Sir Thomas Browne

Sir Thomas Browne by Joan Carlile

Sir Thomas Browne by Joan Carlile

1. Life and Letters

 Thomas Browne was born in London on 19 October, 1605. After graduating M.A. from Broadgates Hall, Oxford (1629), he studied medicine privately and worked as an assistant to an Oxford doctor. He then attended the Universities of Montpellier and Padua, and in 1633 he was graduated M.D. at Leiden. Browne’s medical education in Europe also earned him incorporation as M.D. from Oxford, and in 1637 he moved to Norwich, where he lived and practiced medicine until his death in 1682. While Browne seems to have had a keen intellect and was interested in many subjects, his life was outwardly uneventful, although during the Civil War he declared his support for King Charles I and received a knighthood from King Charles II in 1671.

Browne first came to the attention of readers with his best known work, Religio medici, which he wrote around 1635. It was printed in 1642 without his consent, but the next year he approved a new printing, and the book became a best-seller, later being translated into several European languages. Religio medici is about Browne’s personal Christian faith, and is distinguished by its elegant prose, its tolerant and widely-based version of Christianity, and its occasionally sceptical outlook. It is really an intellectual autobiography in which Browne writes about his personal views not just on religion but on a great variety of other subjects, too, although most of them may be related in some way to religion. For example, he believes in predestination, but likes some of the rituals of the Catholic Church; he fulminates against religious bigotry and persecution but is not a great admirer of martyrs. Browne has a mind that loves going a little beyond common sense and reason, venturing often into the realms of the fantastic, the mysterious and the unexplainable. He is one of those people who can find something of interest in just about anything, and the whole work breathes geniality, toleration, and an intelligent scepticism about the world he lives in. Religio medici is one of the great prose-works of the Early Modern period of English literature.

Browne’s innate curiosity never failed him, and his other works reflect his multi-faceted personality, too. In 1646, he wrote Pseudodoxia Epidemica, or Vulgar Errors, which tackled the subject of superstition and popular misconceptions about various subjects, and also showed Browne fighting his intellectual battles against the authors whose works perpetuated these errors. This work is more analytical than Religio medici, and perhaps comes closer to the style of Bacon than to the earlier book. Browne was also a keen antiquarian (as were so many others of his class and education), and his next book, Hydriotaphia, or Urn-Burial (1658) was the result. Working from some recent archaeological discoveries near Norwich of what were thought at the time to be Roman funeral urns, Browne produced a study of funeral customs, which expanded into his thoughts on death and the uselessness of such rituals and commemorations against death’s inevitable power. It is this work where we find Browne’s most elaborate rhetoric, prose which is lush and metaphorical, almost poetical in nature. Together with this book went a work entitled The Garden of Cyrus, in which Browne wrote about the history of horticulture. This book is also the source of his famous idea of the quincunx, a shape with five parts, one at each corner (rectangle), and one in the middle, which he thought was present everywhere in nature; the number five, of course, had mystical and Neoplatonic meanings which fascinated Browne’s mind. It also figured in the design of Cyrus’s garden as described by the Greek writer Xenophon.

The overall impression one gets from reading Browne is of an urbane, sophisticated and witty writer, who delights in collecting trivia and arcane information. His style is elegant and, for modern tastes, probably rather too learned, but his love of what he does is obvious, and he is a good example of the gentleman-antiquary, a man who revels in obscure knowledge of ancient rites and customs and wants readers to share his enthusiasm for these things. He also displays tolerance and good humour, something rare in a century of conflict and changing values.

2. Editions of Browne’s Works

The Letters of Sir Thomas Browne. Sir Geoffrey Keynes, Ed.
London: Faber & Faber, 1946.
[First printed in 1931 as Book VI of the Works].

Religio medici. James Winny, Ed.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1963.

Religio Medici, And Other Works. L. C. Martin, Ed.
Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964.

Religio MediciHydriotaphia, and The Garden of Cyrus. R. H. Robbins, Ed.
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972.

Sir Thomas Browne: The Major Works. C.A. Patrides, Ed.
London ; New York, 1977. (repr. 1984, 1995).

Sir Thomas Browne’s Pseudodoxia Epidemica. R. H. Robbins, Ed.
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Urne Buriall, and The Garden of Cyrus. John Carter, Ed.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1958.

The Works of Sir Thomas Browne. 6 volumes. Sir Geoffrey Keynes, Ed.
London: Faber & Gwyer, Ltd ; New York, W. E. Rudge, 1928-31.
(Repr. London: Faber & Faber ; Chicago: U. Chicago Press, 1964).
This is still the standard edition of all Browne’s works.

3. Books about Browne and his Works

Digby, Sir Kenelm. Observations upon Religio medici. London, 1643.

Hall, Anne. Ceremony and Civility in English Renaissance Prose.
University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1991.

Huntley, F.L. Sir Thomas Browne: A Biographical and Critical Study.
Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1962.

Nathanson, Leonard. The Strategy of Truth: A Study of Sir Thomas Browne.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967.

Patrides, C.A., ed. Approaches to Sir Thomas Browne.
Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1982.

Post, Jonathan. Sir Thomas Browne.
Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1987.

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