I was borne in St Michaels Cheap in London, went to schoole at Winchester Colledge, then went to Oxford, spent some yeares in forreign parts, was admitted to be a Socius Honorarius of the Colledge of Physitians in London. Knighted September, 1671, when the King, Queen and Court came to Norwich. Writt Religio Medici in English, wch was translated into Latin, French, Italian, High and low Dutch. Pseudodoxia Epidemica, or Enquiries into common and vulgar Errors, translated into Dutch 4 or 5 yeares ago. Hydriotaphia, or Urne Buriall. Hortus Cyri, or de Quincunce. Have some miscellaneous tracts which may be published.
Sir Thomas Browne to John Aubrey, 14 March 1672/3
He was a learned
. His prose
is informative and fascinating, and always a delight to read for its own crafted
rhythm. He often uses strange words coined from Latin and Greek, but they only augment the charm
Browne was born on 19 October 1605, the son of a mercer. He got his BA at Oxford in 1626, MA in 1629, and thereafter studied abroad, at Montpellier and Padua, and finally gaining an MD at Leyden in 1633. He began to practise medicine in Oxfordshire, then moved to Norwich in 1637, and married Dorothy Mileham in 1641. He died on his birthday in 1682.
From this provincial life came his meditations Religio Medici (the Religion of a Doctor), the first two editions being unauthorized, with an authorized one in 1643 (by the same publisher). It was instantly popular, attacked by the Puritans, and banned by the Roman Catholics. It is a reasoned consideration of his religion: he prefers to embrace what is common among Christians and not be sectarian (it was this that attracted the charge of deism); and he uses reason and doubt to examine all the popular accretions to the religion that are not necessary to it.
In briefe, where the Scripture is silent, the Church is my Text; where that speakes, 'tis but my Comment: where there is a joynt silence of both, I borrow not the rules of my Religion from Rome or Geneva, but the dictates of my own reason.
This examination of popular errors led to his next book, the Pseudodoxia Epidemica
, which is a detailed analysis of many fallacies
and what we might now call urban myth
s. He is not fully scientific
, but shows the scientific spirit in actually examining facts instead of wholly relying on what Aristotle
He uses his knowledge of anatomy to show that elephants must have joints in order to walk, and that a badger is unlikely to have legs shorter on one side than another. He examines arguments for and against the existence of unicorns, phoenixes, and the like. He points out a number of instances where what people think is in the Bible isn't (such as Methuselah being the oldest person who ever lived). The peculiar stench ascribed to the Jews, the song of the dying swan, the navels of Adam and Eve, the existence of a Pope Joan, all sorts of things come under his sceptical eye.
Urne-Buriall begins with archaeological discoveries in Norfolk but discourses over all the funeral customs of the world and ages. The Garden of Cyrus was jointly published with it in 1658, being a study of gardens and plants, and the arrangement of trees in a quincunx. Neither of these is a factual work on a single topic, but is a wide-ranging survey of extraordinary reading and knowledge, full of trivia and noble thoughts.
* I keep coming across Browne words in Webster 1913: they include amission, assastion, avel, Basquish, bombilation, bowelless, brazen-browed, castrensial, celestify, cheven, chiragrical, cilicious, circination, consectary, convexedly, deuteroscopy, emication exantlation, exesion, extradictionary, feneration, feriation, finiteless, fritinancy, gelastic, hiation, iconomical, illision, innitency, inviscate, jucundity, laqueary, latitancy, literalty, longevous, mugient, nonusance, novity, numerist, nutrication, obmutescence, ossuary, ostiary, pancratical, parergy, pendulosity, plectile, podagric(al), portension, postiler, preominate, profection, pubescence, reimpregnate, retiary, retromingency, selenography, sheathy, strigment, subconstellation, supersaliency, surcle, swaggy, telarly, telary, terebrate, textury, transcorporate, transcriptive, transexion, transfeminate, trifluctuation, turgescency, unicornous, unyolden, venation, veneficious, venenation. You'll notice that none of them ever caught on (about the only Browne word used today is commensal, I believe).