c. 1640 | Oxford

Like Father, Like Son

We are plagued and punished for our fathers’ defaults.

If a mother be overdull, heavy, angry, peevish, discontented, and melancholy, not only at the time of conception, but even all the while she carries the child in her womb, her son will be so likewise affected, and worse.

If she grieve overmuch, be disquieted, or by any casualty be affrighted and terrified by some fearful object heard or seen, she endangers her child and spoils the temperature of it; for the strange imagination of a woman works effectually upon her infant, that, as Baptista Porta proves, if she prodigiously longs for such and such meats, the child will love those meats, saith Fernelius, and be addicted to like humors: “If a great-bellied woman sees a hare, her child will often have a harelip,” as we call it. Garcaeus hath a memorable example of one Thomas Nickell, born in the city of Brandenburg, 1551, “that went reeling and staggering all the days of his life, as if he would fall to the ground, because his mother being great with child saw a drunken man reeling in the street.” Such another I find in Martin Wenrichius. “I saw” (saith he) “at Wittenberg, in Germany, a citizen that looked like a carcass; I asked him the cause, he replied, ‘His mother, when she bore him in her womb, saw a carcass by chance, and was so sore affrighted with it, that from a ghastly impression the child was like it.’”

So many several ways are we plagued and punished for our fathers’ defaults, insomuch that, as Fernelius truly saith, “It is the greatest part of our felicity to be well-born, and it were happy for humankind if only such parents as are sound of body and mind should be suffered to marry.” A husbandman will sow none but the best and choicest seed upon his land; he will not rear a bull or a horse except he be right shapen in all parts, or permit him to cover a mare except he be well assured of his breed. We make choice of the best rams for our sheep, rear the neatest kine, and keep the best dogs, and how careful then should we be in begetting of our children! In former times some countries have been so chary in this behalf, so stern, that if a child were crooked or deformed in body or mind, they made him away: so did the Indians of old by the relation of Curtius, and many other well-governed commonwealths, according to the discipline of those times. Heretofore in Scotland, saith Hect. Boethius, “If any were visited with the falling sickness, madness, gout, leprosy, or any such dangerous disease, which was likely to be propagated from the father to the son, he was instantly gelded; a woman kept from all company of men; and if by chance, having some such disease, she were found to be with child, she with her brood were buried alive—and this was done for the common good, lest the whole nation should be injured or corrupted.” A severe doom, you will say, and not to be used among Christians, yet more to be looked into than it is. For now, by our too much facility in this kind, in giving way for all to marry that will, too much liberty and indulgence in tolerating all sorts, there is a vast confusion of hereditary diseases, no family secure, no man, almost, free from some grievous infirmity or other, when no choice is had, but still the eldest must marry, as so many stallions of the race; or if rich, be they fools or dizzards, lame or maimed, unable, intemperate, dissolute, exhausted through riot, as he said, they must be wise and able by inheritance: it comes to pass that our generation is corrupt, we have many weak persons, both in body and mind, many feral diseases raging among us, crazed families, our parents our ruin, our fathers bad, and we are like to be worse.


Robert Burton

From The Anatomy of Melancholy. In 1599 Burton was made a fellow at Oxford University, where he spent the majority of his “silent, sedentary, solitary” life. Apparently having failed to obtain a patron, Burton complained of being “left behind, as a dolphin on shore, confined to my College, as Diogenes to his tub.” He became a vicar of St. Thomas’ Church in 1616, writing his Anatomy because he felt obligated to “prescribe means how to prevent and cure so universal a malady” as melancholy.