Browne's writings display a deep curiosity towards the natural world, influenced by the scientific revolution of Baconian enquiry, while his Christian faith exuded tolerance and goodwill towards humanity in an often intolerant era. A consummate literary craftsman, Browne's works are permeated by frequent references to Classical and Biblical sources and to his own highly idiosyncratic personality. His literary style varies according to genre, resulting in a rich, unusual prose that ranges from rough notebook observations to the highest Baroque eloquence. Although often described as suffering from melancholia, Browne's writings are also characterised by wit and subtle humour.
His first well-known work was Religio Medici('The Religion of a Physician'). This work was circulated as a manuscript among his friends and it caused Browne some surprise when an unauthorised edition appeared in 1642, since the work contained a number of religious speculations that might be considered unorthodox. An authorised text, with some of the controversial matter removed, appeared in 1643. The expurgation did not end the controversy: in 1645, Alexander Ross attacked Religio Medici in his Medicus Medicatus('The Doctor, Doctored') and the book was placed upon the List of Prohibited Books in the same year. In Religio Medici, Browne confirmed his belief, in accordance with the vast majority of seventeenth century European society, in the existence of angels and witchcraft. It is known that in later life he attended the 1662 Bury St. Edmunds witch trial, where his citation of a similar trial in Denmark influenced the jury's minds of the guilt of two accused women, who were subsequently executed for the crime of witchcraft.
In 1646, Browne published his encyclopaedia, Pseudodoxia Epidemica, or, Enquiries into Very many Received Tenets, and commonly Presumed Truths, whose title refers to the prevalence of false beliefs and "vulgar errors". A sceptical work that debunks a number of legends circulating at the time in a paradoxical and witty manner, it displays the Baconian side of Browne—the side that was unafraid of what at the time was still called "the new learning". The book is significant in the history of science, because it promoted an awareness of up-to-date scientific journalism, it cast doubt, for example, on the widely-believed hypothesis of spontaneous generation.
An illustration of Sir Thomas Browne's house in Norwich
In 1671 King Charles II, accompanied by the Court, visited Norwich. The courtier John Evelyn, who had occasionally corresponded with Browne, took good use of the royal visit to call upon "the learned doctor" of European fame and wrote of his visit, "His whole house and garden is a paradise and Cabinet of rarieties and that of the best collection, amongst Medails, books, Plants, natural things".
During his visit, Charles visited Browne's home. A banquet was held in the Civic Hall St. Andrews for the Royal visit. Obliged to honour a notable local, the name of the Mayor of Norwich was proposed to the King for knighthood. The Mayor, however, declined the honour and proposed Browne's name instead.
Sir Thomas Browne died on 19 October 1682, on his 77th birthday. His Library was held in the care of his eldest son Edward until 1708. The auction of Browne and his son Edward's libraries in January 1711 was attended by Hans Sloane. Editions from Sir Thomas Browne's Library subsequently became included in the founding collection of the British Library.
His skull became the subject of dispute when in 1840 his lead coffin was accidentally re-opened by workmen. It was not re-interred until 4 July 1922 when it was registered in the church of Saint Peter Mancroft as aged 317 years. Browne's coffin-plate, which was also stolen the same time as his skull, was eventually recovered, broken into two halves, one of which is on display at St. Peter Mancroft Church. Alluding to the commonplace opus of alchemy it reads- Amplissimus Vir,....hoc Loculo indormiens, Corporis spagyrici pulvere plumbum in aurum Convertit - loosely translated from Latin reads -
Great Virtues,... sleeping here the dust of his spagyric/alchemic body converts the lead to gold.
The coffin-plate verse's author was, in all probability, Browne's eldest son, Edward Browne. The origin of the invented word spagyrici from the Greek: Spao, to tear open, + ageiro, to collect, is from a neologism coined by Paracelsus to define his spagyric type of medicine-oriented alchemy; the origins of iatrochemistry no less, being first advanced by the Swiss physician. This coffin-plate verse along with numerous Paracelsian authors in his library, are evidence that Browne was a follower, albeit, critically, of Paracelsus.
Browne is widely considered one of the most original writers in the English language. The freshness and ingenuity of his mind invested everything he touched with interest; while on more important subjects his style, if frequently rugged and pedantic, often rises to the highest pitch of stately eloquence. His paradoxical place in the history of ideas, as both a promoter of the new inductive science, as an adherent of ancient esoteric learning as well as a devout Christian have greatly contributed to his ambiguity in the history of ideas. For these reasons, the literary critic Robert Sencourt succinctly assessed him as "an instance of scientific reason lit up by mysticism in the Church of England".
Added to this are the complexity of his labyrinthine thought and his ornate language, along with his many allusions to the Bible, Classical learning and to a variety of esoteric authors. These factors combine to account for why Browne remains obscure, little-read and much-misunderstood.
