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Browne, Thomas (1605-1682)
"As for those wingy mysteries in divinity, and airy subtleties in religion, which have unhinged the brains of better heads, they never stretched the pia mater of mine; methinks there be not impossibilities enough in Religion for an active faith."

-- Thomas Browne


Sir Thomas Browne was an English author of varied works that 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. 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 eloquence.

Biography
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.

In 1623 he went up to Oxford University.

Browne 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.

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) '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.

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.

Portraits 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.

In 2005 Robert Mileham’s small standing figure in silver and bronze was commissioned for the 400th anniversary.

Literary influence
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:

"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 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 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."

In 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.

Hydriotaphia 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" (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."

 
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