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Thomas Browne

Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682) was an English author of a number of works that disclose his wide learning in various fields of learning including Medicine , religion, science and the esoteric. His works are characterised by erudite learning, and a rich, unusual prose style alternating between grandiloquence and rough note-book jottings. Browne was a consummate literary craftsman who produced writings varied in genre which display his Christian faith, humanity and tolerance in an often intolerant age. He kept abreast of the latest scientific developments of his age whilst also being deeply-versed in esoteric lore. Although often described as one suffering from melancholia he was also capable of subtle humour.

Browne's important, if ambigious place in intellectual history has been described as-

An instance of scientific reason, lit up by mysticism, in the Church of England.

Table of contents
1 Biography
2 1671 Knighthood to death
3 Literary works
4 Literary influence
5 External links


Browne graduated from Pembroke College Oxford in 1626 and received a medical doctorate from the University of Leiden in 1633. He settled in Norwich, where he practiced medicine.

His first well-known work bore the Latin title Religio Medici (The Religion of a Physician). This work was circulated in manuscript among his friends, and it caused Browne some surprise and embarrassment 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 fact the book was placed upon the Papal index of forbidden reading for Catholics in the same year.

In 1646, Browne published 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." It is a sceptical collection that deals with a number of legends circulating at the time, which it treats in a paradoxical and witty manner. The book is scientifically significant because its arguments were some of the first to cast doubt on the widely-believed hypothesis of spontaneous generation or abiogenesis.

In 1658 Browne published together two Discourses which are intimately related to each other, the first being Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial or a Brief Discourse of the Sepulchral Urns lately found in Norfolk, occasioned by the discovery of some Bronze Age burials in earthenware vessels found in Norfolk. These inspired Browne to meditate upon the funerary customs of the world and the fleetingness of earthly fame and reputation.

Hydriotaphia's (Urn-Burial) 'binary' companion Discourse is The Garden of Cyrus, or, The Quincunciall Lozenge, or Network Plantations of the Ancients, Artificially, Naturally, and Mystically Considered, whose slight subject is the quincunx, the arrangement of five units like the five-spot in dice, which Browne utilises to demonstrate that the Platonic forms exist throughout Nature.

1671 Knighthood to death

In 1671  King Charles II, accompanied by the Royal 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 & Cabinet of rarieties & that of the best collection, amongst Medails, books, Plants, natural things.

At some point during his visit to Norwich King Charles II visited Browne's home and attended father and son busy dissecting a dolphin which had been caught upstream on the river Wensum. A Banquet was held in the Civic Hall St. Andrews for the Royal visit. Obliged by his Royal visit to honour a notable local the name of the Mayor of Norwich was proposed to the King for knighthood. The Mayor, however, declined this honour and suggested the name of Browne instead. With his propensity for blushing upon the least cause, the Royalist supporter may well have been crimson-faced upon kneeling to be knighted. Thus, technically speaking, Thomas Browne was only Sir Thomas from 1671 until his death eleven years later in 1682. (It's recorded that the dolphin was duly cooked and sent as steak-cutlets to Newmarket where the King continuing upon his Royal tour, visited the newly-established thorough-bred horse-racing town).

Sir Thomas Browne died on his 77th birthday, October 19th 1682. His skull however was the subject of dispute when his lead coffin was accidentally re-opened by workmen from 1835 until its eventual re-interment upon 4th July 1922 when it was registered in the church of Saint Peter Mancroft as aged 316 years.

Literary works

Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646-76)
''Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial (1658)
''The Garden of Cyrus (1658)
Letter to a friend (1656) pub. post. 1690
Christian Morals (1670's) pub. post. 1716
Musaeum Clausum Tract 13 of 13 Miscellaneous Tracts first pub. post. 1684

Literary influence

Today Sir Thomas Browne is a little-read and thus a much misunderstood author. There are several factors which have contributed to his obscurity; the complexity of his ornate and labyrinthine thought, along with his many allusions to obscure authorities are the primary contributory factors as to why reliance upon received information upon him continues to occurs.

Browne's paradoxical place in the history of ideas is another factor as to why he remains little-understood; he was as much a scientist as a devout Christian and as much a promoter of the new inductive science as an adherent of ancient esoteric learning. This is reflected in the vast catalogue of over 1,500 books in the Library of Sir Thomas Browne.

The influence of Browne's literary style can be traced from the writings of Doctor Johnson to the nineteenth century when he was admired by Charles Lamb, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the novelist Herman Melville who, heavily influenced by his style, considered him to be 'a cracked archangel'. In modern times references to Browne can be found in diverse works including-the writings of the American natural historian and paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, the theosophists Madame Blavatsky, and Eveyln Underhill and the Scottish psychologist R. D. Laing, who opens his work The Politics of Experience with a quotation by him. The following quotation taken from a book review by Virginia Woolf in 1923 appears on the website of Browne's literary works.

But why fly in the face of facts? Few people love the writings of Sir Thomas Browne, but those that do are the salt of the earth.

In the twentieth century German born author Max Sebald wrote of Browne in his semi-autobiographical novel The Rings of Saturn whilst the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges alluded to Browne throughout his literary career once confessing-

"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".

External links