Thomas Browne.

Religio Medici, Hydriotaphia, and the Letter to a Friend online

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SIR THOMAS BROWNE (whose works occupy
so prominent a position in the literary his-
tory of the seventeenth century) is an author
who is now little known and less read. This com-
parative oblivion to which he has been consigned is
the more remarkable, as, if for nothing else, his
writings deserve to be studied as an example of the
English language in what may be termed a transition
state. The prose of the Elizabethan age was begin-
ning to pass away and give place to a more inflated
style of writing - a style which, after passing through
various stages of development, culminated in that of

Browne is one of the best early examples of this
school; his style, to quote Johnson himself, "is
vigorous but rugged, it is learned but pedantick, it
is deep but obscure, it strikes but does not please, it
commands but does not allure. . . . It is a tissue
of many languages, a mixture of heterogeneous words
brought together from distant regions."

Yet in spite of this qualified censure, there are
passages in Browne's works not inferior to any in
the English language; and though his writings may
not be "a well of English undefiled," yet it is the
very defilements that add to the beauty of the work.

But it is not only as an example of literary style
that Browne deserves to be studied. The matter of
his works, the grandeur of his ideas, the originality
of his thoughts, the greatness of his charity, amply
make up for the deficiencies (if deficiencies there be)
in his style. An author who combined the wit of
Montaigne with the learning of Erasmus, and of
whom even Hallam could say that "his varied talents
wanted nothing but the controlling supremacy of good
sense to place him in the highest rank of our litera-
ture," should not be suffered to remain in obscurity.

A short account of his life will form the best
introduction to his works.

Sir Thomas Browne was born in London, in the
parish of St Michael le Quern, on the 19th of October
1605. His father was a London merchant, of a good
Cheshire family; and his mother a Sussex lady,
daughter of Mr Paul Garraway of Lewis. His
father died when he was very young, and his mother
marrying again shortly afterwards, Browne was left
to the care of his guardians, one of whom is said to
have defrauded him out of some of his property. He
was educated at Winchester, and afterwards sent to
Oxford, to what is now Pembroke College, where he
took his degree of M.A. in 1629. Thereupon he
commenced for a short time to practise as a physician
in Oxfordshire. But we soon find him growing tired
of this, and accompanying his father-in-law, Sir
Thomas Dutton, on a tour of inspection of the castles
and forts in Ireland. We next hear of Browne in
the south of France, at Montpellier, then a celebrated
school of medicine, where he seems to have studied
some little time. From there he proceeded to Padua,
one of the most famous of the Italian universities,
and noted for the views some of its members
held on the subjects of astronomy and necromancy.
During his residence here, Browne doubtless acquired
some of his peculiar ideas on the science of the
heavens and the black art, and, what was more im-
portant, he learnt to regard the Romanists with that
abundant charity we find throughout his works.
From Padua, Browne went to Leyden, and this sud-
den change from a most bigoted Roman Catholic to
a most bigoted Protestant country was not without
its effect on his mind, as can be traced in his book.
Here he took the degree of Doctor of Medicine, and
shortly afterwards returned to England. Soon after
his return, about the year 1635, he published his
"Religio Medici," his first and greatest work, which
may be fairly regarded as the reflection of the mind
of one who, in spite of a strong intellect and vast
erudition, was still prone to superstition, but having

"Through many cities strayed,
Their customs, laws, and manners weighed,"

had obtained too large views of mankind to become
a bigot.

After the publication of his book he settled at
Norwich, where he soon had an extensive practice
as a physician. From hence there remains little to
be told of his life. In 1637 he was incorporated
Doctor of Medicine at Oxford; and in 1641 he
married Dorothy the daughter of Edward Mileham,
of Burlingham in Norfolk, and had by her a family
of eleven children.

In 1646 he published his "Pseudodoxia Epi-
demica," or Enquiries into Vulgar Errors. The dis-
covery of some Roman urns at Burnham in Nor-
folk, led him in 1658 to write his "Hydriotaphia"
(Urn-burial); he also published at the same time
"The Garden of Cyrus, or the Quincunxcial Lozenge
of the Ancients," a curious work, but far inferior to
his other productions.

