Religio Medici, Hydriotaphia, and the Letter to a Friend

Author: Thomas Browne


SIR THOMAS BROWNE (whose works occupy so prominent a position in the literary history of the seventeenth century) is an author who is now little known and less read. This comparative oblivion to which he has been consigned is the more remarkable, as, if for nothing else, his writings deserve to be studied as an example of the English language in what may be termed a transition state. The prose of the Elizabethan age was beginning to pass away and give place to a more inflated style of writing—a style which, after passing through various stages of development, culminated in that of Johnson.

Browne is one of the best early examples of this school; his style, to quote Johnson himself, "is vigorous but rugged, it is learned but pedantick, it is deep but obscure, it strikes but does not please, it commands but does not allure. . . . It is a tissue of many languages, a mixture of heterogeneous words brought together from distant regions."

Yet in spite of this qualified censure, there are passages in Browne’s works not inferior to any in the English language; and though his writings may not be "a well of English undefiled," yet it is the very defilements that add to the beauty of the work.

But it is not only as an example of literary style that Browne deserves to be studied. The matter of his works, the grandeur of his ideas, the originality of his thoughts, the greatness of his charity, amply make up for the deficiencies (if deficiencies there be) in his style. An author who combined the wit of Montaigne with the learning of Erasmus, and of whom even Hallam could say that "his varied talents wanted nothing but the controlling supremacy of good sense to place him in the highest rank of our literature," should not be suffered to remain in obscurity.

A short account of his life will form the best introduction to his works.

Sir Thomas Browne was born in London, in the parish of St Michael le Quern, on the 19th of October 1605. His father was a London merchant, of a good Cheshire family; and his mother a Sussex lady, daughter of Mr Paul Garraway of Lewis. His father died when he was very young, and his mother marrying again shortly afterwards, Browne was left to the care of his guardians, one of whom is said to have defrauded him out of some of his property. He was educated at Winchester, and afterwards sent to Oxford, to what is now Pembroke College, where he took his degree of M.A. in 1629. Thereupon he commenced for a short time to practise as a physician in Oxfordshire. But we soon find him growing tired of this, and accompanying his father-in-law, Sir Thomas Dutton, on a tour of inspection of the castles and forts in Ireland. We next hear of Browne in the south of France, at Montpellier, then a celebrated school of medicine, where he seems to have studied some little time. From there he proceeded to Padua, one of the most famous of the Italian universities, and noted for the views some of its members held on the subjects of astronomy and necromancy. During his residence here, Browne doubtless acquired some of his peculiar ideas on the science of the heavens and the black art, and, what was more important, he learnt to regard the Romanists with that abundant charity we find throughout his works. From Padua, Browne went to Leyden, and this sudden change from a most bigoted Roman Catholic to a most bigoted Protestant country was not without its effect on his mind, as can be traced in his book. Here he took the degree of Doctor of Medicine, and shortly afterwards returned to England. Soon after his return, about the year 1635, he published his "Religio Medici," his first and greatest work, which may be fairly regarded as the reflection of the mind of one who, in spite of a strong intellect and vast erudition, was still prone to superstition, but having

"Through many cities strayed, Their customs, laws, and manners weighed,"

had obtained too large views of mankind to become a bigot.

After the publication of his book he settled at Norwich, where he soon had an extensive practice as a physician. From hence there remains little to be told of his life. In 1637 he was incorporated Doctor of Medicine at Oxford; and in 1641 he married Dorothy the daughter of Edward Mileham, of Burlingham in Norfolk, and had by her a family of eleven children.

In 1646 he published his "Pseudodoxia Epidemica," or Enquiries into Vulgar Errors. The discovery of some Roman urns at Burnham in Norfolk, led him in 1658 to write his "Hydriotaphia" (Urn-burial); he also published at the same time "The Garden of Cyrus, or the Quincunxcial Lozenge of the Ancients," a curious work, but far inferior to his other productions.

In 1665 he was elected an honorary Fellow of the College of Physicians, "virtute et literis ornatissimus."

Browne had always been a Royalist. In 1643 he had refused to subscribe to the fund that was then being raised for regaining Newcastle. He proved a happy exception to the almost proverbial neglect the Royalists received from Charles II. in 1671, for when Charles was at Newmarket, he came over to see Norwich, and conferred the honour of knighthood on Browne. His reputation was now very great. Evelyn paid a visit to Norwich for the express purpose of seeing him; and at length, on his 76th birthday (19th October 1682), he died, full of years and honours.

It was a striking coincidence that he who in his Letter to a Friend had said that "in persons who outlive many years, and when there are no less than 365 days to determine their lives in every year, that the first day should mark the last, that the tail of the snake should return into its mouth precisely at that time, and that they should wind up upon the day of their nativity, is indeed a remarkable coincidence, which, though astrology hath taken witty pains to solve, yet hath it been very wary in making predictions of it," should himself die on the day of his birth.

