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Book of the Month

July 2002

Religio Medici

Sir Thomas Browne, London: 1642
Sp Coll Monro 1

The World to me is but a dream or mock-show, and we all therein but Pantalones and Anticks, to my severer contemplations. 

This month's choice is the Religio Medici, the most celebrated work of one of the great seventeenth century stylists of English prose, Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682). Although never originally intended for print, this meditative essay proved to be immensely popular and established Browne's fame as a writer. 

Monro 1 (first pirated edition of 1642): frontispiece 

Variously described as a prose-poem, confession of faith and 'sort of private diary of the soul', the Religio Medici ('The Religion of a Physician') is hard to categorize. Although an exploration of religious thought, it cannot be described as theological, and although written by a physician, neither is it medical or scientific; indeed, as Browne explores the central themes of faith and charity, he acknowledges the need to keep religion separate from science for 'many things are true in Divinity, which are neither inducible by reason nor confirmable by sense'. The result is an intimate and private expression of his spiritual beliefs: ultimately, the nothingness of the world when seen in the perspective of eternity is emphasised. Arguing for a wide and liberal interpretation of Christianity, Browne's tolerant religious philosophy provided the chief interest for contemporary readers. More recent critics, however, have concentrated on the style of his language. Redolent with obscure vocabulary, paradoxes and allusive imagery, the digressive writing is highly individual and not immediately easy to read. However, as the introduction to the Harvard Classics edition states, 'his full and sonorous periods remain the delight of readers with an ear for the cadences of English prose' while elsewhere Endicott describes the work as having 'remarkable verbal texture'. Other commentators have noted its strong sense of the inwardness of sense, highlighting the obvious geniality and warmth of Browne's personality that still shines through: using words from the Religio Medici, his 'Conversation, it is like the Sun's, with all men, and with a friendly aspect to good and bad'. 
The serenity and good humour of the Religio Medici is all the more remarkable considering the tumultuous era in which it was written. It was composed in about 1634 when Browne was 29 or 30. No original manuscript of the book has survived, but several early transcripts are still in existence: these were probably copied out to be circulated amongst the author's friends for private perusal. Evidently one of these manuscript copies somehow came into the hands of the publisher Andrew Crooke, because a pirated edition of the work (without Browne's name) appeared from his press in 1642. Obviously a success, a further unauthorized edition was issued by Crooke in the same year. Reviews and observations on the work by Kenelm Digby forced Browne to provide a correct version of his text, and this appeared in 1643 with the author's endorsement that it was 'a full and intended copy of that piece which was most imperfectly and surreptitiously published before'. Despite this assertion, it is likely that Browne was not entirely displeased at the earlier printing of his work, a supposition supported by the fact that he retained Crooke as the publisher of the authorized version.  

Monro 1: page 1 (beginning of text)

Monro 1: page 4 

Several leaves of prefatory matter including copies of correspondence between Browne and Sir Kenelm Digby were added to the 1643 edition. Although the main text was not altered substantially, there were several hundred minor changes. It is interesting to note that most of the additions to the text relate to contemporary upheaval: the first section of the second part, for example, denounces the multitude, and this addition was probably a reaction to the mass demonstrations  and marches on Parliament in 1642 - a  reminder that the early editions of the book appeared at the height of the first phase of the civil war. Our copy of the first pirated edition is curious for having some reader corrections to the text in the first few pages; although these demonstrate a close reading of the text, not all of the changes correspond to variants as provided by later editions.  

Monro 13 (1736 edition): frontispiece and title-page

The early editions of the work are all prefaced by a striking frontispiece: a figure tumbles headlong from a rock into the sea, but is caught by a hand from the clouds above; from the mouth of the figure come the words ' coelo salus' (from heaven, salvation). The subject is literally reflected in the text where intervention of the divine through  miracles is described as being 'the extraordinary effect of the hand of God'. The original plate was engraved by William Marshall: it was re-used and copied for many editions after 1642, and even in some individual cases - as here - enlivened with the addition of colour by hand. 

The Religio Medici was published consistently throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, some twenty odd editions appearing in Browne's lifetime alone. It was also a truly European book, being translated into Latin, Dutch, French, German, and Italian. It was first translated into Latin by John Merryweather of Magdalene College, Cambridge in an edition that was originally printed in Leiden in 1644. The fame of the work spread rapidly; as well as bringing the author immediate and lasting renown, it also spawned a host of imitators. 