In 1665 he was elected an honorary Fellow of
the College of Physicians, "virtute et literis orna-

Browne had always been a Royalist. In 1643 he
had refused to subscribe to the fund that was then
being raised for regaining Newcastle. He proved a
happy exception to the almost proverbial neglect the
Royalists received from Charles II. in 1671, for when
Charles was at Newmarket, he came over to see Nor-
wich, and conferred the honour of knighthood on
Browne. His reputation was now very great. Evelyn
paid a visit to Norwich for the express purpose of
seeing him; and at length, on his 76th birthday
(19th October 1682), he died, full of years and

It was a striking coincidence that he who in his
Letter to a Friend had said that "in persons who out-
live many years, and when there are no less than
365 days to determine their lives in every year, that
the first day should mark the last, that the tail
of the snake should return into its mouth precisely
at that time, and that they should wind up upon the
day of their nativity, is indeed a remarkable coin-
cidence, which, though astrology hath taken witty
pains to solve, yet hath it been very wary in making
predictions of it," should himself die on the day of
his birth.

Browne was buried in the church of St Peter,
Mancroft, Norwich, where his wife erected to his
memory a mural monument, on which was placed
an English and Latin inscription, setting forth that
he was the author of "Religio Medici," "Pseudodoxia
Epidemica," and other learned works "per orbem
notissimus." Yet his sleep was not to be undisturbed;
his skull was fated to adorn a museum! In 1840,
while some workmen were digging a vault in the
chancel of St Peter's, they found a coffin with an
inscription -

"Amplissimus Vir
Dus Thomas Browne Miles Medicinae
Dr Annis Natus 77 Denatus 19 Die
Mensis Octobris Anno Dnj 1682 hoc.
Loculo indormiens Corporis Spagy-
rici pulvere plumbum in aurum

The translation of this inscription raised a storm
over his ashes, which Browne would have enjoyed
partaking in, the word spagyricus being an enigma
to scholars. Mr Firth of Norwich (whose translation
seems the best) thus renders the inscription: -

"The very distinguished man, Sir Thomas Browne, Knight,
Doctor of Medicine, aged 77 years, who died on the 19th of
October, in the year of our Lord 1682, sleeping in this coffin
of lead, by the dust of his alchemic body, transmutes it into
a coffer of gold.

After Sir Thomas's death, two collections of his
works were published, one by Archbishop Tenison,
and the other in 1772. They contain most of his
letters, his tracts on various subjects, and his Letter
to a Friend. Various editions of parts of Browne's
works have from time to time appeared. By far the
best edition of the whole of them is that published
by Simon Wilkin.

It is upon his "Religio Medici" - the religion of a
physician - that Browne's fame chiefly rests. It was
his first and most celebrated work, published just after
his return from his travels; it gives us the impres-
sions made on his mind by the various and opposite
schools he had passed through. He tells us that he
never intended to publish it, but that on its being
surreptitiously printed, he was induced to do so.
In 1643, the first genuine edition appeared, with
"an admonition to such as shall peruse the
observations upon a former corrupt copy of this
book." The observations here alluded to, were
written by Sir Kenelm Digby, and sent by him to
the Earl of Dorset. They were first printed at the
end of the edition of 1643, and have ever since been
published with the book. Their chief merit consists
in the marvellous rapidity with which they were
written, Sir Kenelm having, as he tells us, bought
the book, read it, and written his observations, in
the course of twenty-four hours!

The book contains what may be termed an
apology for his belief. He states the reasons on
which he grounds his opinions, and endeavours to
show that, although he had been accused of atheism,
he was in all points a good Christian, and a loyal
member of the Church of England. Each person
must judge for himself of his success; but the effect
it produced on the mind of Johnson may be
noticed. "The opinions of every man," says he,
"must be learned from himself; concerning his
practice, it is safer to trust to the evidence of others.
When the testimonies concur, no higher degree of
historical certainty can be obtained; and they
apparently concur to prove that Browne was a
zealous adherent to the faith of Christ, that he
lived in obedience to His laws, and died in con-
fidence of His mercy."

The best proof of the excellence of the "Religio"
is to be found in its great success. During the
author's life, from 1643 to 1681, it passed through
eleven editions. It has been translated into Latin,
Dutch, French, and German, and many of the
translations have passed through several editions.
No less than thirty-three treatises have been written
in imitation of it; and what, to some, will be the
greatest proof of all, it was soon after its publication
placed in the Index Expurgatorius. The best proof
of its liberality of sentiment is in the fact that its
author was claimed at the same time by the Romanists
and Quakers to be a member of their respective

The "Hydriotaphia," or Urn-burial, is a treatise
on the funeral rites of ancient nations. It was
caused by the discovery of some Roman urns in
Norfolk. Though inferior to the "Religio," "there is
perhaps none of his works which better exemplifies
his reading or memory."

The text of the present edition of the "Religio
Medici" is taken from what is called the eighth
edition, but is in reality the eleventh, published in
London in 1682, the last edition in the author's life-
time. The notes are for the most part compiled
from the observations of Sir Kenelm Digby, the
annotation of Mr. Keck, and the very valuable notes
of Simon Wilkin. For the account of the finding
of Sir Thomas Browne's skull I am indebted to Mr
Friswell's notice of Sir Thomas in his "Varia."
The text of the "Hydriotaphia" is taken from the
folio edition of 1686, in the Lincoln's Inn
library. Some of Browne's notes to that edition
have been omitted, and most of the references, as
they refer to books which are not likely to be met
with by the general reader.

The "Letter to a Friend, upon the occasion of the
Death of his intimate Friend," was first published in
a folio pamphlet in 1690. It was reprinted in his
posthumous works. The concluding reflexions are
the basis of a larger work, "Christian Morals." I
am not aware of any complete modern edition of it.
The text of the present one is taken from the
original edition of 1690. The pamphlet is in the
British Museum, bound up with a volume of old
poems. It is entitled, "A Letter to a Friend, upon
the occasion of the Death of his intimate Friend.
By the learned Sir Thomas Brown, Knight, Doctor
of Physick, late of Norwich. London: Printed for
Charles Brone, at the Gun, at the West End of St
Paul's Churchyard, 1690."


CERTAINLY that man were greedy of life, who
should desire to live when all the world were
at an end; and he must needs be very im-
patient, who would repine at death in the society of all
things that suffer under it. Had not almost every man
suffered by the press, or were not the tyranny thereof
become universal, I had not wanted reason for com-
plaint: but in times wherein I have lived to behold
the highest perversion of that excellent invention, the
name of his Majesty defamed, the honour of Parlia-
ment depraved, the writings of both depravedly, antici-
patively, counterfeitly, imprinted: complaints may
seem ridiculous in private persons; and men of my
condition may be as incapable of affronts, as hopeless
of their reparations. And truly had not the duty I
owe unto the importunity of friends, and the allegiance
I must ever acknowledge unto truth, prevailed with
me; the inactivity of my disposition might have made
these sufferings continual, and time, that brings other
things to light, should have satisfied me in the remedy
of its oblivion. But because things evidently false are
not only printed, but many things of truth most falsely
set forth; in this latter I could not but think myself
engaged: for, though we have no power to redress the
former, yet in the other reparation being within our-
selves, I have at present represented unto the world a
full and intended copy of that piece, which was most
imperfectly and surreptitiously published before.

This I confess, about seven years past, with some
others of affinity thereto, for my private exercise and
satisfaction, I had at leisurable hours composed; which
being communicated unto one, it became common unto
many, and was by transcription successively corrupted,
until it arrived in a most depraved copy at the press.
He that shall peruse that work, and shall take notice
of sundry particulars and personal expressions therein,
will easily discern the intention was not publick: and,
being a private exercise directed to myself, what is de-
livered therein was rather a memorial unto me, than an
example or rule unto any other: and therefore, if there
be any singularity therein correspondent unto the pri-
vate conceptions of any man, it doth not advantage
them; or if dissentaneous thereunto, it no way over-
throws them. It was penned in such a place, and with
such disadvantage, that (I protest), from the first setting
of pen unto paper, I had not the assistance of any good
book, whereby to promote my invention, or relieve my
memory; and therefore there might be many real lapses
therein, which others might take notice of, and more
that I suspected myself. It was set down many years
past, and was the sense of my conceptions at that time,
not an immutable law unto my advancing judgment at
all times; and therefore there might be many things
therein plausible unto my passed apprehension, which
are not agreeable unto my present self. There are many
things delivered rhetorically, many expressions therein
merely tropical, and as they best illustrate my inten-
tion; and therefore also there are many things to be
taken in a soft and flexible sense, and not to be called
unto the rigid test of reason. Lastly, all that is con-
tained therein is in submission unto maturer discern-
ments; and, as I have declared, shall no further father
them than the best and learned judgments shall au-
thorize them: under favour of which considerations, I
have made its secrecy publick, and committed the truth
thereof to every ingenuous reader.



