Sir Thomas Browne (/braʊn/; 19 October 1605 – 19 October 1682) was an English polymath and author of varied works which reveal his wide learning in diverse fields including science and medicine, religion and the esoteric. 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.
Browne's works are permeated by frequent references to Classical and Biblical sources as well as the idiosyncrasies of his own personality. While he is often described as suffering from melancholia, Browne's writings are also characterised by wit and subtle humour. His literary style is varied, according to genre, resulting in a rich, unique prose which ranges from rough notebook observations to polished Baroque eloquence.
The son of a silk merchant from Upton, Cheshire, he was born in the parish of St Michael, Cheapside, in London on 19 October 1605. His father died while he was still young and he was sent to school at Winchester College. In 1623 Browne went to Oxford University. He graduated from Pembroke College, Oxford in 1626, after which he studied medicine at Padua and Montpellier universities, completing his studies at Leiden, where he received a medical degree in 1633. He settled in Norwich in 1637, where he practiced medicine and lived until his death in 1682.
Browne's first literary work was Religio Medici(The Religion of a Physician). This work was circulated as a manuscript among his friends and it caused him 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, in common with much Protestant literature, the book was placed upon the Papal List of Prohibited Books in the same year.
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.
Title-page of 1658 edition of 'Urn-Burial' together with 'The Garden of Cyrus'.
In Religio Medici, Browne confirmed his belief, in accordance with the vast majority of 17th century European society, in the existence of angels and witchcraft. He attended the 1662 Bury St. Edmunds witch trial, where his citation of a similar trial in Denmark may have influenced the jury's minds of the guilt of two accused women, who were subsequently executed for the crime of witchcraft.
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 rarities 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 his 77th birthday, 19 October 1682. 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 missing 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, stolen the same time as his skull, was also 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 as, Great Virtues,... sleeping here the dust of his spagyric body converts the lead to gold. The origin of the invented word spagyrici are from the Greek of: Spao to tear open, + ageiro to collect, a signature neologism coined by Paracelsus to define his spagyric type of medicine-oriented alchemy; the origins of iatrochemistry, being first advanced by him. Browne's coffin-plate verse along with the numerous Paracelsian authors listed as once in his library are evidence he was a follower of Paracelsus, and like the Swiss physician, subscribed critically to a belief in palingenesis, physiognomy, alchemy and astrology.
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, adherent of ancient esoteric learning as well as being 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". However, the complexity of Browne's labyrinthine thought processes, his ornate language, along with his many allusions to Biblical, Classical and contemporary learning, along with esoteric authors, are each contributing factors towards accounting for why he remains obscure, little-read and thus, misunderstood.
Browne appears at No. 69 in the Oxford English Dictionary's list of top cited sources. He has 775 entries in the OED of first usage of a word, is quoted in a total of 4131 entries of first evidence of a word, and is quoted 1596 times as first evidence of a particular meaning of a word. Examples of his coinages, many of which are of a scientific or medical nature, include 'ambidextrous', 'analogous', 'approximate, 'ascetic', 'anomalous', 'carnivorous', 'coexistence' 'coma', 'compensate', 'computer', 'cryptography', 'cylindrical', 'disruption','ergotisms', 'electricity', 'exhaustion', 'ferocious', 'follicle', 'generator', 'gymnastic', 'herbaceous', 'holocaust', 'insecurity', 'indigenous', 'jocularity', 'literary', 'locomotion', 'medical', 'migrant', 'mucous', 'prairie', 'prostate', 'polarity', 'precocious', 'pubescent', 'therapeutic', 'suicide', 'ulterior', 'ultimate' and 'veterinarian'.
The influence of his literary style spans four centuries.
In the 18th century, Samuel Johnson, who shared Browne's love of the Latinate, wrote a brief Life in which he praised Browne as a faithful Christian and assessed his prose thus:
"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 Scottish psychologist R. D. Laing, who opens his work The Politics of Experience with a quotation by him : " thus is man 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 17th 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 internalise 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 Alfred 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.
^(quoted in the Historical Note, Elizabeth S. Foster, page 661: "He has borrowed Sir Thomas Brown[e] of me," Evert A. Duyckinck wrote his brother on March 18, 1848, "and says finely of the speculations of the Religio Medici that Browne is a kind of 'crack'd Archangel!' Was ever anything of this sort said before by a sailor?" in "Mardi and A Voyage Thither," Northwestern University Press, c. 1970, paper bound edition)
^review by Woolf of the Golden Cockerel edition of the Works of Sir Thomas Browne, published in Times Literary Supplement (1923)
^"Age-Old Fallacies of Thinking and Stinking", in "I Have Landed: Splashes and Reflections in Natural History"
^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. doi:10.1086/350117. PMID5335398.