Sir Thomas Browne was born in London on 19 October 1605 and died  on his birthday in 1682 at the age of 77. The son of a mercer, he was educated at Winchester and Oxford, and trained for the practise of medicine. After travelling on the Continent (including apparently being shipwrecked), he continued his medical studies at Montpellier and Padua and eventually received the degree of MD from the University of Leiden in about 1633. His residence abroad is often cited as having shaped Browne's tolerant and international outlook. 

Monro 66 (1692 Frankfurt edition) : frontispiece and title-page

Monro 141 (Posthumous works, 1712): frontispiece 

On his return to England, Browne stayed for a while in Shibden Dale near Halifax where he is reputed to have composed the Religio Medici. He finally settled as a physician in Norwich, and enjoyed a distinguished professional reputation, practising as a doctor for 46 years. He married happily and was survived by four of his twelve children. While respected as a physician, he became equally famous as a scholar and antiquary. A man of great learning who knew no less than six languages, Browne established a museum at his home and maintained a correspondence with many contemporary intellectuals on scientific and antiquarian subjects; he published several other books including Pseudodoxia Epidemica, an entertaining compilation of vast learning, Hydriotaphia, or Urn Burial, a discourse on burial customs, and The Garden of Cyrus, a fantastic account of horticulture. Concentrating on these academic pursuits, Browne wisely chose not to dabble in politics and lived quietly throughout the civil war. He received a knighthood by default in 1671 when Charles II paid a state visit to Norwich  and decided to bestow a knighthood on Norwich's mayor - the mayor declined and Browne was proposed as a substitute. 

Several portraits of Browne exist and there has been much debate as to which authentically reproduces the man. This engraving was made by the Flemish artist Van der Gucht and is based on the portrait in the Bodleian library, Oxford; this portrait was probably painted at the end of 1671 or beginning of 1672 when Browne would have been about 66. Examination of Browne's actual skull (which was displayed in a casket in the museum of the Norfolk and Norwich hospital until eventually being reinterred in 1922) revealed it to have a low and sloping frontal region rather than the lofty and upright head as depicted in the portraits; however, according to Sir Arthur Keith of the Royal College of Surgeons, except for this anomaly (which could be explained by the period's penchant for painting in the style of Van Dyck regardless of bone structure), the features are recognizable and the Oxford portrait is likely to be Browne.

Monro 58 (1923 Golden Cockerel Press edition): title-page

The Religio Medici has maintained its popularity and was reprinted many times throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. As well as appearing in many standard and academic editions, the work has consistently attracted the attention of private presses and has, for example, been beautifully published in limited quantities for the Bibelots (1902: sixty copies on Japanese vellum), and by the Vale Press (1902: Monro 216) and the Golden Cockerel Press (1923: Monro 58). The Golden Cockerel volume, as shown here, is described by Keynes as being 'handsome, but is intended for the eye of the bibliophile rather than for the use of the public at large'. 

Monro 58 (1923 Golden Cockerel Press edition) : page 4 (beginning of preface)

Ms Gen 500/21: autograph of Sir Thomas Browne

The editions of the Religio Medici displayed here all come from the collection of Thomas Kirkpatrick Monro (1865-1958). Born in Arbroath, Monro studied medicine at Glasgow University. After qualifying, he studied further in Vienna, Berlin and Paris before returning to Glasgow and taking up the office of pathologist at the Victoria Infirmary, Glasgow; academic posts followed, culminating in his position as Regius Professor of the Practice of Medicine at Glasgow University (1913-1936). Who Was Who describes his hobby as 'books' - something of an understatement considering Monro's bibliographical zeal in collecting nearly all the known editions of the Religio Medici, plus Browne's other works and related items (such as the letter bearing Browne's autograph, as shown here). In fact, Geoffrey Keynes, in his preface to  A bibliography of Sir Thomas Browne acknowledges his debt to Monro for having 'supplied much information derived from his fine collection'. Monro's own copy of Keyne's publication, meanwhile, is extensively annotated throughout, making it a useful research work in its own right. 

In the Religio Medici, Browne wrote that  'At my death I mean to take a total adieu of the world, not caring for a monument, history, or epitaph, not so much as the bare memory of my name to be found anywhere but in the Universal Register of God'. The eloquence and irresistible humour of his great literary work, however, have surely ensured that his name will endure.


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Julie Gardham July 2002