Browne's writings display a deep curiosity towards the natural world, influenced by the Scientific revolution of Baconian enquiry. In counterbalance 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 reference to Classical and Biblical sources and to his own highly ideosyncratic personality. His literary style varies according to genre resulting in a rich, unusual prose ranging from rough note-book observations to the highest baroque eloquence.
Although described as suffering from melancholia Browne was also capable of subtle humour in his writings. The literary critic Robert Sencourt succinctly assessed him as "an instance of scientific reason lit up by mysticism in the Church of England."
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The son of a silk merchant from Upton, Cheshire, Browne was born in the parish of St Michael, Cheapside, in London on October 19, 1605. His father died while he was still young and he was sent to school at Winchester College.
Browne graduated from Pembroke College, Oxford in 1626 and received a medical doctorate from the University of Leiden in 1633. He settled in Norwich in 1637 where he practiced medicine and lived until his death in 1682.
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." 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 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 & garden is a paradise and Cabinet of rarieties & that of the best collection, amongst Medails, books, Plants, natural things.
During his visit to Norwich, King Charles II 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 the name of Browne instead. Thus, technically speaking, Thomas Browne was only Sir Thomas from 1671 until his death eleven years later in 1682.
Sir Thomas Browne died on his 77th birthday, October 19th 1682. 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 4th July 1922 when it was registered in the church of Saint Peter Mancroft as aged 316 years.
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 and his many allusions to the Bible, Classical learning and esoteric authors are however the primary factors as to why reliance upon received information continues upon his name.
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 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 sometimes be felt in the writings of Doctor Johnson, who shared Browne's love of the Latinate and wrote a brief Life where 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."
In the nineteenth century Browne's reputation was revived by the Romantics. Thomas De Quincey, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Charles Lamb—who thought of himself as the rediscoverer of Browne—were all admirers. The novelist Herman Melville, 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. Virginia Woolf was a prominent admirer, writing in 1923, "Few people love the writings of Sir Thomas Browne, but those that do are the salt of the earth."
In 1973 the composer Malcolm Arnold wrote a symphony based upon the rythmical cadences of Browne's literary work Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial. The German born author W.G. Sebald wrote of Browne in his semi-autobiographical novel The Rings of Saturn (1995) whilst the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges alluded to Browne throughout his literary writings, from his very first publication, Fervor de Buenos Aires (1923) until his last years. Such was Borges admiration for Browne as a literary stylist and thinker that late in his life (Interview April 25th 1980) he stated of himself alluding to his self-portrait in "Tlon, 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."
- Religio Medici (1643)
- Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646–72)
- Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial (1658)
- The Garden of Cyrus (1658)
- Letter to a Friend (1656; pub. post. 1690)
- Christian Morals (1670s; pub. post. 1716)
- Musaeum Clausum Tract 13 from Miscellaneous Tracts first pub. post. 1684
- See also Sir Thomas Browne on America
- The Sir Thomas Browne Page at the University of Chicago, a comprehensive site with the complete works — all the works mentioned above, plus the minor works; Samuel Johnson's Life of Browne, Kenelm Digby's Observations on Religio Medici, and Alexander Ross's Medicus Medicatus; and background material, such as many of Browne's ancient sources.
- Several of the minor and shorter works available here
- A selection of quotations
- An essay upon Browne's relationship to alchemy
- Interview with Jorge Luis Borges, April 25 1980, discussing Browne