Sunday, August 29, 2010

Browne miscellanea



In addition to the major works of Sir Thomas Browne (1605-82), namely Religio Medici, Pseudodoxia Epidemica, the 1658 two-in-one Discourses, 'Urn-Burial' and 'The Garden of Cyrus' and the posthumously published 'Christian Morals', there are a number of minor and miscellaneous writings by Browne.

Foremost amongst his minor writings are the 12 miscellaneous tracts. Topics as diverse as botany in the Bible, the Saxon language, ancient earthworks, a Nostradamus-like prophecy on the world's future including interesting conjectures upon America and a Museum inventory of lost and imaginary books, pictures and objects, constitute the bulk of the 12 miscellaneous tracts available on-line. However, to mark the occasion of my 100th post coinciding with my 1000th visitor since installing a counter 14 weeks ago, I thought it an original notion to take a quick look at Browne's miscellaneous writings and make available a few snippets previously unavailable online.

The collected miscellaneous writings of Sir Thomas Browne are a detailed portrait of the learned physician and his many hobbies and interests; they also give a unique insight into life in 17th century Norwich and Norfolk. Browne's notes on the Natural History of Norfolk in particular remains a valuable and fascinating record. Reprinted as a separate volume in 1905, it was considered worthy of study by the renowned Naturalist Ted Ellis. Browne's descriptions of rural Norfolk in the 17th century read as a much wilder habitat, densely populated with all manner of bird-life. His occasional usage of the phrase 'Broad waters', from where the very term 'Norfolk Broads' originates is of particular note.

Browne describes Norfolk bird-life and his witnessing of bird behaviour against a predator thus-

Teale, Querquedula, wherein scarce any place more abounding. The condition of the country & the very many decoys, especially between Norwich and the sea, making this place very much to abound in wilde fowle..........Divers sorts of Eagles come over & are seen in the winter, & especially such as pray upon fowle in broad waters & marshes.......Fulicae cottae, cootes, in very great flocks upon the broad waters. Upon the appearance of a Kite or buzzard I have seen them unite from all parts of the shoare in strange numbers, when if the Kite stoopes neare them they will fling up and spread such a flash of water up with their wings that they will endanger the Kite, & so keepe him of agayne & agayne in open opposition;

Although Falconry terms are alluded to in Religio Medici (Part 1 :10) and there is a short tract on Falconry among the miscellaneous tracts (tract 5), the question as to how much Browne was a keen bird-fancier and a participant in the gentleman's sport of hawking is made clearer through a perusal of the miscellaneous writings.

Some fenne Eagles shott in the wing, I have known kept a year or 2 after & fed with guts, fish herrings, or any offell; very tame and inoffensive. An Aquila Gesneri, or of the great sort, was given me in this countrie which I kept 2 years feeding it only with cats, puppes, and rats, without any water all that time. I offered it a gentleman to make a flight at the Bustard, butt it succeeded not. It was presented at last to the College of Physitians at London, where it perished in the common fire.

Far from being a puritan in his tastes, Browne was in fact inclined towards epicurianism in his dining habits. In an age of few pleasures its amusing to read in his Notes on the cookery of the Ancients

I wish we knew more clearly the aids of the ancients, their sauces, flavours, digestives, tasties, slices, cold meats, and all kinds of pickles. Yet I do not in dining know whether they would have surpassed salted sturgeons’ eggs, anchovy sauce, or our royal pickles.


Suspicions upon Browne's gourmet tendencies are confirmed in this commonplace notebook entry -

Take a Legge of mutton, roast it gently & slash it that the gravie may come out & so agayne till it will runne: then take the gravie & lett it seperate the fat by cooling, then put thereto a quarter of a nuttmegge, a small sprigge of Rosmarie, & a little Thmye: set it upon a gentle fire and add unto it 2 spoonfulls of claret & a little salt. You may if you please beat up the yelke of an egge therewith & take x or xii spoonfulls. 2 neat pickles may bee contrived, the one of oysters stewed in their owne liquor with Thyme, Lemon pill... olive, onyon, mace, pepper; adding Rhenish wine, elder vinegar, 3 or 4 pickle cowcumbers. Another with equall parts of the liquor of oysters & the liquor that runs from herings newly salted, with the former Ingredients, adding upon occasion, dissolving anchovie therein, or pickling therin a few smelts, or Garlick, especially the seeds thereof. High esteem was made of Garum by the ancients, & was used in sawces, puddings, &c. If simply made with Aromatic mixture, as is delivered, it cannot butt have an ungrateful smell, however a haut goust & appetisant tange, for it was the liquore or the resolution of the gutts of fishes, salt and insolated. This way may bee tried by us yeerly, & is still continued in Turkey. And may bee made out of the entralls of mackarel, the liquor that runs from the herings, wh. may dissolve Anchovies other Apnia's, & with mixture of oysters & Limpetts & testaceous fishes,....whereof every one makes his one pickle varieth the taste of sea water. The neatest way is to have pickles always readie, wherein wee may make additions at pleasure, or use them simply in sawces. The ancients loaded their pickles with cummin seed & the like, distasteful unto our senses.

