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Who was Sir Thomas Browne?

Updated on December 2, 2016

Sir Thomas Browne was an English author and physician, born in London in 1605, the son of a merchant. He was educated at Winchester and Pembroke College (then known as Broadgates Hall), Oxford, after which he studied medicine at European universities, including Leiden, where he graduated. After prolonged travel abroad, he finally settled in practice at Norwich (1637).

His most famous work is Religio Medici (the Religion of a Doctor), which was probably written about 1635 at Shibden Hall, Yorkshire. It was published, without his permission, in 1642, and this prompted an authorised edition the following year. It is a reflective and philosophical work which revels in the paradoxes and obscure truths of Christianity, but its conclusions are fairly orthodox.

Hydriotaphia, or Ume Buriall, published in 1658, is perhaps the most striking example of Browne's characteristic style; the theme is the transitory nature of man's existence, and Browne brings to it his extensive learning, weighing the issues in prose which is sometimes direct but at times highly wrought, balancing the ambiguities and paradoxes in careful antithesis. His other chief work, Inquiries into Vulgar Errors (more fully Pseudodoxia Epidemics, or Enquiries into very many commonly received Tenets and commonly presumed Truths, which examined prove but Vulgar and Common Errors), was published in 1646 and testifies to Browne's interest in the new Baconian spirit of science. The scepticism and empiricism of the Baconian outlook were clearly antipathetic to the genuine mysticism which underlay his religious faith and the complexities of his style often arise from an attempt to reconcile the conflicting impulses within him.

His other writings are The Garden of Cyrus, or the Quincunciall, Lozenge, or Network Plantations of the Ancients, Artificially, Naturally, Mystically Considered, 1658, Certain Miscellany Tracts (mostly addressed to Sir Nicholas Bacon), 1683, and Christian Morals, 1716. Browne married in 1641, and the mild scorn expressed in the Religio Medici for that 'trivial and vulgar way' of union does not appear to have prevented him from enjoying an exceedingly happy married life with his wife Dorothy. He was knighted in 1671 as a result of his royalist sympathies in the Civil War. Sir Thomas Browne died in 1682.


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      Kevin Faulkner 7 years ago

      Actually the two Discourses of 1658 'Urn-Burial' and 'The Garden of Cyrus' are meant to be published and read as one whole as indicated in first editions. Browne's statement 'that we conjoin these parts of different subjects, or that this should succeed the other; Your judgment will admit will admit without impute of incongruity', makes clear that there were meant to be read with reference to each other.

      'That trivial act of coition' is an old, oft-repeated derisory comment mostly made by those who have never actually read Religio Medici but merely 'borrow' from other's commentaries!