Browne was buried in the church of St Peter, Mancroft, Norwich, where his wife erected to his memory a mural monument, on which was placed an English and Latin inscription, setting forth that he was the author of "Religio Medici," "Pseudodoxia Epidemica," and other learned works "per orbem notissimus." Yet his sleep was not to be undisturbed; his skull was fated to adorn a museum! In 1840, while some workmen were digging a vault in the chancel of St Peter’s, they found a coffin with an inscription—

"Amplissimus Vir
Dus Thomas Browne Miles Medicinae Dr Annis Natus 77 Denatus 19 Die
Mensis Octobris Anno Dnj 1682 hoc. Loculo indormiens Corporis Spagy-
rici pulvere plumbum in aurum

The translation of this inscription raised a storm over his ashes, which Browne would have enjoyed partaking in, the word <i>spagyricus</i> being an enigma to scholars. Mr Firth of Norwich (whose translation seems the best) thus renders the inscription:—

"The very distinguished man, Sir Thomas Browne, Knight, Doctor of Medicine, aged 77 years, who died on the 19th of October, in the year of our Lord 1682, sleeping in this coffin of lead, by the dust of his alchemic body, transmutes it into a coffer of gold.

After Sir Thomas’s death, two collections of his works were published, one by Archbishop Tenison, and the other in 1772. They contain most of his letters, his tracts on various subjects, and his Letter to a Friend. Various editions of parts of Browne’s works have from time to time appeared. By far the best edition of the whole of them is that published by Simon Wilkin.

It is upon his "Religio Medici"—the religion of a physician—that Browne’s fame chiefly rests. It was his first and most celebrated work, published just after his return from his travels; it gives us the impressions made on his mind by the various and opposite schools he had passed through. He tells us that he never intended to publish it, but that on its being surreptitiously printed, he was induced to do so. In 1643, the first genuine edition appeared, with "an admonition to such as shall peruse the observations upon a former corrupt copy of this book." The observations here alluded to, were written by Sir Kenelm Digby, and sent by him to the Earl of Dorset. They were first printed at the end of the edition of 1643, and have ever since been published with the book. Their chief merit consists in the marvellous rapidity with which they were written, Sir Kenelm having, as he tells us, bought the book, read it, and written his observations, in the course of twenty-four hours!

The book contains what may be termed an apology for his belief. He states the reasons on which he grounds his opinions, and endeavours to show that, although he had been accused of atheism, he was in all points a good Christian, and a loyal member of the Church of England. Each person must judge for himself of his success; but the effect it produced on the mind of Johnson may be noticed. "The opinions of every man," says he, "must be learned from himself; concerning his practice, it is safer to trust to the evidence of others. When the testimonies concur, no higher degree of historical certainty can be obtained; and they apparently concur to prove that Browne was a zealous adherent to the faith of Christ, that he lived in obedience to His laws, and died in confidence of His mercy."

The best proof of the excellence of the "Religio" is to be found in its great success. During the author’s life, from 1643 to 1681, it passed through eleven editions. It has been translated into Latin, Dutch, French, and German, and many of the translations have passed through several editions. No less than thirty-three treatises have been written in imitation of it; and what, to some, will be the greatest proof of all, it was soon after its publication placed in the Index Expurgatorius. The best proof of its liberality of sentiment is in the fact that its author was claimed at the same time by the Romanists and Quakers to be a member of their respective creeds!

The "Hydriotaphia," or Urn-burial, is a treatise on the funeral rites of ancient nations. It was caused by the discovery of some Roman urns in Norfolk. Though inferior to the "Religio," "there is perhaps none of his works which better exemplifies his reading or memory."

The text of the present edition of the "Religio Medici" is taken from what is called the eighth edition, but is in reality the eleventh, published in London in 1682, the last edition in the author’s lifetime. The notes are for the most part compiled from the observations of Sir Kenelm Digby, the annotation of Mr. Keck, and the very valuable notes of Simon Wilkin. For the account of the finding of Sir Thomas Browne’s skull I am indebted to Mr Friswell’s notice of Sir Thomas in his "Varia." The text of the "Hydriotaphia" is taken from the folio edition of 1686, in the Lincoln’s Inn library. Some of Browne’s notes to that edition have been omitted, and most of the references, as they refer to books which are not likely to be met with by the general reader.

The "Letter to a Friend, upon the occasion of the Death of his intimate Friend," was first published in a folio pamphlet in 1690. It was reprinted in his posthumous works. The concluding reflexions are the basis of a larger work, "Christian Morals." I am not aware of any complete modern edition of it. The text of the present one is taken from the original edition of 1690. The pamphlet is in the British Museum, bound up with a volume of old poems. It is entitled, "A Letter to a Friend, upon the occasion of the Death of his intimate Friend. By the learned Sir Thomas Brown, Knight, Doctor of Physick, late of Norwich. London: Printed for Charles Brone, at the Gun, at the West End of St Paul’s Churchyard, 1690."


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Chicago: Thomas Browne, "Introduction," Religio Medici, Hydriotaphia, and the Letter to a Friend, trans. Evans, Sebastian in Religio Medici, Hydriotaphia, and the Letter to a Friend Original Sources, accessed December 3, 2023,

MLA: Browne, Thomas. "Introduction." Religio Medici, Hydriotaphia, and the Letter to a Friend, translted by Evans, Sebastian, in Religio Medici, Hydriotaphia, and the Letter to a Friend, Original Sources. 3 Dec. 2023.

Harvard: Browne, T, 'Introduction' in Religio Medici, Hydriotaphia, and the Letter to a Friend, trans. . cited in , Religio Medici, Hydriotaphia, and the Letter to a Friend. Original Sources, retrieved 3 December 2023, from