MELANCHOLIA/Æ (CFP) – Venice, 28-29 November 2013

Call for Papers
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 emphasize
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
stigmatization/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
legitimizing 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: