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A wide-ranging intellect

01 August 2014

This study of a 17th-century polymath wins cheers from C. D. C. Armstrong


Sir Thomas Browne: A life

Reid Barbour

OUP £70


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SIR THOMAS BROWNE: the name will bring to mind an author, but the writer in question is one whose works are perhaps revered rather than read. He was admired by Johnson, Coleridge, and Lamb, but the general reader today is more likely to read the poetry of the 17th century than its prose.

The publication of Reid Barbour's comprehensive biography of Browne brings out the importance and interest of its subject: one who was physician and author, an antiquarian, a naturalist, and alay theologian - the last being then, in Barbour's words, "a relatively new and controversial form of authority". Even in an age of polymaths, Browne's interests were diverse.

Professor Barbour writes that his is the first life of Browne "to take seriously his own and his contemporaries' consensus that his was a remarkable life". Browne, born in London in 1605, was a merchant's son. He was educated at Winchester and Oxford, and at Montpellier, Padua, and Leiden, the last three being then the great European centres of medical teaching. His four universities made him both savant and doctor.

Oxford formed Browne in acquainting him with the intense religious disputes of the age -especially with anti-Calvinist thought. Barbour writes that "Browne's complex reconstruction of English piety in Religio Medici matured on the continent, but his sense of the need for such an endeavor was awakened at Oxford."

Religio Medici ("The Religion of a Doctor") made its author's reputation, gaining him fame both at home and abroad. Its tone was eirenical. "I condemne not all things in the Councell of Trent, nor approve of all in the Synod of Dort." In a time of polemic, he was positive. "I have so fixed my contemplations on Heaven, that I have almost forgot the Idea of Hell, and am afraid rather to lose the joyes of the one than to endure the miseries of the other."

Some thought the work inclined to Roman Catholicism, although it appeared on the Index of Prohibited Books; Quakers, too, found it attractive.

As his letters after the Restoration show, Browne was a Royalist. He took no active part in the Civil War, however. By the time of that conflict he had settled in Norwich (dying there in 1682) after a brief period in Halifax. There is no evidence that he (unlike his correspondent John Evelyn) attended Anglican services during the Interregnum.

Barbour does justice not only to Browne's religious works but also to his contributions to science and archaeology, interests that are apparent in Pseudodoxia Epidemica and Urne-Burial, his two best-known works after Religio Medici. The variety of his interests may be gauged from one page of one of his notebooks, which has entries on "coition, prelacy, twins, inhabitants of the moon, charity, and figs".

This biography is almost unimprovable: assiduous in scholarship, lucid in exposition, its authormakes controversy comprehensible. Barbour aimed to show how remarkable Browne's life was; in the achievement of that aim his success is triumphant.

C. D. C. Armstrong has written extensively on the religious history of early modern England. He is working on a biography of Jeremy Taylor.

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