Sir Thomas Browne: A life
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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
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
Some thought the work inclined to Roman Catholicism, although it
appeared on the Index of Prohibited Books; Quakers, too, found it
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.