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A Bestiary of Sir Thomas Browne

- June 17, 2015 in animals, bestiary, Books, Religion, Religion, Myth & Legend, superstition, superstitious beliefs, thomas browne

Hugh Aldersey-Williams takes a little tour through Thomas Browne's Pseudodoxia Epidemica, a work which sees one of the 17th-century's greatest writers stylishly debunk all manner of myths, in particular those relating to the world of animals.

Texts in Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn

- April 23, 2013 in chateaubriand, collections, Diderot, Fitzgerald, Garden of Cyrus, Grimmelshausen, Gustave Flaubert, History, Hydrotophia or Urne Buriall, madame boavry, musaeum clausum, Rubáiyát, sebald, Simplicius Simplicissimus, swinburne, texts, Texts: 19th, Texts: Fiction, Texts: Miscellaneous, Texts: Non-fiction, Texts: Poetry, thomas browne, w.g. sebald

At the time of his death in 2001 at the age of 57, the German writer W.G. Sebald was cited by many critics as a future winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. It was his book The Rings of Saturn, written in 1995 (translated into English in 1998), which went a long way to securing Sebald’s reputation as a writer pioneering a new kind of literary fiction. The book is exemplary of his strange and unique style: the hybridity of genres, the blurring of fact and fiction, the indistinct black and white photographs, and his meditation on the destructive nature of history, the human lives affected, and the restorative power of art. The book is, on one level, a walking tour through the English counties of Norfolk and Suffolk, Sebald’s adopted home (he’d taught literature at the UEA there since 1970). The reader moves with the melancholic narrator from town to town, village to village, but in the process – through an astonishing network of associations, tangents, and apparent coincidences – one is led all over the world, into many different times, and many different lives. A ride on a miniature railway at Somerleyton Hall leads to 19th century [...]

A book on 17th century gardens (1908)

- March 11, 2013 in Abraham Cowley, Andrew Marvell, collections, Epicurus, gardens, John Evelyn, texts, Texts: 17th, Texts: 20th, Texts: Non-fiction, The Garden of Cyrus, thomas browne, William Temple

Musaeum Clausum (1684)

- April 10, 2012 in musaeum clausum, non-article, texts, Texts: 17th, Texts: Fiction, Texts: Miscellaneous, thomas browne

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“Museaum Clausum” in Certain Miscellany Tracts, by Thomas Browne; 1684; London

In the latter half of the 17th century the English polymath Thomas Browne wrote Musaeum Clausum, an imagined inventory of ‘remarkable books, antiquities, pictures and rarities of several kinds, scarce or never seen by any man now living’. His list of desired items includes an ostrich’s egg engraved with a scene from the battle of Alcazar, a ring found in the belly of a fish (reputed to be the ring of the Doge of Venice with which he annually weds the sea), the mummified body of one Father Crispin of Toulouse, and ‘Batrachomyomachia, or the Homerican battle between frogs and mice, neatly described upon the chizel bone of a large pike’s jaw’.

Claire Preston, in her article “Lost Libraries” for The Public Domain Review, explores Browne’s extraordinary catalogue amid the wider context of a Renaissance preoccupation with lost intellectual treasures.

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    Lost Libraries

    - February 20, 2012 in Articles, Bibliotheca abscondita, Books, cabinet of curiosities, catalogue, claire preston, donne, History, inventory, Literature, museum clausum, rabelais, Renaissance, thomas browne

    In the latter half of the 17th century the English polymath Thomas Browne wrote Musaeum Clausum, an imagined inventory of ‘remarkable books, antiquities, pictures and rarities of several kinds, scarce or never seen by any man now living’. Claire Preston explores Browne’s extraordinary catalogue amid the wider context of a Renaissance preoccupation with lost intellectual treasures.

    Thomas Browne as depicted in the frontispiece to his posthously published Certain Miscellany Tracts (1684)

    In an age of data retrieval, when just about anything ever printed can be seen online and is eternally preserved there, and when modern anxiety is fuelled by too much information, we would do well to remember that the loss of books and artefacts was catastrophic until very recently in human history. The great library of the Ptolemies at Alexandria was burnt by the Romans in the first century AD, a legendary collection of ancient wisdom whose loss haunted Renaissance scholarship. European savants of the 15th and 16th centuries were, in the midst of their astonishing revival of classical writing, all too aware of what was irrecoverable and even unknown to them. Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682) was such a scholar. His vast expertise in areas as diverse as embryology, anatomy, ornithology, ancient history and literature, etymology, local archaeology, and pharmacy, and his participation in the Baconian programme to rescue learning from the misapprehensions and erasures that had accumulated since the fall of man, made him especially sensitive to such losses. Musaeum Clausum, a small tract both playful and melancholy, seems to coalesce early-modern feelings about the unavailability of precious intellectual treasure.

