Vulgar Errors

10 19 thomas browneToday is the birthday of Thomas Browne, who was born Cheapside, London in 1605. He studied at Oxford and then at various European universities, finally graduating in medicine at Leiden in 1633. He eventually settled in Norwich, where he practised medicine for the remainder of his life. He was an incredibly well read and thoughtful man who wrote several books which are still in print today. His work is interesting because he was writing just before the beginning of the period we call ‘The Enlightenment’ and his thoughts are an odd mix of belief in scientific evidence and a total acceptance of the truth of the Bible, with a bit of ancient mysticism thrown in.

His writing rambles off in all sorts of directions which is pretty normal for the seventeenth century, but it does make him quite difficult to read. However his work has been much admired by later writers. The romantic poets of the nineteenth century were very fond of his work, so were Edgar Allan Poe and Virginia Woolf.

Browne had three books published in his lifetime. The first, ‘Religio Medici’ (The Religion of a Doctor) seeks to reconcile science and religion. In the seventeenth century doctors were considered to be particularly susceptible to atheism and that was a pretty serious matter in those days. As a man of science who totally believed in hell, in the resurrection and in witchcraft, he must have had a hard time. His love of scientific investigation and empirical evidence led him to be sceptical even of his own beliefs. He likened his faith in his own salvation to his belief that Constantinople existed. He was certain it was real, but couldn’t swear to it as he had never seen it for himself. He’s often described as a melancholic, and there is a hint of sadness in his writing. He tells us: “I was born in the planetary hour of Saturn and I think I have a piece of that leaden planet in me.”

10 19 pseudodoxia epidemicaThere is definitely also a lot of humour in his writing too though. I really like the sound of his second book, ‘Pseudodoxia Epidemica, or Enquiries into very many received tenets and commonly presumed truths.’ It has the alternate title of ‘Vulgar Errors’ and is a sort of popular science book for the seventeenth century. There are some lovely examples of the odd things people used to believe were true and hadn’t really thought about properly. He challenges the idea that the elephant has no joints and cannot lie down to sleep. He points out that if it had no joints, it couldn’t possibly move at all. That it would would be uncomfortable, if not impossible to give birth to an animal that couldn’t bend it’s legs. He refutes Pliny’s idea that bear cubs are born as formless lumps which are licked into shape by their mothers. He calls it ‘repugnant both unto sense and reason’. Though he does concede that some people might possibly have seen a mother biting away the birth sac from her cub. He explodes the myth that the root of the mandrake screams when it is pulled from the ground. He says it may possibly make a bit of a squeak, but so might a parsnip. Our absolute 10 19 peacock medieval bestiaryfavourite ludicrous idea though, is that a peacock is ashamed of its legs. A peacock, he says, looks very proud when it spreads out it’s tail. In order to use it’s muscles to spread its tail, it needs to pull up its head and stand up straight. If it needs to look down, it’s tail will fold down again. People just thought that made it look sad, and assumed that it stopped feeling so splendid every time it caught sight of its own legs.

Browne’s work is a great example of scientific writing in it’s infancy. He employs logic and experiment. He suggests that people should just look at the world around them instead of believing what others say. In fact he looks at many ways in which we might be misled. He says that we are too credulous, too inclined to believe what we hear from figures of authority. We should check the facts for ourselves, because sometimes people have their own reasons for wanting us to believe something is true, particularly soothsayers, quacks and politicians. He doesn’t care much either for artists, who insist on painting Adam and Eve with navels when they clearly can’t have had any. We shouldn’t even really trust our own senses. After all, it really does look as though the earth is bigger that the sun. If we have not been misled in any of these ways though, and we are still wrong, it’s probably down to Satan.

10 19 cabinet of curiositiesHis third book is about Roman urn burials, but goes off on a bit of a tangent about the vanity of human aspirations and the inevitability of death. He wonders how many great people there may have been that nobody remembers at all. Browne was writing at a time when people were very aware of the huge amount of human knowledge that had been lost in the burning of the great library of Alexandria by the Romans in the first century AD. People all over Europe were collecting every last scrap of ancient knowledge, historical artifacts and natural specimens that they could find and placing them in Cabinets of Curiosity. So we’d like to tell you about one of his books that was published after his death. ‘Musaeum Clausum’ is an inventory of an imaginary museum, a list of things that may have existed and been lost, or just things he’d like to have. It includes lost works by Aristotle, Ovid and Cicero. There is a painting showing the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea. The skin of a snake that has been pulled from the spine of a man. A ring found in the belly of a fish that was used by the Doge of Venice in an annual ceremony in which he wedded himself to the sea and a description of a battle between frogs and mice, as told by Homer, carved into the jawbone of a pike.

Thomas Browne died on his birthday in 1682. He did not rest in peace though. His coffin was accidentally opened in 1840 and it was found that he had become a victim of cranioklepty, the oddly common nineteenth century practice of skull theft. Overzealous phrenologists imagined they could learn something about the minds of famous people by looking at their skulls. Browne’s was put on display in the Norwich Hospital Museum and not re-buried until 1922. At his second interment, the vicar recorded his age as 317 years. Poor Thomas, he didn’t like the idea of people being dug up and scattered about at all. He said: “To be gnawed out of our graves, to have our skulls made drinking-bowls, and our bones turned into pipes to delight and sport our enemies, are tragical abominations.”


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