Thursday, June 18, 2015

The Works of Sir Thomas Browne

The Works of Sir Thomas Browne

Open Library direct link (volume one)
Open Library direct link (volume two)
Open Library direct link (volume three)
Open Library direct link (volume four)
Open Library main page

Online edition of Pseudodoxia Epidemica

Nope, Thomas Browne isn't an oddity (well not exactly) or any kind of discovery but this post is a companion to this week's release of Hugh Aldersey-Williams' In Search of Sir Thomas Browne: The Life and Afterlife of the Seventeenth Century's Most Inquiring Mind.  (Though I prefer the UK title and catalog description - The Adventures of Sir Thomas Browne in the 21st Century.  Also interesting to see the names dropped in description for each edition.  In the US it's Emerson, Borges, Woolf and Stephen Jay Gould - in the UK it's Sebald, Woolf, Borges, Poe, Marias.  You had me at "Borges".)

In any case what I really wanted to post was Pseudodoxia Epidemica since I've been fascinated by it for some time (admittedly having read only bits and pieces).  Since I couldn't find any separate, downloadable edition why not just go for the whole Browne thing?  (As it is I couldn't find a scan of an entire set and had to link to the fourth from a different edition.)

So what is Pseudodoxia Epidemica?  Basically it's a kind of encyclopedia where Browne discusses and refutes "vulgar errors" ranging from wonders you might expect (fairy stones, mandrakes, the phoenix) to if bears give birth to unformed young, why we bless people who sneeze, what Egyptian hieroglyphics are, the sun's motion, Pope Joan, the Wandering Jew, the death of Aeschylus, why oracles no longer speak, how flies make noise, whether badgers have shorter legs on one side, the power of electricity, how to make diamonds soft, and on and on.  It's just a wonderful curiosity cabinet and so typically Renaissance - all of course in Browne's unique prose.

As an example look at the entry on Cleopatra's death (Book V, Chapter XII), inspired by the discovery of an ancient painting.  Here's the opening:

"The picture concerning the death of Cleopatra, with two asps or venomous serpents unto her arms or breasts, or both, requires consideration: for therein (beside that this variety is not excusable) the thing itself is questionable; nor is it indisputably certain what manner of death she died.  Plutarch, in the life of Anthony, plainly delivereth, that no man knew the manner of her death; for some affirmed she perished by poison, which she always carried in a little hollow comb, and wore it in her hair."

Browne then touches on another historical source, wonders if asps ever reach a length for such a purpose, whether there would have been two snakes, and where on her body Cleopatra might have aimed them.  It's not that he's just dismissing this but thinking it through - looking at sources, checking possibilities, considering what's most reasonable or likely.

Though the work is to some degree an early skeptical dismantling of superstition and wayward beliefs it's probably best to not push too far in that direction.  Browne also believed in witches, angels, hidden messages and other things that today don't seem to fit.  This tension between rationalism and a somewhat more mystical approach gives Browne's work a certain flair.