In This Article Thomas Browne

  • Introduction
  • Bibliographical Guides
  • Monographs
  • Intellectual Biographies
  • Essay Collections
  • Hydriotaphia or Urne-Buriall
  • The Garden of Cyrus
  • Relationship of Urne-Buriall and The Garden of Cyrus
  • Notebooks and Other Writings
  • Medical Background
  • Natural Philosophy, Communities, and Epistemology
  • Browne as “Scientist” and Baconian
  • Life Sciences
  • Political Browne
  • Theology and Religion
  • Theology, the Unsayable, and the Platonic
  • Biography and Family
  • Neighbors and Friends
  • Antiquarianism
  • Browne’s Reading
  • Witches
  • Influence and Critical Afterlife
  • Reception History
  • Special Topics

British and Irish Literature Thomas Browne
by
Kevin Killeen
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 February 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0064

Introduction

Thomas Browne (b. 1605–d. 1682) was many things: natural philosopher, physician, religious writer, essayist, and prose stylist. His most important writing was published between 1643 and 1658, during which time he was a physician in Norwich and its Norfolk environs, in a period of tumultuous civil war and the uneasy calm of the interregnum. His first work, Religio Medici, published in 1643, following an unauthorized edition the previous year, was a digressive, occasionally dazzling, and sometimes frustrating meditation on more or less anything, from church and its orthodox forms, heresies and “ayery subtilities” in religion, time and eternity, the microcosm and atheism, biblical improbabilities, the human as fleshy anatomical object, the nature of death, the physics of hell and of resurrection; it goes on in its second part to deal with schism, charity and uncharitableness, autobiography and the vagaries of the self. It both puzzled and impressed contemporaries and set the digressive and encyclopedic tone for his subsequent works. Pseudodoxia Epidemica was published in 1646, a work that established Browne’s reputation as polymath. With a mixture of intellectual eccentricity, stylistic aplomb, and studied pedantry, together with a breadth of learning that remains startling, Browne’s “Vulgar Errors,” as its running title has it, was received as a work of scholarly and scientific importance, going through six editions in his lifetime. In 1658 he published Hydriotaphia, or Urne-Buriall and The Garden of Cyrus, which are some of the most original and strange writings to appear in the 17th century. Both of them in their different ways are works of unearthly meditation, containing the best of Browne’s impressive descants on God and earth and human brevity.

Primary Texts

Browne has remained in print more or less consistently since the 17th century and has never failed to attract critical attention. He has also been edited and reedited multiple times, in both Collected Editions (multivolume and single-volume) and in single-work editions. An eight-volume Oxford University Press edition of Browne’s works is currently in progress.

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