Browne appears at No. 70 in the Oxford English Dictionary’s list of top cited sources. He has 803 entries in the OED, quoted in 3636 entries and is given as the first source for over one hundred English words. His most famous coinages include 'ambidextrous', 'analogous', 'approximate, 'ascetic', 'anomalous', 'carnivorous', 'coexistence' 'coma', 'compensate', 'computer', 'cryptography', 'cylindrical', 'disruption', 'electricity', 'exhaustion', 'ferocious', 'follicle', 'generator', 'gymnastic', 'herbaceous', 'insecurity', 'indigenous', 'jocularity', 'literary', 'locomotion', 'medical', 'migrant', 'mucous', 'prairie', 'prostate', 'polarity', 'precocious', 'pubescent', 'therapeutic', 'suicide', 'ulterior', 'ultimate' and 'veternarian'.
The influence of his literary style spans four centuries.
In the eighteenth century, Samuel Johnson, who shared Browne's love of the Latinate, wrote a brief Life in which he praised Browne as a faithful Christian, but gave a mixed reception to his prose:
"His style is, indeed, a tissue of many languages; a mixture of heterogeneous words, brought together from distant regions, with terms originally appropriated to one art, and drawn by violence into the service of another. He must, however, be confessed to have augmented our philosophical diction; and, in defence of his uncommon words and expressions, we must consider, that he had uncommon sentiments, and was not content to express, in many words, that idea for which any language could supply a single term".
The English author Virginia Woolf wrote essays upon him and observed in 1923, "Few people love the writings of Sir Thomas Browne, but those that do are the salt of the earth." (Sir Thomas Browne, a review by Woolf of the Golden Cockerel edition of the Works of Sir Thomas Browne, published in Times Literary Supplement (1923)
In the twentieth century those who have admired the English man of letters include:
The Scottish psychologist R. D. Laing, who opens his work The Politics of Experience with a quotation by him : "...that great and true Amphibian whose nature is disposed to live not only like other creatures in divers elements, but in divided and distinguished worlds."
The Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges alluded to Browne throughout his literary writings, from his first publication, Fervor de Buenos Aires (1923) until his last years. He described Browne as "the best prose writer in the English language". Such was his admiration of Browne as a literary stylist and thinker that late in his life (Interview 25 April 1980) he stated of himself, alluding to his self-portrait in "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" (1940):
I am merely a word for Chesterton, for Kafka, and Sir Thomas Browne — I love him. I translated him into seventeenth century Spanish and it worked very well. We took a chapter out of Urne Buriall and we did that into Quevedo's Spanish and it went very well.
In his short story "The Celestial Omnibus", published in 1911, E. M. Forster makes Browne the first "driver" that the young protagonist encounters on the magical omnibus line that transports its passengers to a place of direct experience of the aesthetic sublime reserved for those who internalize the experience of poetry, as opposed to those who merely acquire familiarity with literary works for snobbish prestige. The story is an allegory about true appreciation of poetry and literature versus pedantry.
In North Towards Home, Willie Morris quotes Sir Thomas Browne's Urn Burial from memory as he walks up Park Avenue with William Styron: "'And since death must be the Lucina of life, and even Pagans could doubt, whether thus to live were to die; since our longest sun sets at right descensions, and makes but winter arches, and therefore it cannot be long before we lie down in darkness and have our light in ashes…' At that instant I was almost clipped by a taxicab, and the driver stuck his head out and yelled, 'Aincha got eyes in that head, ya bum?'"
William Styron prefaced his 1951 novel Lie Down In Darkness with the same quotation as noted above in the remarks about Willie Morris's memoir. The title of Styron's novel itself comes from that quotation.
Spanish writer Javier Marías translated two works of Browne, Religio Medici and Hydriotaphia.
In 1932 the English painter Paul Nash was invited to illustrate a book of his own choice, Nash choose Sir Thomas Browne's Urn Burial and The Garden of Cyrus, providing the publisher with a set of 32 illustrations to accompany Browne's Discourses. A pencil drawing by Nash called "Urne Buriall: Teeth, Bones and Hair" is held by Birmingham Museums Trust.
Statue of Sir Thomas Browne in Norwich city centre
The National Portrait Gallery in London has a fine contemporary portrait by Joan Carlile of Sir Thomas Browne and his wife Dorothy, Lady Browne (née Mileham). More recent sculptural portraits include Henry Albert Pegram's statue of Sir Thomas contemplating with urn in Norwich. This statue occupies the central position in the Haymarket beside St. Peter Mancroft, not far from the site of his house. It was erected in 1905 and moved from its original position in 1973. In 2005 Robert Mileham’s small standing figure in silver and bronze was commissioned for the 400th anniversary of Browne's birth.
^La religión de un médico. El enterramiento en urnas (Hydriotaphia). De los sueños, nota previa, traducción y epílogo de Javier Marías, Barcelona: Reino de Redonda, primera edición de septiembre de 2002, 356 páginas. ISBN 978-84-9314-714-1.
Merton, S (. 1966). "Old and new physiology in Sir Thomas Browne: digestion and some other functions". Isis, an international review devoted to the history of science and its cultural influences57 (2): 249–59. PMID5335398.