It was a time of increasing globalization, sectarian conflict, and political polarization. No, I’m not talking about the U.S. today, but about Europe in the 1630s, when the Continent was tearing itself apart in the Thirty Years War and England was drawing the battle lines of its own Civil War, which erupted in 1642. In the midst of this strife, a Norwich physician named Thomas Browne quietly circulated a very personal work, Religio Medici (“the religion of the doctor”), a sort of autobiography before such things existed. Readers found in it one of the few truly tolerant voices of the period. It was a sign of the times that a statement like this proved controversial:
I could never divide myself from any man upon the difference of an opinion, or be angry with his judgement for not agreeing with me in that, from which perhaps within a few days I should dissent myself.
In claiming, “I have no genius to disputes in religion,” and that “I borrow not the rules of my Religion from Rome or Geneva but the dictates of my owne reason,” Browne’s book raised many eyebrows. Some denounced him as an atheist but others found the work refreshingly honest and open-minded. Printer Andrew Crooke initially published the book without Browne’s knowledge from a manuscript copy that had been circulating for some time. Browne subsequently sent a corrected version to Crooke, who published an authorized edition in 1643.
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.
Here are some snapshots from the table to contents just to give you a sense of Browne’s astounding range of interests in “Vulgar Errors:”
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 Hosmannus in his work of thirty years, saith plainly, Nescio quid sit.”). Melville’s contemporary, Edgar Allan Poe, likewise borrowed a phrase from Browne for the epigram of his own masterpiece, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841; the manuscript for the story is owned by the Rare Book Department of the Free Library of Philadelphia. You can access it here, though Poe didn’t pen the epigram into his manuscript).
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.
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.