    Engraving from the Dell'Historia Naturale (1599) showing Naples apothecary Ferrante Imperato's cabinet of curiosities, the first pictorial representation of such a collection.

    Musaeum Clausum (the hidden library) is a fake catalogue of a collection that contained books, pictures, and artefacts. Such collections (and their elaborate indices) were a common phenomenon from about 1500 to 1700 and after. Gentlemen and the nobility collected as a matter of polite engagement with knowledge and as a way of displaying wealth and learning; savants made arrays of plants, animals, and minerals as museums or ‘thesauruses’ of the natural world to record and organise their findings; imperial and monarchical collections were princely in their glamour, rarity, and sheer expenditure: these might contain natural-historical specimens but also trinkets and souvenirs from far-flung places, curiosities of nature and art, and historically significant items. For example, taxidermically preserved basilisks shared room with a thorn from Christ’s crown and feathered headdresses and weapons belonging to native American tribes. Browne takes these traditions of assemblage and makes a catalogue of marvellous things that have disappeared. The catalogue of Browne’s lost museum speaks of fragmentation, scattering, and loss, but also of eccentricity and comedy. Among its documents are letters and works by Aristotle, Ovid, and Cicero, and an account of Hannibal’s expedition through Alps ‘far more particular than that of Livy’ that purports to tell what sort of vinegar he used to split the stones in his way. Perhaps the most significant item among these is Seneca’s epistles to St Paul, a correspondence which, if it existed, would answer the yearning of Christian Stoics. The pictures in this collection either display tremendous technical skill or depict remarkable events. One picture is a ‘large submarine piece’ showing the bottom of the Mediterranean and the seagrass growing there; another describes a moonlight battle between the Florentines and the Turks; others are snow or ice ‘pieces’ that show a remarkable and alien landscape populated by exotic arctic animals; still others show the great fire of Constantinople, the siege of Vienna, the sack of Fundi, and the Treaty of Cologne, as well as portraits, caricatures, and even the dogs of Sultan Achmet. The curiosities are probably the most peculiar and random group in the collection, everything from an ostrich’s egg engraved with a scene from the battle of Alcazar, to a moist stone that cures fevers, to a ring found in the belly of a fish (reputed to be the ring of the Doge of Venice with which he annually weds the sea), the mummified body of one Father Crispin of Toulouse, and ‘Batrachomyomachia, or the Homerican battle between frogs and mice, neatly described upon the chizel bone of a large pike’s jaw’.

    Cabinet of Curiosities (ca.1695) by Domenico Remps, held in the Opificio delle Pietre Dure, Florence

    Browne’s is one of many examples of this form, the fake catalogue. Donne wrote one; Rabelais included one in Gargantua and Pantagruel. More typically such works were outright spoofs of learned curiosity, send-ups of random assemblages that John Evelyn judged to be no more than ‘indigested chaos’. But Browne, although he recognises the absurdity of some of his own items and is obviously trying for comic effect with certain ones, is probably more interested in a philosophy of antiquities, of the past and of existing knowledge as resurrected and preserved from the ravages of time and forgetfulness. Browne’s aim, like that of the early-modern Baconians, was reparation and restoration of truth, and Musaeum Clausum reads like a wistful evocation of what might have existed in a legendary collection like the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. Perhaps the most powerful rendition of that wistfulness is not in specific works or memorials of the great, but rather in the pitiful remains of Father Crispin, ‘buried long ago in the vaults of the Cordeliers at Toulouse, where the skins of the dead so dry and parch up without corruption that their persons may be known very long after, with this inscription, Ecce iterum Crispinus [behold Crispin again]’. The otherwise anonymous Father Crispin, an unremarkable monk whose name is his only chronicle, is immortalised by the strange atmosphere of the vault rather than for any accomplishment or quality; his survival as a physiognomy that can be ‘known very long after’ is merely a scientific phenomenon, not an intended memorial to an individual. The imperious inscription pathetically asks us with its commanding injunction to behold anew that which was never remarkable or memorable in the first place. Browne’s favourite theme, here and elsewhere, is the randomness of recollection, and Father Crispin, a random survival of the past, is preserved only to be lost again with the collection that contains him. Twenty years earlier Browne had written the astonishing Urne-Buriall, a discussion of mortuary customs. There he asked why it should be that we have record of the epitaph of Hadrian’s horse but not of Hadrian himself, or whether the best men are even remembered ‘or whether there be not more remarkable persons forgot than any that stand remembered in the known account of time?’ That abiding sense of so much forgotten, so little still recalled, animated Browne and other early-modern savants who were conducting a salvage operation for intellectual recovery.