SECT. 1. - For my religion, though there be several
circumstances that might persuade the world I
have none at all, - as the general scandal of my
profession, - the natural course of my studies, - the in-
differency of my behaviour and discourse in matters of
religion (neither violently defending one, nor with that
common ardour and contention opposing another), -
yet, in despite hereof, I dare without usurpation assume
the honourable style of a Christian. Not that I merely
owe this title to the font, my education, or the clime
wherein I was born, as being bred up either to confirm
those principles my parents instilled into my under-
standing, or by a general consent proceed in the religion
of my country; but having, in my riper years and con-
firmed judgment, seen and examined all, I find myself
obliged, by the principles of grace, and the law of mine
own reason, to embrace no other name but this. Neither
doth herein my zeal so far make me forget the general
charity I owe unto humanity, as rather to hate than
pity Turks, Infidels, and (what is worse) Jews; rather
contenting myself to enjoy that happy style, than
maligning those who refuse so glorious a title.

Sect. 2. - But, because the name of a Christian is be-
come too general to express our faith, - there being a
geography of religion as well as lands, and every clime
distinguished not only by their laws and limits, but
circumscribed by their doctrines and rules of faith, - to
be particular, I am of that reformed new-cast religion,
wherein I dislike nothing but the name; of the same
belief our Saviour taught, the apostles disseminated,
the fathers authorized, and the martyrs confirmed; but,
by the sinister ends of princes, the ambition and avarice
of prelates, and the fatal corruption of times, so decayed,
impaired, and fallen from its native beauty, that it re-
quired the careful and charitable hands of these times
to restore it to its primitive integrity. Now, the acci-
dental occasion whereupon, the slender means whereby,
the low and abject condition of the person by whom,
so good a work was set on foot, which in our adver-
saries beget contempt and scorn, fills me with wonder,
and is the very same objection the insolent pagans first
cast at Christ and his disciples.

Sect. 3. - Yet have I not so shaken hands with those
desperate resolutions who had rather venture at large
their decayed bottom, than bring her in to be new-
trimmed in the dock, - who had rather promiscuously
retain all, than abridge any, and obstinately be what
they are, than what they have been, - as to stand in
diameter and sword's point with them. We have re-
formed from them, not against them: for, omitting
those improperations and terms of scurrility betwixt
us, which only difference our affections, and not our
cause, there is between us one common name and ap-
pellation, one faith and necessary body of principles
common to us both; and therefore I am not scrupulous
to converse and live with them, to enter their churches
in defect of ours, and either pray with them or for them.
I could never perceive any rational consequences from
those many texts which prohibit the children of Israel
to pollute themselves with the temples of the heathens;
we being all Christians, and not divided by such de-
tested impieties as might profane our prayers, or the
place wherein we make them; or that a resolved con-
science may not adore her Creator anywhere, especially
in places devoted to his service; if their devotions
offend him, mine may please him: if theirs profane it,
mine may hallow it. Holy water and crucifix (danger-
ous to the common people) deceive not my judgment,
nor abuse my devotion at all. I am, I confess, natur-
ally inclined to that which misguided zeal terms super-
stition: my common conversation I do acknowledge
austere, my behaviour full of rigour, sometimes not
without morosity; yet, at my devotion I love to use
the civility of my knee, my hat, and hand, with all
those outward and sensible motions which may express
or promote my invisible devotion. I should violate my
own arm rather than a church; nor willingly deface
the name of saint or martyr. At the sight of a cross, or
crucifix, I can dispense with my hat, but scarce with
the thought or memory of my Saviour. I cannot laugh
at, but rather pity, the fruitless journeys of pilgrims,
or contemn the miserable condition of friars; for, though
misplaced in circumstances, there is something in it of
devotion. I could never hear the Ave-Mary bell*

