Sir Thomas Browne (October 19, 1605 – October 19, 1682) was an English author of varied works which disclose his wide learning in diverse fields including medicine, religion, science and the esoteric.
Browne's writings display a deep curiosity towards the natural world, influenced by the Scientific revolution of Baconian enquiry. A consummate literary craftsman, Browne's works are permeated by frequent reference 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.
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 Religio Medici Browne had confirmed his belief in the existence of witches. It is known that in later life he attended the 1662 Bury St. Edmunds witch trial, where he was influential in the outcome of the trial.
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.
Browne's last publication in his life-time,1658 was two philosophical Discourses which are intimately related to each other; the first 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 inspired Browne to meditate upon the funerary customs of the world and the fleetingness of earthly fame and reputation.
Urn-Burial's "twin" discourse is The Garden of Cyrus, or, The Quincunciall Lozenge, or Network Plantations of the Ancients, Artificially, Naturally, and Mystically Considered, whose subject is the quincunx, the arrangement of five units like the five-spot in dice, which Browne uses to demonstrate that the Platonic forms exist throughout Nature.
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.
Sir Thomas Browne died on 19 October 1682, his 77th birthday. 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 316 years.
Indeed, Browne's 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 devout Christian greatly contributes to his ambiguity in the history of ideas. Add to this 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 combined factors account for why Browne remains little-read and much-misunderstood. However, the influence of his literary style spans four centuries.
In the nineteenth century Browne's reputation was revived by the Romantics. Thomas De Quincey, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Charles Lamb (who considered himself the rediscoverer of Browne) were all admirers. The seminal American novelist Herman Melville, heavily influenced by his style, deemed him "a cracked archangel."
The English author Virginia Woolf however wrote of him in 1923,
"Few people love the writings of Sir Thomas Browne, but those that do are the salt of the earth."
In the twentieth century those who have admired the English man of letters include:
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.|cquote
Browne's study of nature led him to raise the query in Religio Medici (1643) the zoological puzzle:
In Pseudodoxia Epidemica frequent references to America can be found. Indeed its opening address entitled To the Reader describes his efforts to determine truth in compiling an encyclopædia:
Throughout his encyclopædia Browne includes speculations and reports from America including mention of the giant phalanges spider, speculation as to why American natives skin-pigmentation differs from African natives, makes a geographical comparison of the proportions of the Gulf of California to the Red Sea and collated sundry notes upon its vegetation. He also noted that the Swiss alchemist-physician Paracelsus equated America as representing the rear of the world stating:
The dedicatory epistle of the discourse The Garden of Cyrus (1658) humorously makes light of the great volume of printed information available upon the botany of America thus:
The concluding lines of the discourse drowsily contemplates the fact that the world consists of time-zones thus:
As a medical man Browne was appreciative of William Harvey's discovery of the circulation of the blood (1628). In correspondence he advised
The opening lines of his discourse Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial compares the 'discovery' of America to that of a significant archaeological find.
When introduced to the prophecies of Nostradamus sometime in the 1670s Browne wrote a pastiche of the Lyons physician's verses. His miscellaneous tract, A prophecy concerning the future State of Several Nations makes several remarkable 'predictions' based upon reason of America's future. In quasi-oracular style Browne challenges the wisdom of the Slave-trade.
Browne 'predicted' that sometime in the distant future America would protect its wealth and be a land pursuing happiness, employing the highly-original phrase, American Pleasure.
adding the explanatory note:
He also prognosticated America to become the economic equal of Europe:
adding the explanatory note:
These examples of reports upon America's botany, zoology and geography are remarkable for their very earliness in American history for in Browne's day (1605-82) America was a fledging colony; in literary terms his usage of the proper place-name of America as a symbol must also be noted; however, more importantly, it was from reports of the superabundance of America's natural resources, its geographical size and the determination of its founding settlers led one seventeenth century European thinker to perceive America as an exotic continent with great future potential.