Browne was an English author of varied works that disclose his wide
learning in diverse fields including medicine, religion, science
and the esoteric.
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 idiosyncratic personality. His literary
style varies according to genre resulting in a rich, unusual prose
ranging from rough note-book observations to the highest baroque
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.
1623 he went up to Oxford University.
graduated from Pembroke College, Oxford in 1626 after which he
studied medicine at various Continental universities, including
Leiden, where he received an MD in 1633. He ultimately settled
in Norwich in 1637 where he practiced medicine and lived until
his death in 1682.
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
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
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.
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.
(Urn-Burial) 'twin' 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 uses to demonstrate that the Platonic
forms exist throughout Nature.
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
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.
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.
of Sir Thomas Browne
The National Portrait Gallery in London has a fine contemporary
portrait of Sir Thomas Browne and his wife Lady Dorothy Browne
(Nee Mileham). More recent sculptural portraits include Pegram’s
statue of Sir Thomas contemplating with urn. This statue occupies
the centre position of the Haymarket beside St Peter Mancroft,
not far from the site of his house, was erected in 1905 and moved
from its original position in 1973.
2005 Robert Mileham’s small standing figure in silver and
bronze was commissioned for the 400th anniversary.
The influence of Browne's literary style spans four centuries.
In the eighteenth century, Doctor Johnson, who shared Browne's
love of the Latinate, wrote a brief Life in which he praised Browne
as a faithful Christian but gave a mixed reception to his prose:
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."
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."
literary critic Robert Sencourt succinctly assessed Browne as
"an instance of scientific reason lit up by mysticism in
the Church of England." Indeed, Browne's paradoxical place
in the history of ideas, as both a promoter of the new inductive
science and as an adherent of ancient esoteric learning accounts
for why he remains little-read and much-misunderstood. Add to
this the complexity of his labyrinthine thought and ornate language,
along with his many allusions to the Bible, Classical learning
and to a variety of esoteric authors. 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."
modern times others who have admired the English man of letters
include the American natural historian and paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, the Theosophist Madame Blavatsky and the Scottish psychologist
R. D. Laing, who opens his work The Politics of Experience with
a quotation by him. In 1973 the composer William Alwyn wrote a
symphony based upon the rhythmical cadences of Browne's literary
work Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial.
is also the title of a play written by the American author Tony
Kushner in 1987. The German 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 "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius"
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."