|Sir Thomas Browne with his wife, Lady Dorothy, attributed to Joan Carlile. Oil on panel, ca. 1641-50. National Portrait Gallery, London, NPG 2062.|
|Frontispiece to the first, unauthorized edition of Browne's Religio Medici, 1642. Rosenbach EL2 .B884r 642.|
|1643 authorized edition, or as it says here "A true and full copy of that which was most imperfectly and surreptitiously printed before..." Rosenbach EL2 .B884r 643.|
Browne's little volume sparked a lot of conversation. Our 1643 edition of Religio Medici is bound with two critiques: Catholic cavalier Sir Kenelm Digby's Observations Upon Religio Medici (written in response to the earlier unauthorized edition); and Anglican conservative Alexander Ross's Medicus Medicatus, or The Physicians Religion Cured (1645), which was sharply critical of what he saw as Browne's religious relativism. Religio Medici landed on the Catholic Index of Prohibited Books in 1645. But many readers were impressed by Browne's style: scientific but not heavy; pious but not preachy; slyly humorous and profoundly deep. Imitations later appeared, including Religio Jurisprudentis (lawyerly advice) and Dryden's Religio Laici (a layman's religion).
Browne's next major work, which proved to be his most popular, was his 1646 Pseudodoxia Epidemica, or Enquiries into Very many received tenents and commonly presumed Truths, often called "Vulgar Errors." As a doctor, Browne heard all sorts of complaints, remedies, and beliefs from his patients. Browne himself was full of questions concerning received wisdom, so he decided to write a book about them. He became the 17th century's myth-buster, collecting about 200 commonly held misconceptions, folk beliefs, and other unexamined bits of knowledge, then deftly and sensitively (never deprecatingly) debunking each of them, often using scientific reasoning or experiment to prove his points. To address the superstition that a dead kingfisher could be used to foretell the weather Browne conducted two experiments using the dead birds as weather vanes (shocker: they don't work!). He dove into such debates as whether storks live only in republics, whether garlic affected magnetism, and whether Adam and Even had belly-buttons. The book was widely celebrated at the time for providing scientific insight into everyday situations and beliefs, and it's now celebrated not only as one of Browne's most interesting works but also for its many neologisms. Browne coined the words "electricity" and "computer" in this very book, as well as "hallucination," "pathology," and perhaps a dozen others still in common use.
|Pseudodoxia Epidemica or Browne's "Vulgar Errors," 1646. Rosenbach EL2 .B884p 646.|
Browne's curiosity knew no bounds: his next two works were a sort of anthropological study of burial practices in his home county of Norfolk (Hydriotaphia) and a meditation upon nature through a five-sided geometrical shape called a quincunx (The Garden of Cyrus). One of his shorter tracts called Museaum Clausum was a catalogue for an imaginary museum with entries on books, pictures, and artifacts that didn't exist.
Browne's erudite commentary, subtle humor, eclectic interests, and open-hearted manner won him many literary followers through the centuries. Samuel Johnson was a great admirer, as were Coleridge and Charles Lamb. Herman Melville admiringly referred to Browne as a "crack'd Archangel" and became such a fan of Browne's prose that his own style began to mimic the good doctor's. In 1851, Melville included a quote about sperm whales from Browne's Pseudodoxia in the opening epigrams to Moby Dick ("What spermacetti is, men might justly doubt, since the learned in his saith plainly,
|Joseph Conrad found Browne no less quotable than Poe and Melville. His Chance includes an epigram from Browne on the title page. This copy was inscribed by Conrad to his wife, "Dear Jessie's copy, 1912." Rosenabch EL4 .C754c 913 copy1.|
Bram Stoker also made use of both Psuedodoxia Epidemica and Religio Medici when writing Dracula, transcribing passages about necromancy, dreams, and the devil into his notes for his 1897 Gothic novel.
|Two of Stoker's research notes: the manuscript note at the top is from Browne's Pseudodoxia Epidemica and the typed note is from Religio Medici. Bram Stoker, Dracula: notes and outline, [ca. 1890-ca. 1896]. Rosenbach EL3 f.S874d MS, pages 43b & 67.|
Today, Browne isn't as widely known as other 17th-century writers and thinkers, but Oxford University Press is hoping to change that. Its 8-volume edition of Browne's entire body of writing is expected out in 2017, and you can follow its progress here.
Patrick Rodgers is a curator at the Rosenbach of the Free Library of Philadelphia.