Robert Burton and the problems of polymathy


  • I would like to thank Nick Hardy, Christopher Johnson, Oliver Thomas, Abigail Shinn, Angus Vine, and the anonymous reader for their comments on drafts of this essay.


Robert Burton called his period ‘this scribling age’, in which the copiousness of printed matter and the multitude of authors caused problems both of discernment – how to distinguish true scholars from intellectual quacks? – and of quantity: how can the scholar hope to master the ‘vast Chaos and confusion of Bookes’? This article addresses Burton's engagement with these questions, and examines both his attempt to establish a polymathic persona, and the relationship of the Anatomy to other compendious genres of the period. Section II of this essay compares Burton's versions of polymathy with Johannes Wower's De polymathia tractatio (1603), showing how, in both the Anatomy and his academic play, Philosophaster, Burton contrasts the true polymath with the figure of the ‘polypragmatist’, representing a kind of miscellaneous learning which is shallow, deceptive, and mercenary. The third section examines Burton's relationship to another model of disciplinary multifariousness: the encyclopaedia, understood by Burton not as a genre, but as an ethos. In the fourth section, attention turns to polyantheas and other compendious literary genres. Burton's complaints about such shortcuts to learning are shown to participate in the controversy over the scholarly method which followed the publication of John Selden's Historie of Tithes (1618). The final section addresses polymathic style: Burton's ambiguous relationship to Erasmian copia, and the struggle to find a voice amid the clamour of citations demanded of the scholar.