Sir Thomas Browne

views updated Jun 08 2018

Sir Thomas Browne

The works of the English author Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682) are in large part inquiries into religion, morality, science, and human error. A doctor and scholar, he is chiefly famed for Religio medici, which is marked by his masterly prose style.

Thomas Browne was born in Cheapside, London, on Oct. 19, 1605. He was the son of a mercer of genteel Cheshire ancestry who died 8 years later, leaving "a plentifull Fortune." After earning a master's degree at Oxford in 1629, Browne studied medicine in Montpellier, Padua, and Leiden, where he received a degree in medicine in 1633. About 1635, while a young doctor in Yorkshire, he composed Religio medici (A Doctor's Religion) "as a personal exercise." In 1637 he settled in Norwich and gained esteem as a doctor who kept abreast of current revolutionary developments in medicine, such as William Harvey's discovery of blood circulation. In 1641 Browne married Dorothy Mileham, who bore him 12 children in 18 years, though he had professed in the Religio that he "could be content" if men procreated "like trees without conjunction."

Although Norwich was a Parliamentary stronghold, Browne remained a staunch royalist throughout the Puritan Revolution (1642-1660). His Religio, published without his permission in 1642 but in an authorized edition the next year, contrasts with the doctrinaire religious rigidity of his contemporaries. He writes as a humane Anglican, convinced of his own faith, enraptured by the wonders of theology, but open-minded and aware of the limitations of human reason and the folly of pious prejudices. In an age of intolerance he respected every man's right to decide on his own beliefs: "I could never divide myself from any man upon the difference of an opinion."

The Religio is a deliberately digressive, eclectic, charmingly erudite testimonial of Browne's experiences in religion and thought. He explores such topics as the relations of reason and faith, nature as God's art, musical harmonies, witchcraft, and man as inhabiting the "divided and distinguished worlds" of soul and spirit, reason and sense. The treatise is a revelation of self, reminiscent of Montaigne, but it is written from the perspective of eternity and couched in richly cadenced, imaginative, ornate, and flexible prose.

Pseudodoxia epidemica, or Vulgar Errors (1646) now seems more quaint than scientific, but it was practical in an age bound by traditional fallacies. Its purpose was to induce inquiries into popular delusions; for example, Browne denies that elephants lack knees, that crystal is hard ice, and that rubbing with garlic inhibits a magnet's power to attract.

In 1658 Browne published Hydriotaphia, or Urn Burial and its companion, The Garden of Cyrus. The first reflects on ancient burial customs, life's mystery, and the futility of pagan piety. The second discovers quincunxes (patterns of fives) throughout nature and man's works and thus probes into the mysteriously intricate unity of things.

After the Restoration, Browne was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Physicians, and in 1671 Charles II knighted him. Browne died on his birthday in 1682. His Letter to a Friend and Christian Morals found posthumous publication. Since then his works have been persistently reprinted, and he has won ever-increasing respect as a man of virtuous life dedicated to the progress of medicine and scientific experimentation and to appreciation of the mysteries of God, man, and nature. Above all, he is esteemed for a style rich in tone, exquisite in prose poetry, and superbly flexible in rhetoric.

Further Reading

Sir Geoffrey Keynes, ed., The Works of Sir Thomas Browne (6 vols., 1928-1931; new ed., 4 vols., entitled Works, 1964), is the standard collection and includes Browne's fascinating letters and miscellaneous writings as well as the major works. A wide selection is conveniently available in The Prose of Sir Thomas Browne, edited by Norman Endicott (1968). Jeremiah S. Finch, Sir Thomas Browne: A Doctor's Life of Science and Faith (1950), is an interesting, well-informed survey. Readers who find Browne's style and erudition baffling may turn for guidance to Joan Bennett, Sir Thomas Browne: A Man of Achievement in Literature (1962). Of the numerous scholarly treatments, among the most recent is Leonard Nathanson, The Strategy of Truth: A Study of Sir Thomas Browne (1967). For general background and further bibliography Douglas Bush, English Literature in the Earlier 17th Century, 1600-1660 (1945; 2d ed. 1962), is useful. □

Browne, Sir Thomas (1605-1682)

views updated May 17 2018

Browne, Sir Thomas (1605-1682)

An English physician whose evidence in a witchcraft trial in 1664 is said to have assisted the conviction of two women. The accused were Amy Duny and Rose Cullender, arraigned before Sir Matthew Hale at Bury St. Edmunds. Asked by Hale for his opinion, Browne commented, "That the fits were natural, but heightened by the devils co-operating with the malice of the witches, at whose instance he did the villainies," citing similar cases in Denmark.

Browne was born on October 19, 1605, in London, England. After receiving degrees in medicine from the University of Leyden and Oxford, he practiced medicine in Norwich, England until his death on October 19, 1682. Besides his famous Religio Medici (1642) and Urn Burial (1658), Browne was chiefly celebrated by the manner in which he combated fallacies in a work entitled Pseudoxia Epidemica (1658), an essay on popular errors in which he examined beliefs accepted in his time as veritable facts, then proved them to be false or doubtful. Although the author frequently replaced one error by another, on the whole his book is accurate, especially considering the date of its composition. The work is divided into seven books, each of which deals with a particular set of errors: those springing from man's love of the marvelous; those arising from popular beliefs concerning plants and metals; absurd beliefs connected with animals; errors relative to man; errors recorded by pictures and cosmographical and historical errors and certain commonly accepted absurdities concerning the wonders of the world. The charges of atheism against him, which arose with the publication of this work, stimulated him to publish his famous Religio Medici.

His strangest literary conceit was The Garden of Cyrus (1658), an exhaustive survey of the quincunx (a special arrangement of five objects).

Browne, Sir Thomas

views updated May 18 2018

Browne, Sir Thomas (1605–82). Physician and author. London-born, educated at Oxford, Montpellier, and Padua, Browne received a Leiden MD (1633) before returning to practise near Halifax. He settled in Norwich (1637), was admitted MD Oxon., and in 1643 published the authorized version of his most famous work Religio medici, printed without apparent permission the preceding year. Its reflections on the mysteries of God, creation, and man were an immediate success throughout Europe, though papal authorities placed it in the ‘Index expurgatorius’. Pseudodoxia epidemica (1646) attempted to dispel some popular superstitions, while Urn Burial and The Garden of Cyrus (1658) reflected antiquarian interests. Despite all-embracing curiosity and encyclopedic knowledge, Browne remained credulous, as illustrated by his involvement in the conviction of two women as witches (1664). He corresponded with Evelyn, Dugdale, and Aubrey, and, ever a royalist, received a knighthood on Charles II's state visit to Norwich in 1671.

A. S. Hargreaves