The term depression is complicated as the concept itself is difficult to define, even in modern terms, and there are numerous medieval words that can be connected to it.

One of these words in Old English is un-mód. In Bosworth and Toller’s Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, the word is defined as “despondency, dejection.” A second OE term is mód-leást, translated to “despondency” in Bosworth and Toller.

The Middle English word dēpressiǒun has three definitions in the MED, the second of which is a “(b) lowering of spirits, dejection.” Following from that definition, the ME word dējecciǒun is defined as “depression of spirits, despondency.” The ME word grẹ̄vǒushēde is defined as “melancholy, depression.” The ME word langǒur poses more complicated issues. It can be defined in a variety of ways. The definitions that apply here include: “sickness,” “disease,” “physical affliction, “infirmity,” “misery,” “physical or mental suffering,” “anguish,” “depression,” “self-disgust.” It also relates to “sloth.”

Related terms
Old English
UN-MÓD (n.)
Middle English
LANGǑUR [-ur, -or, languo(u)r, langre, longour] (n.)

Related Terms: pensif, deieccioun, derknes(se), tristes(se)


The quotation offered in Bosworth and Toller for un-mód is taken from the Leechdoms, edited by Cockayne. As the title notes, this is a work focused on Anglo-Saxon medical knowledge, and the section including this word discusses the symptoms of stomach diseases. In Cockayne’s edition, un-mód is translated to “despondency” and is followed by “ungemetwæccum” [excessive wakefulness].

Mód-leást has a clear meaning in Aelfric’s Lives of Saints Saint Agnes (here, from Skeat’s edition):

Ce cniht wearð ge-ancsumod and wið-innan ablend
after þæs mædenes spræce þe hine spearn mid wordum.
He wearð þa gesicelod and siccetunga teah
Of niwel-licum breoste on bedde licgende.
Þa cunnodan læcas hwi he licgende wære
and cyddan þam fæder þæs cnihtes mod-leaste. (ll. 63-8)
The youth was angered, and inwardly blinded
after the maiden’s speech, who had spurned him with words.
He straightaway fell ill, and drew sighs
from the depths of his breast, lying on his bed.
Then leeches enquired why he was lying there,
and made known to the father the youth’s mental disorder.

Skeat’s translation of mód-leáste to “mental disorder” is itself a statement upon the word. The youth in question is in particular suffering from love-sickness (or at least from his offer of marriage being rejected), which connects it with a typical use in the Anglo-Norman of the word pensif. Here, the youth exhibits symptoms such as falling ill, sighing, being confined to bed. His malady requires attention from doctors.

The example given is the text of St. Mary of Oignies, who “ eleuacyone of hir spirite or dcpressyone [read: depressyone] wheþer she were herde or noon” by God.

In the Imitation of Christ, it reads “But if ihesu hide him, ande a litel forsake hem, þei falle into a compleynyng or into ouer gret deieccion.”

In the Minor Poems of the Vernon MS, grẹ̄vǒushēde is used in the following: “[Make me] meur wiþ-outen greuoushed and murie wiþ-outen wyldehed.”

Evidence and Images

Further Reading

Kisha G. Tracy, Fitchburg State University