detailed theological, social and medical analyses in an attempt to distinguish between true and false inspiration, the natural and supernatural dimensions and melancholy and possession. Proposed topics: melancholy as a sign of fanaticism, enthusiasm or millenarianism; melancholy and demonic possession; melancholy and ‘pretended sanctity’; etc.

The seminar will be held in Venice, 28-29 November 2013 (date to be confirmed); its proceedings will be published either in a monographic issue of an academic periodical or as a dedicated volume.

Proposals will be considered for 20-minute papers and/or written contributions (up to a maximum length of 40,000 characters).

Scientific committee: Alessandro Arcangeli, Federico Barbierato, Adelisa Malena, Chiara Petrolini, Lisa Roscioni, Xenia Von Tippelskirch, Daniela Solfaroli Camillocci, Stefano Villani.

Proposals for papers or written contributions (max. 3000 characters), supplemented by a short cv and bibliography, must be sent by 15 February 2013 to Adelisa Malena ( or Lisa Roscioni (

Languages: Italian, English, French.

If funding will be available, hospitality will be offered to speakers. A reimbursement of travel expenses also may be provided pending the availability of budgetary resources.

Further information: