The Elizabethan Mind: Thomas Whythorne

Helen Hackett

The composer wrote the first known autobiography.
Thomas Whythorne
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In the 1570s Thomas Whythorne, a musician and composer, wrote an account of his life. It’s an extraordinary document, not least since the term and concept of ‘autobiography’ didn’t yet exist. Whythorne charts his changing mental states through the different phases and situations of his life: ‘One while I thought … And another while I thought thus unto myself …’. He strives to define and convey ‘What I am of mind myself’, touching minds with the reader across the centuries.

Whythorne was a typical Elizabethan in his preoccupation with understanding his own mind. As the new technology of print took off, the rising tide of books included many on what we would call psychology. Elizabethan readers devoured works on melancholy (understood as a disease caused by an excess of black bile), on dreams, and on the passions (their name for the emotions).

Often these books described alarming mental disturbances. There were case-histories of melancholics who suffered bizarre delusions: one man thought his nose was as long as an elephant’s trunk; another feared sitting down because he thought his buttocks were made of glass. The female imagination was believed to have power to imprint on an embryo images seen during conception or pregnancy: a woman who, during sex, happened to look at a picture of John the Baptist wearing an animal skin apparently gave birth to a ‘hairy maiden’, a girl covered in fur. Most frighteningly, Satan could invade the mind to plant sinful thoughts, or, in extreme cases, to inflict demonic possession. Each individual needed to engage in constant monitoring of their own mental state, while exerting reason to govern the unruly imagination and the passions.

The burning of Thomas Hawkes.

Behind the vivid stories of mental turbulence lay intense debates about the nature of the mind, arising from this era’s transitional position between old and new thought-systems. Ancient medical theories taught that the mind was organically integrated with the body by fluids called the humours, whose fluctuations determined temperament and mood. Yet a revival of the classical philosophy of Stoicism, combined with new Christian teachings, set the mind above and against the body. Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, for instance, recounted that when the Protestant Thomas Hawkes was burned at the stake during the reign of Mary I, he clapped his flaming hands above his head to prove that a true Christian could transcend physical pain to ‘keep his mind quiet and patient’.

This period’s tumultuous ferment of ideas about the mind is one reason for its explosion of literary creativity and innovation. Thomas Wright, author of The Passions of the Mind (1601), observed that ‘words represent most exactly the very image of the mind and soul … for in words as in a glass may be seen a man’s life and inclinations’. Genres like the dramatic soliloquy and the sonnet sequence developed to represent in words the inner nature and thought-processes of their characters. Prose fiction also became popular, involving much experimentation with the device, now so familiar to us, of representing thought as inner speech.

This desire to write the mind reached its apex in Hamlet, a play whose protagonist can’t stop thinking about thinking. Written around 1600, it formed part of a particularly intense wave of books about the mind as the reign of Elizabeth I drew towards a close. It seems that deepening uncertainty as to what a new reign and new century might bring gave added urgency to the quest for self-understanding. Another work of this time was Nosce Teipsum (Know Yourself, 1599) by Sir John Davies, a long poem which explored the structure and operations of the mind. Davies confessed at the outset that his project was impossible, stating of the mind: ‘of herself she can no judgement give, / Nor how, nor whence, nor where, nor what, she is’. Yet this was all the more reason to apply oneself strenuously to the task.

In the centuries that divide us from the Elizabethans, and especially in the last few decades, scientists have made enormous advances in our understanding of the brain. Yet if anything these have opened up yet more questions about the relations between brain, mind, and self. While the Elizabethans had many ideas about the mind that seem strange to us, they were asking questions which continue to perplex us. Exploring Elizabethan theories of the mind not only enriches our understanding of their period and its culture, but can also return us with renewed energy to the quest to understand ourselves.

Helen Hackett is the author of The Elizabethan Mindpublished by Yale University Press.