* A church-bell, that tolls every day at six and twelve of
the clock; at the hearing whereof every one, in what place
soever, either of house or street, betakes himself to his prayer,
which is commonly directed to the Virgin.
without an elevation, or think it a sufficient warrant,
because they erred in one circumstance, for me to err
in all, - that is, in silence and dumb contempt. Whilst,
therefore, they direct their devotions to her, I offered
mine to God; and rectify the errors of their prayers by
rightly ordering mine own. At a solemn procession I
have wept abundantly, while my consorts, blind with
opposition and prejudice, have fallen into an excess of
scorn and laughter. There are, questionless, both in
Greek, Roman, and African churches, solemnities and
ceremonies, whereof the wiser zeals do make a Chris-
tian use; and stand condemned by us, not as evil in
themselves, but as allurements and baits of superstition
to those vulgar heads that look asquint on the face of
truth, and those unstable judgments that cannot resist
in the narrow point and centre of virtue without a reel
or stagger to the circumference.

Sect. 4. - As there were many reformers, so likewise
many reformations; every country proceeding in a par-
ticular way and method, according as their national
interest, together with their constitution and clime, in-
clined them: some angrily and with extremity; others
calmly and with mediocrity, not rending, but easily
dividing, the community, and leaving an honest possi-
bility of a reconciliation; - which, though peaceable
spirits do desire, and may conceive that revolution of
time and the mercies of God may effect, yet that judg-
ment that shall consider the present antipathies between
the two extremes, - their contrarieties in condition,
affection, and opinion, - may, with the same hopes,
expect a union in the poles of heaven.

Sect. 5. - But, to difference myself nearer, and draw
into a lesser circle; there is no church whose every part
so squares unto my conscience, whose articles, constitu-
tions, and customs, seem so consonant unto reason, and,
as it were, framed to my particular devotion, as this
whereof I hold my belief - the Church of England; to
whose faith I am a sworn subject, and therefore, in a
double obligation, subscribe unto her articles, and en-
deavour to observe her constitutions: whatsoever is
beyond, as points indifferent, I observe, according to the
rules of my private reason, or the humour and fashion
of my devotion; neither believing this because Luther
affirmed it, nor disproving that because Calvin hath dis-
avouched it. I condemn not all things in the council
of Trent, nor approve all in the synod of Dort. In
brief, where the Scripture is silent, the church is my
text; where that speaks, 'tis but my comment; where
there is a joint silence of both, I borrow not the rules of
my religion from Rome or Geneva, but from the dictates
of my own reason. It is an unjust scandal of our ad-
versaries, and a gross error in ourselves, to compute the
nativity of our religion from Henry the Eighth; who,
though he rejected the Pope, refused not the faith of
Rome, and effected no more than what his own pre-
decessors desired and essayed in ages past, and it was
conceived the state of Venice would have attempted in
our days. It is as uncharitable a point in us to fall
upon those popular scurrilities and opprobrious scoffs of
the Bishop of Rome, to whom, as a temporal prince, we
owe the duty of good language. I confess there is a
cause of passion between us: by his sentence I stand
excommunicated; heretic is the best language he affords
me: yet can no ear witness I ever returned to him the
name of antichrist, man of sin, or whore of Babylon.
It is the method of charity to suffer without reaction:
those usual satires and invectives of the pulpit may per-
chance produce a good effect on the vulgar, whose ears
are opener to rhetoric than logic; yet do they, in no
wise, confirm the faith of wiser believers, who know
that a good cause needs not be pardoned by passion,
but can sustain itself upon a temperate dispute.

Sect. 6. - I could never divide myself from any man

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Online LibraryThomas BrowneReligio Medici, Hydriotaphia, and the Letter to a Friend → online text (page 1 of 15)