    Claire Preston is Professor of Early-Modern Literature at the University of Birmingham. Her books include Bee (Reaktion,2006), Thomas Browne and the Writing of Early Modern Science (Cambridge, 2005), and Edith Wharton’s Social Register (Macmillan/St Martin’s, 2000). She recently co-edited, with Reid Barbour, Sir Thomas Browne: The World Proposed (Oxford 2008), and is the general editor of the Complete Works of Sir Thomas Browne (8 vols), forthcoming from OUP. She has written extensively on early-modern topics, including Sidney, Spenser, Shakespeare, Jonson, Dugdale, and Boyle, and on the literature of the American Gilded Age. She is completing a book on seventeenth-century literature and scientific investigation. She has been a recipient of a British Academy Research award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the Rose Mary Crawshay Prize (British Academy).

    Links to works


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    Hydriotaphia/Urn-Burial and The Garden of Cyrus (1658)

    - September 21, 2011 in hermetic philosophy, Hydriotaphia, non-article, texts, The Garden of Cyrus, thomas browne, Urn-Burial


    Hydriotaphia, urne-buriall, or A discourse of the sepulchrall urnes lately found in Norfolk. Together with The garden of Cyrus, or The quincunciall lozenge, or network plantations of the ancients, artificially, naturally, mystically considered. With sundry observations, by Thomas Browne; 1658 (1927); Hen. Brome, London

    Sir Thomas Browne (19 October 1605 – 19 October 1682), an English author of varied works which reveal his wide learning in diverse fields including medicine, religion, science and the esoteric, conceived of these two books as a diptych. The nominal subject of the first book, Hydriotaphia (Urn-Burial), was the discovery of a Roman urn burial in Norfolk which prompts Browne to deliver, first, a careful description of the antiquities found, and then a careful survey of most of the burial and funerary customs, ancient and current, of which his era was aware. The most famous part of the work, though, is the fifth chapter, where Browne quite explicitly turns to discuss man’s struggles with mortality, and the uncertainty of his fate and fame in this world and the next, to produce an extended funerary meditation tinged with melancholia. A piece of exquisite baroque prose that George Saintsbury called “the longest piece, perhaps, of absolutely sublime rhetoric to be found in the prose literature of the world,” Hydriotaphia displays an astonishing command of English prose rhythm and diction. It has been admired by Charles Lamb, Samuel Johnson, John Cowper Powys, James Joyce, Jorge Luis Borges, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, who said of it that it “smells in every word of the sepulchre.” The Garden of Cyrus is Browne’s mystical vision of the interconnection of art, nature and the Universe via numerous symbols including the number five, the quincunx pattern, the figure X and Network pattern. Its slender but compressed pages of imagery, symbolism and associative thought are evidence of Sir Thomas Browne’s complete understanding of a fundamental quest of Hermetic philosophy, namely proof of the wisdom of God.

    (Note: this text taken from the excellent Wikipedia articles on the two books, see them here and here)

    (HTML version of the books can be found here)

    Open Library link



    Letters From a Cat (1879)

    Castaway on the Auckland Isles: A Narrative of the Wreck of the "Grafton," (1865)


    Infant's Cabinet of Birds and Beasts (1820)

    Old French Fairytales (1920)

    Armata: a fragment (1817)

    An Account of the Late Improvements in Galvanism (1803)

    The Medical Aspects of Death, and the Medical Aspects of the Human Mind (1852)

    Quarles' Emblems (1886)

    Cat and bird stories from the "Spectator" (1896)

    Wonderful Balloon Ascents (1870)

    The Book of Topiary (1904)

    The Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (1899)

    English as She is Spoke (1884)

    The Danger of Premature Interment (1816)

    The Last American (1889)

    Pirates (1922)

    Napoleon's Oraculum (1839)

    Horse Laughs (1891)

    Hydriotaphia/Urn-Burial and The Garden of Cyrus (1658)

    Across the Zodiac: the Story of a Wrecked Record (1880)