Why I Write: Gravidum Cor, Foetum Caput

“Not only libraries and shops are full of our putrid papers, but every close-stool and jakes.”  (Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621))

For those of you who weren’t alive in the seventeenth century, “close stool” and “jakes” were in that day names for what your grandmother called a “powder room,” and your mother most probably a “half-bath.”  More distant ancestors might have called it a “privy” or “stool closet,” since the chamber in question was private, closet-like, and furnished with a stool.  The seat of this stool was, of course, perforated with a large hole, and beneath this hole a chamber pot was either set or suspended.

This item of furniture was itself referred to as a close-stool, until the euphemistic nineteenth century renamed it a commode.  Here, for instance, we find the phrase close-stool used in a colorful description of the courtship rituals of seventeenth-century Ireland.

“On a design of marriage they are . . . so far from selling a pig in a poke that it is not unusual for the man to mount the beast before he binds the bargain; so that ’tis no strange thing amongst them to make a maid a whore first, and then to make that whore his wife afterwards; like a sloven that first makes a close-stool of his own hat, and then claps it upon his own head” (1).

As it so happens, this engrossing work of anthropology appeared under the imprint of a London publisher called “W.C.”; but there was, I am afraid, no way he could savor the irony and know that plumbers would one day raise the fetid close-stool to a fragrant water closet.

I must master my natural delicacy and push on to the point of this discursive introduction, which is to place my epigraph in its historical and biological context.  A man repaired to a close-stool to evacuate his bowels, which is why physicians nowadays refer to our excrement as “stool.”  Women were no less ready to make use of a stool-closet, as we see here:

“Go into the mistress’s chamber, and the first glance of your eye gives you the prospect of an open close-stool, and a chamber pot full-charged, as if the woman thought all that came from her were nothing but civet and essence of orange flowers” (2). 

How little women have changed!  (Civet, incidentally, is a species of perfume.)

As “all that came from her” was not civet and essence of orange flowers, some disagreeable paperwork accompanied the filthy business of a close-stool.  And since the bespoke product that we call toilet paper would not be sold for another two hundred years, close-stools of the seventeenth century were supplied with what Burton called “putrid papers.”  He meant outdated ephemeral books and pamphlets that had, in their literary aspect, died and begun to stink.

There was no shortage of “putrid papers” because Burton lived in a “scribbling age” when the “number of books is without number.”  Seventeenth-century England was bursting with poor and ink-stained devils who would “write no matter what, and scrape together it boots not whence.”  These “base and illiterate scribblers” were even known to “lard their lean books with the fat of others’ works” (3).

Except that I am free of ink stains and my writing yields nothing so useful as toilet paper, these poor and ink-stained devils sound more than a little like yours truly.  But, be that as it may, there is another line in which Burton really lays his finger on why I write what you, dear reader, are so kind to read.

Burton says that he found himself afflicted with gravidum cor, foetum caput, which is to say a heavy heart and swollen brain.  His swollen (foetus-like) brain he likened to an abscess filled with puss, and his scribbling served to lance the boil, drain the puss, and ease his mind.

When I first took this task in hand . . . I aimed . . . to ease my mind by writing.”

Withdrawal and despondent brooding is a good definition of melancholy, and gravidum cor, foetum caput is at least one of the great causes of withdrawal and despondent brooding.  And this is why I count myself as a very minor disciple of Burton when he writes,

“I write of melancholy, by being busy to avoid melancholy” (4).

If my writing has given your mind any ease, why that is just gravy.


(This post was written to commemorate two-hundred posts and three years of easing my mind at the Orthosphere)


(1) Anon.  A Brief Character of Ireland, with Some Observations of the Customs, etc. of the Meaner Sort of the Natural Inhabitants of that Kingdom.  (London: W.C., 1692), pp. 16-17.

(2) Anon. The Pleasures of Matrimony Intermixed with Variety of Merry and Delightful Stories: Containing the Charms and Contentments of Wooing and Wedlock in all its Enjoyments, Recreations, and Divertisements(London: Henry Rhodes, 1688), p. 70.

(3) Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy, second edition (Oxford: Henry Cripps, 1621), pp. 8-9.

(4) Burton, Anatomy, p. 6.

11 thoughts on “Why I Write: Gravidum Cor, Foetum Caput

  1. Pingback: Why I Write: Gravidum Cor, Foetum Caput | @the_arv

  2. Pingback: Why I Write: Gravidum Cor, Foetum Caput | Reaction Times

  3. Congratulations on reaching a new milestone here at the Orthosphere. I for one find your posts relevant, insightful, well written and well thought out, thought provoking, and indeed generally containing sharp wit and humor enough to give it all a nice, healthy balance. Your posts on male and female sexuality have been helpful to me in conveying those sorts of ideas to those within my little circle of influence, and I am grateful for that.

  4. There always appears something of vanity in disclaiming the utility of one’s own writing, or (much the same) of claiming a merely personal use. After all, if such were true, the author would not write, or would scribble privately. And if the scatalogical association were more than pose, the author would confine his scribblings to the grout between tiles in the privy, like those innumerable young men on college campuses and in other public spaces with a realistic appreciation of their literary talents. Or at the very least, consign pages to the fire or electrons to the back-up drive.

    But instead, in a separate act, the author publishes.

    The act of publishing implies one of two things: either the author believes that some good will come to the readers among the audience of the publication, or the act of publishing itself provides a good to the author – whether money from the publishing-house or the pleasure of seeing his name in lights (fortune or fame? fame or fortune?) is an open question.

    Probably these motives are mixed in all published blandishments that bear a durable name.

    I offer this by way of observation rather than reproof.

    • Vanity is often disguised as irony or self-deprecation, and I am probably as vain as the next fellow. But I also think there can be a boundless egotism in consigning one’s unpublished words to the flames. The vain man usually talks too much or too little. He either thinks he is so wonderful that people will wish to hear everything he has to say, or that he is so wonderful that people don’t deserve to hear anything he has to say. As I said, I write and publish to lift the gloom; and it lifts my gloom a little more when I think I may have lifted the gloom for someone else.

  5. For those of you who weren’t alive in the seventeenth century, “close stool” and “jakes” were in that day names for what your grandmother called a “powder room,” and your mother most probably a “half-bath.”

    The word “jakes” is still in common usage in Ireland.

    “On a design of marriage they are

    For context, Wycherley premiered The Country Wife in 1675. So even Puritans would have been dimly aware that fornication was not an arcane Gaelic custom.

    • I thought I’d heard “jakes” before. If all goes according to plan, I’ll visit Ireland next year. Is the world colloquial or vulgar? (Edit: that should have been word, not world. Or maybe not!)

  6. Colloquial. I hope you enjoy your visit. Once people hear you have a foreign accent you should receive excellent customer service. Native-to-native customer service is next to non-existent, one of things that shocked me when I came back from England after a few years away.
    I second Terry Morris’ comments on your writing, very enjoyable.

    • Welcome back to the ‘oul sod’, Shanagolden, but the country is not what she used to be. There seems to be a large minority in Ireland that are willing to follow the dictates of the foreigner, whatever they might be. Maybe that’s why we were under the heel of our neighbours for so long. The primary foreigners nowadays are the US Silicon Valley companies and the Brussels mandarins that combine to keep our economy above water-contemperaneously, we have seen our benighted country take a drastic and extreme liberal turn.


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