Thomas Browne's life - from Wikipedia
Sir Thomas Browne (/braʊn/; 19 October 1605 – 19 October 1682) was an English polymath and author of varied works which reveal his wide learning in diverse fields including science and medicine, religion and the esoteric. Browne's writings display a deep curiosity towards the natural world, influenced by the scientific revolution of Baconian enquiry. Browne's literary works are permeated by references to Classical and Biblicalsources as well as the idiosyncrasies of his own personality. Although often described as suffused with melancholia, his writings are also characterised by wit and subtle humour, while his literary style is varied, according to genre, resulting in a rich, unique prose which ranges from rough notebook observations to polished Baroque eloquence.
BiographyEarly lifeThe son of a silk merchant from Upton, Cheshire, he was born in the parish of St Michael, Cheapside, in London on 19 October 1605. His father died while he was still young and he was sent to school at Winchester College. In 1623 Browne went to Oxford University. He graduated from Pembroke College, Oxford in 1626, after which he studied medicine at Padua and Montpellier universities, completing his studies at Leiden, where he received a medical degree in 1633. He settled in Norwich in 1637 and practiced medicine there until his death in 1682.
Browne's first literary work was Religio Medici (The Religion of a Physician). This work was circulated as a manuscript among his friends. It surprised him when an unauthorised edition appeared in 1642, since the work included several unorthodox religious speculations. An authorised text appeared in 1643, with some of the more controversial views removed. The expurgation did not end the controversy: in 1645, Alexander Ross attacked Religio Medici in his Medicus Medicatus (The Doctor, Doctored) and, in common with much Protestant literature, the book was placed upon the Papal Index Librorum Prohibitorum in the same year.
In 1646, Browne published his encyclopaedia, 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 methodical 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 it promoted an awareness of up-to-date scientific journalism.
Browne's last publication during his lifetime were two philosophical Discourses which are closely related to each other in concept. The first, Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial, or a Brief Discourse of the Sepulchral Urns lately found in Norfolk (1658) inspired by the discovery of some Bronze Age burials in earthenware vessels found in Norfolk, resulted in a literary meditation upon death, the funerary customs of the world and the ephemerality of fame. The other discourse in the diptych is antithetical in style, subject-matter and imagery. The Garden of Cyrus, or The Quincuncial Lozenge, or Network Plantations of the Ancients, Artificially, Naturally, and Mystically Considered (1658) features the quincunx which is used by Browne to demonstrate evidence of the Platonic forms in art and nature.
Later life and knighthood
An illustration of Sir Thomas Browne's house in NorwichIn Religio Medici, Browne confirmed his belief, in accordance with the vast majority of seventeenth century European society, in the existence of angels and witchcraft. He attended the 1662 Bury St. Edmunds witch trial, where his citation of a similar trial in Denmark may have influenced the jury's minds of the guilt of two accused women, who were subsequently executed for the crime of witchcraft.
In 1671 King Charles II, accompanied by the 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 and garden is a paradise and Cabinet of rarities and that of the best collection, amongst Medails, books, Plants, natural things".
During his visit, Charles 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 Browne's name instead.
Death and aftermath
Sir Thomas Browne's will, dated 2 December 1679
Sir Thomas Browne died on his 77th birthday, 19 October 1682. His Library was held in the care of his eldest son Edward until 1708. The auction of Browne and his son Edward's libraries in January 1711 was attended by Hans Sloane. Editions from Sir Thomas Browne's Library subsequently became included in the founding collection of the British Library.
His skull became the subject of local dispute when it was removed from his lead coffin when accidentally re-opened by workmen in 1840. It was not re-interred until 4 July 1922 when it was registered in the church of Saint Peter Mancroft as aged 317 years. Browne's coffin-plate, which was stolen the same time as his skull, was also eventually recovered, broken into two halves, one of which is on display at St. Peter Mancroft. Alluding to the commonplace opus of alchemy it reads, Amplissimus Vir Dns. Thomas Browne, Miles, Medicinae Dr., Annos Natus 77 Denatus 19 Die mensis Octobris, Anno. Dni. 1682, hoc Loculo indormiens. Corporis Spagyrici pulvere plumbum in aurum Convertit. — translated from Latin as The esteemed Gentleman Thomas Browne, Knight, Doctor of Medicine, 77 years old, died on the 19th of October in the year of Our Lord 1682 and lies sleeping in this coffin. With the dust of the alchemical body he converts lead into gold. The origin of the invented word spagyrici are from the Greek of: Spaoto tear open, + ageiro to collect, a signature neologism coined by Paracelsus to define his medicine-oriented alchemy; the origins of iatrochemistry, being first advanced by him. Browne's coffin-plate verse, along with the collected works of Paracelsus and several followers of the Swiss physician listed in his library, are evidence that although sometimes highly critical of Paracelsus, nevertheless, like the 'Luther of Medicine', he believed in palingenesis, physiognomy, alchemy, astrology and the kabbalah.