A team of academics led by Dr Claire Preston at Queen Mary College have been awarded funding over three years to compile and edit a Complete Works of Sir Thomas Browne which will include not only his major works but also letters and manuscripts which have not been previously published in a coherent way. The Works will comprise several volumes which are being worked on by a team of editors. The volumes will be published as they are finished, with the first expected in 2018. It is a large amount of work which will take 13 researchers several years to complete.
The works of Sir Thomas Browne, an introduction
Sir Thomas Browne (1605-82) wrote prodigiously on many subjects. He was a very intelligent and well-educated man who had a very curious, polymath mind. The books he wrote covered a range of subjects and recorded his thoughts and experiments. He is also credited with the invention of words such as 'electricity' and many more that are now in common usage and attached to previously unknown concepts.
For a 21st century reader, the subject matter and language needs a little perseverance and personally I was helped by interpretive texts such as Dr Anthony Batty Shaw's excellent booklet which outlined the context of Browne's life as well as his work, and more lately, Hugh Aldersey Williams' excellent interpretation 'The Adventures of Sir Thomas Browne in the 21st Century' which has made the understanding of Browne's work so much more digestible for a casual reader interested in Browne such as myself.
Through his work, he explores his own thoughts and opinions, showing an interest in humanity and how it works both in terms of the physical body and the religious and spiritual mind. The main works are outlined below and each will have its own page in due course
Religio Medici (1643) outlined the dilemmas for an intensely religious man who also believes in medicine and science and how those two can be squared in the life of a person.
Pseudodoxia Epidemica or Vulgar Errors (1646–72) exposes Browne's breadth of knowledge and curiosity as he seeks to prove or debunk many commonly held beliefs - or as we would now call them 'urban myths'. Through practical experiments, he set out to find out whether you could indeed use a kingfisher as a weather vane, or not and many other equally unlikely propositions!
Hydriotaphia or 'Urn Buriall' (1658) is an intriguing meditation on death and the desire for immortality.
The Garden of Cyrus (1658) considers the mysterious order to be found in nature, demonstrated by the Quincunx. I find this fascinating as Browne was working alongside the invention of the microscope and the detection of cellular structure. Browne was a botanist and grew herbs in a meadow garden near Norwich Cathedral for use in his medicines
A Letter to a Friend (1656; pub. 1690) and Christian Morals offer spiritual guidance to readers, and his friend.
Quotes and references to these major works are engraved on the sculptures of Homage to Thomas Browne on Hay Hill in Norwich as well as words and phrases that he coined such as 'eternitie' and 'amphibian'
"Man is a noble animal, splendid in ashes, and pompous in the grave."
“Life is a pure flame and we live by an invisible sun within us.”