The Fowre Complexions / Melancholly

Melancholly by George Glover, from the series Fowre Complexions c.1630 (source: British Museum, Prints and Drawings, accession no. 1870,0514.1129)

Featured image: an engraving of medieval London’s skyline by Claes Jansz Visscher, 1616. (

Here we have an engraved drawing of a woman called Melancholly, by English engraver George Glover. The engraving is from a series of drawings known as ‘Fowre Complexions’. The other women in the series are called Phlegmatick, Choller and Sanguine.

The text below the engraving reads: ‘In a faire woman, there’s no greater folly (without just cause) to bee Melancholic, and yet because her husband late hath straide, you see her cheeke upom her hand is laide’.

According to contemporary historians, marriage in early modern England was more likely to be done for economic value rather than for the emotional value[1]. With our poor Melancholly resting her head in her hands, we can assume that perhaps she did marry for the emotional value and her husband may not have felt the same way, hence why he “straide” (in modern terms most likely meaning “strayed”).  We can assume that he “straide” by perhaps either keeping a mistress or paying regular visits to the many established brothels London had to offer.

It was a common mindset in early modern England to feel sceptical about marrying for love as many people saw it as being a disruptive and irrational emotion[2]. This opinion on marriage can now allow us to ask the question why did Glover draw this engraving? The most obvious answer being this was his way of showing his personal views towards marrying for love. By drawing a woman called Melancholly who is distraught at the idea of her husband sleeping with another woman, it is perhaps a message to women encouraging them to not marry for love as it will most likely end in disaster.

However, the reason for Melancholly appearing to be so miserable may not only be because her husband has cheated on her, but maybe because he has “straide” from the righteous path and has delved into the world of Sin. With the Church having a big part to play in the holy matrimony between man and woman, adultery was a highly punishable act in early modern England. Some members of the court argued that adultery was “a grave kind of theft and should be punished as harshly: with death”[3]. Thus, poor old Melancholly is also mourning the potential death of her husband, leaving her with no means of an added financial support.

[1] Sharpe, J.A., Early Modern England: A Social History 1550-1760. pp. 61

[2] Sharpe, Early Modern England. pp. 62

[3] Rickman, J., Love, Lust and License in Early Modern England: Illicit Sex and the Nobility. (Routledge, 2008). pp. 22



One thought on “The Fowre Complexions / Melancholly

  1. This again, a neat and tidy blog, and you’ve actually moved a little bit beyond just thinking about the content of the image, to consider the institution of marriage and what the verse beneath the image says about the possible strains upon early modern marriage. This could have been made richer by thinking about why the verse is initially so dismissive about women suffering from melancholy and think about the standard humoral conception of women, within early modern medical thinking, which we did discuss a little in our session on gender and identities. Melancholy was often identified as a condition that men were more prone to, than women, so contemporary viewers might have seen this as a slightly odd image on first seeing it.


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