The meticulous attention to detailed description in Browne's cookery notes is equally evident in his 'elaboratory' operations. Indeed some alchemists even likened the art of alchemy to cookery. I've often wondered just what kind of evidence those who refute the claim that Browne was an alchemist need to alter their misconception. Not only is alchemy discussed in Religio Medici, but many esoteric authors are listed as once in his library. There's also the fact that the 1658 Discourses are constructed upon esoteric schemata, skillfully employing highly-original symbolism of considerable psychological depth; as well as his recording of many experiments in his 'elaboratory', as evidence to reflect upon. If the preceding facts and the following passage does not convince skeptics, nothing will !

Take 2 ounces of purified sylver and with twice or thrice as much of the best aqua fortis dissolve it in a boltshead. Then poure your solution into a glassse body covered with his Alembick, and so upon sand drawe of about half the humidity of the Aq. fortis. Let your vessells coole, and you will find you have obtained a substance somewhat like salt, which putt into as good a crucible as you can gett, lett your fire bee gentle at the beginning least your matter boyle over; and so encrease it by degrees till it commeth to bubble, and looke like an oyle at the bottome of your cruicible. Then you may pour it out into such a pot as is used for Regulus antimonii or any other as you shall thinck more convienient. This is the sylver caustick.

Although he heartily recommended William Harvey's discovery of the circulation of the blood to his disciple Henry Power, and is credited in the OED for introducing words such as 'medical' 'pathology' and 'hallucination' into the English language, Browne also entertained some ideas on medicine which are nowadays considered bizarre by modern sensibilities! In fact, Browne's medical credentials, like his scientific credentials are Janus-like and float between the rational, modern world and the older, esoteric tradition of correspondences and amulets.Here's his medical recommendation for gout, a common consequence for members of the English gentry who lived a leisurely life with a rich diet.

If you have a mind to proceed farther, you may trie amulets & transplantation: may trie the magnified amulet in Muffetus of spiders leggs worne in a peece of deeres skinne, or tortoyses or froggs leggs cutt of alive and wrapt up in the skinne of a kid: may give pultisses taken from the affected part of a dogge & lett a whelp lay in the bed with you. And may also consider the Sigill of Paracelsus.

A great deal of original eye-witness material upon the social life of Norwich can be found in Browne's miscellaneous writings, especially in his letters and note-books. Always interested in the human aspect, in particular the unusual element, a short note exists on a 'binge-drinking' session in seventeenth century Norwich. With the preciseness of a reporter and without any moralizing on the matter, doctor Browne writes with evident interest -

Rob. Hutchinson at the Wheatsheaf in St. Peters in Norwich dranck a gallon of Brandie burnt & sweetend in the month of June 1675 in the space of 14 howers. Hee drank it hot, fell into a fever & complained of an extra-ordinarie burning in his stomack, butt recovered in 7 dayes, with a great loathing for Brandie after. He is aged 56. Another man who drank with him dranck also a gallon of burnt brandie for his share & road home into the countrie after it, and seemed not to suffer any more then a burning heat in his stomack for some days. Hee dranck a good quantitie of beere after hee made an end of his gallon of brandie.

And finally just occasionally, whenever the demands of his profession abated, his duties as head of a large household eased and upon completion of religious worship and prayer, Browne somehow found time to jot down the odd philosophical aphorism, some of which were later embedded into his literary works. These little-known aphorisms are an assortment of curious psychological self-portraits, occasional prophetic remarks, witty aesthetic judgments and tiny gems of wisdom. Such examples include-

* I attained my purpose and came to reach this port by a bare wind, much labour, great paynes and little assistance.

* I cannot fancy unto myself a more acceptable representation or state of things then if I could see all my best friends, and worthy acquaintance of fourtie yearres last past, upon the stage of the world at one time.

* Hee that found out the line of the middle motion of the planets holds an higher mansion in my thoughts then hee that discovered the Indies, and Ptolomie that sawe no farther then the feet of the Centaur, then hee that hath beheld the snake of the southern pole.

* The rationall discoverie of things transcends their simple detections whose inventions are often casuall & secondaries unto intention.
Many things are casually or frequently superadded unto the best authors & the lines of many made to contain that advantageous sense which they never intended.

* In a peece of myne published long ago the learned Annotator/commentator hath paralleled many passages with other of Mountaignes essays, whereas to deale clearly, when I penned that peece I had never read 3 leaves of that Author & scarce more ever since.

The whole art of blogging may be justified by a single sentence entry from Browne's commonplace notebooks; in a maxim later woven into the rich tapestry of Christian Morals, a non-stop compendium of aphorisms and advice upon how to live a virtuous life, the worthy physician declares-

* If the substantial subject be well forged out, we need not examine the sparks, which irregularly fly from it.


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