by John Butler
1. Life and Letters
Browne was born in London on
19 October, 1605. After graduating M.A.
from Broadgates Hall, Oxford (1629), he studied medicine privately and
worked as an assistant to an Oxford doctor. He then attended the
Universities of Montpellier and Padua, and in 1633 he was graduated
Leiden. Browne's medical education in Europe also earned him
as M.D. from Oxford, and in 1637 he moved to Norwich, where he lived
practiced medicine until his death in 1682. While Browne seems to have
keen intellect and was interested in many subjects, his life was
uneventful, although during the Civil War he declared his support for King Charles I and received a knighthood from King Charles II in 1671.
Browne first came to the attention
of readers with his best known
work, Religio medici, which he wrote around 1635. It was
printed in 1642
without his consent, but the next year he approved a new printing, and
book became a best-seller, later being translated into several European
languages. Religio medici is about Browne's personal Christian
faith, and is
distinguished by its elegant prose, its tolerant and widely-based
Christianity, and its occasionally sceptical outlook. It is really an
intellectual autobiography in which Browne writes about his personal
not just on religion but on a great variety of other subjects, too,
most of them may be related in some way to religion. For example, he
believes in predestination, but likes some of the rituals of the
Church; he fulminates against religious bigotry and persecution but is
great admirer of martyrs. Browne has a mind that loves going a little
common sense and reason, venturing often into the realms of the
the mysterious and the unexplainable. He is one of those people who can
something of interest in just about anything, and the whole work
geniality, toleration, and an intelligent scepticism about the world he
lives in. Religio medici is one of the great prose-works of the Early
period of English literature.
Browne's innate curiosity never
failed him, and his other works reflect his
multi-faceted personality, too. In 1646, he wrote Pseudodoxia
Vulgar Errors, which tackled the subject of superstition and
misconceptions about various subjects, and also showed Browne fighting
intellectual battles against the authors whose works perpetuated these
errors. This work is more analytical than Religio medici, and
closer to the style of Bacon than to the
earlier book. Browne was also a
keen antiquarian (as were so many others of his class and education),
his next book, Hydriotaphia, or Urn-Burial (1658) was the
from some recent archaeological discoveries near Norwich of what were
thought at the time to be Roman funeral urns, Browne produced a study
funeral customs, which expanded into his thoughts on death and the
uselessness of such rituals and commemorations against death's
It is this work where we find Browne's most elaborate rhetoric, prose
is lush and metaphorical, almost poetical in nature. Together with this
went a work entitled The Garden of Cyrus, in which Browne wrote
history of horticulture. This book is also the source of his famous
the quincunx, a shape with five parts, one at each corner
one in the middle, which he thought was present everywhere in nature;
number five, of course, had mystical and Neoplatonic meanings which
fascinated Browne's mind. It also figured in the design of Cyrus's
described by the Greek writer Xenophon.
The overall impression one gets
from reading Browne is of an urbane,
sophisticated and witty writer, who delights in collecting trivia and
arcane information. His style is elegant and, for modern tastes,
rather too learned, but his love of what he does is obvious, and he is
good example of the gentleman-antiquary, a man who revels in obscure
knowledge of ancient rites and customs and wants readers to share his
enthusiasm for these things. He also displays tolerance and good
something rare in a century of conflict and changing values.
2. Editions of Browne's Works
Letters of Sir Thomas Browne. Sir Geoffrey
3. Books about Browne and his Works
London: Faber & Faber, 1946.
[First printed in 1931 as Book VI of the Works].
Religio medici. James Winny, Ed.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1963.
Religio Medici, And Other Works. L. C.
Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964.
Medici, Hydriotaphia, and The Garden of Cyrus.
R. H. Robbins, Ed.
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972.
Thomas Browne: The Major Works. C.A. Patrides, Ed.
London ; New York, 1977. (repr. 1984, 1995).
Thomas Browne's Pseudodoxia Epidemica. R. H. Robbins, Ed.
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Urne Buriall, and The Garden of Cyrus. John
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1958.
The Works of Sir Thomas Browne. 6 volumes. Sir
Geoffrey Keynes, Ed.
London: Faber & Gwyer, Ltd ; New York, W. E. Rudge, 1928-31.
(Repr. London: Faber & Faber ; Chicago: U. Chicago Press, 1964).
This is still the standard edition of all Browne's works.
Sir Kenelm. Observations upon Religio medici. London,
Hall, Anne. Ceremony
and Civility in English Renaissance Prose.
University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1991.
Huntley, F.L. Sir Thomas Browne: A Biographical and Critical Study.
Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1962.
Nathanson, Leonard. The Strategy of Truth: A Study of Sir Thomas
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967.
Patrides, C.A., ed. Approaches
to Sir Thomas Browne.
Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1982.
Post, Jonathan. Sir
Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1987.
To cite this article:
Butler, John. "Life of Sir Thomas Browne". Luminarium.
30 Jan. 2003. [Date you accessed this page].
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