Hellebore and Borage

Of all the remedies for preventing, averting, and healing melancholy, hellebore and borage arguably correspond most closely to fluoxetine in today’s pharmacopeia. Helleborus or Hellebore names a herbaceous perennial flowering plant from the botanical family of Ranunculaceae. White and black hellebore were each included in ancient and medieval medicine, although the white hellebore is in our day recognized to have been a different plant. It was a “strong purger upward” (II,4,2,1: 228), while “that most renowned plant,” black hellebore, is described as a “famous purger of melancholy, which all antiquity so much used and admired” (II,4,2,2: 231).[1] Borage (Borago officinalis) is a member of the comfrey family and has similarly ancient origins as a remedy, known for its cooling properties and its use with mood regulation and mental disorder. During the years Burton worked on the Anatomy, astrologer and herbalist Nicholas Culpeper was writing his own comprehensive and authoritative volume on herbal medicine (first published in 1653). There, describing hellebore as the “herb of Saturn” to emphasize the astrological connection with melancholy, Culpeper notes that “The roots are very effectual against all melancholy diseases, such as are of long standing, as quartan agues, and madness...” (154).[2] Borage is identified as an herb of Jupiter (another of the planets linked to melancholy); all or any of its leaves, flower, and seeds, Culpeper says, “are good to expel melancholy” (53). That hellebore and borage were of particular importance in the treatment and prevention of melancholy is suggested by their place in the engraved frontispiece Burton had designed for the 1632 edition.[3]

These two plants were part of a much larger number used in Burton’s time, known to him, and recommended in the Anatomy. And herbal medicine not only employed a range of plants, these treatments used every part of each one, Burton notes: “substance, juice, roots, seeds, flowers, leaves, deconcoctions, distilled waters, extracts, oils, etc.,” in addition to conserves and syrups derived from them (II,4,1,3: 216). These substances were simple and compound, gentle and violent, upward (to produce vomiting) and downward (as enemas) in their purgative effects, and are all carefully explained in the Anatomy.[4]

Evidence-based support for any treatment was limited in Burton’s era, and he was anyway more inclined to put his trust in medical treatises than direct observation. Yet we cannot dismiss the confidence he shows here, as we shall see, since these remedies were supposed effective only in conjunction with an array of other interventions. Moreover, like many of his contemporaries (including Montaigne), Burton recognized the power of expectation effects and would have in part credited to them whatever healing occurred. The particular power of the imagination to bring about such effects in those tending toward melancholy is one of the most distinctive themes in the Anatomy, and Burton may be said to anticipate the link subsequently confirmed between placebo effects and unipolar depression.

  • [1] The use of black hellebore as a purgative by no less of an authority than Hippocrates is taken toconfirm that, employed carefully, this plant is a strong and effective remedy against melancholy.
  • [2] Culpeper’s work was first published as The English Physician, or Herball. (Culpeper 1985).
  • [3] Borage and Hellebore are depicted in two of the eleven scenes and described as “The best medicines that ere God made” (Argument of the Frontispiece (lxii)).
  • [4] The purgative function of these herbs, it has been emphasized, was symbolic as much as actual;purging purified: “.the replacement of the thick, overloaded blood of melancholics, heavy withbitter humours, with the light, clear blood whose fresh movement would dissipate delirium”(Foucault 2006: 310).
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