Hugh Aldersey-Williams pulls the unfairly neglected yet enormously influential writer Thomas Browne out of the obscure pages of Pseudodoxia Epidemica and into the 21st century, to apply his generous curiosity and rational intelligence to the vagaries and contradictions of life today

Image of The Adventures of Sir Thomas Browne in the 21st Century
Hugh Aldersey-Williams, The Adventures of Sir Thomas Browne in the 21st Century, Granta, 2015.

A profound and delightful jeu d'esprit of a book, mixing biography, etymology, cultural history and quixotic scientific experiments. Aldersey-Williams pulls the unfairly neglected yet enormously influential writer Thomas Browne out of the obscure pages of Pseudodoxia Epidemica and into the 21st century, to apply his generous curiosity and rational intelligence to the vagaries and contradictions of life today. Browne has had some impressive fans (Sebald, Woolf, Borges, Poe, Marias) but this book will revive him, bringing his extraordinary genius to a whole new audience.

‘Aldersey-Williams has written the sort of book the good doctor might himself applaud. Not a conventional biography, this [is a] genial, generous but tough-minded excursion through its subject's life and afterlife’ - Boyd Tonkin

‘[A] richly detailed book... Written with passion and affection... Its greatest virtue is that you come away from it liking both Browne and Aldersey-Williams... A delightful read’ - Colin Burrow

‘[A] delightfully eccentric homage... The Adventures of Sir Thomas Browne in the 21st Century is a triumph. With humour, humility (from the Latin humus, earth) and intelligent generosity, Aldersey-Williams brings Sir Thomas splendidly to life, urns and all’ - Ian Thompson

‘An elegant, pleasantly obsessive study
‘Engaging and thoughtful...Like some of the most compelling biographers, Aldersey-Williams partly inhabits his subject. [It is] less like a biography, more like a mental inhabitation’ - Claire Preston

‘A playful erudition permeates this biography of Thomas Browne... Aldersey-Williams zips between our time and Browne's to reveal the man and his work’ - Barbara Kiser

‘[This] is not a conventional biography. It is more a conversation with an old friend. Engaging and often funny’
‘Superb... Aldersey-Williams has produced not a standard biography but a fascinating genre-bending melange of life story, medicine, science and human culture. The Adventures of Sir Thomas Browne in the 21st Century is a deft blend of erudition and trivia, formality and chattiness, high and low culture. With luck this fine tribute will bring Browne the wider readership he richly deserves. Illuminating and entertaining’ - Malcolm Forbes

‘This is just the kind of celebration Thomas Browne needs and deserves: not a conventional biography but a meditation filled with intellectual curiosity, tolerance, humane observation and gentle wit. It shows Browne as a man caught in the currents of his times while musing on timeless questions - and, like Aldersey-Williams, determined to weigh up the evidence without dogmatism, and to enjoy the richness of the world’ - Philip Ball

‘A wonderfully erratic, promenading book, in which we see how different, yet how similar we still are today to that most serene, most enigmatic science pioneer and literary master, Sir Thomas Browne, whose prose style is one of the highest peaks in English literature, according to Borges and to my humble self ’ - Javier Marias

W.G. Sebald greatly admired the writing of Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682) perhaps above all others. The two men, separated by three centuries, were in many ways kindred spirits. Here is Sebald reflecting on Browne (and, by extension, himself) in The Rings of Saturn:
The invisibility and intangibility of that which moves us remained an unfathomable mystery for Thomas Browne, too, who saw our world as no more than a shadow image of another one far beyond. In his thinking and writing he therefore sought to look upon earthly existence, from the things that were closest to him to the spheres of the universe, with the eye of an outsider, one might even say of the creator. His only means of achieving the sublime heights that this endeavor required was a parlous loftiness in his language. On common with other English writers of the seventeenth century, Browne wrote out of the fullness of his erudition, deploying a vast repertoire of quotations and the names of authorities who had gone before, creating complex metaphors and analogies, and constructing labyrinthine sentences that sometimes extend over one or two pages, sentences that resemble processions or a funeral cortège in their sheer ceremonial lavishness. It is true that, because of the immense weight of the impediments he is carrying, Browne’s writing can be held back by the force of gravitation, but when he does succeed in rising higher and higher through the circles of his spiralling prose, borne aloft like a glider on warm currents of air, even today the reader is overcome by a sense of levitation. The greater the distance, the clearer the view: one sees the tiniest of details with the utmost clarity. It is as if one were looking through a reversed opera glass and through a microscope at the same time. And yet, says Browne, all knowledge is enveloped in darkness. What we perceive are no more than isolated lights in the abyss of ignorance, in the shadow-filled edifice of the world. We study the order of things, says Browne, but we cannot grasp their innermost essence.
In his compelling and entertaining new book The Adventures of Sir Thomas Browne in the 21st Century (Granta, 2015) Hugh Aldersey-Williams does his best to locate the innermost essence of Browne. The book opens as Browne sets off on a journey from Bury St Edmunds to his home in Norwich (where Aldersey-Williams also lives). “What was he thinking?” Aldersey-Williams wonders. Browne, a physician by trade, but also “a philosopher and writer, a coiner of words, a Christian moralist, a naturalist, an antiquarian, an experimenter and a myth-buster,” had just testified at the trial of two women accused of being witches. Browne’s testimony suggested that their actions reflected the subtlety of the devil. They were found guilty and were hanged. Aldersey-Williams, who clearly wished Browne had testified differently by exposing the unscientific thinking behind the charges of witchcraft, decides to retrace Browne’s journey home from the trial. And he was going to make the trip slowly, on a bicycle. “I want time to think about what was going through Browne’s head.”  The portrait of Browne that emerges is at once thoughtful and impassioned. His complexities and contradictions are carefully weighed and examined.
The title of Aldersay-Williams’ book suggests that the time travel he will take us on will be limited to only one direction, when, in fact, he shuttles continuously back and forth in both directions across four centuries. To understand Browne’s legacy and to understand him better in our own terms, we must see how his ideas and discoveries play out in the 21st century.  But to understand Browne himself, we must understand the 17th century better. Aldersey-Williams, a science writer, is well-versed in the history and zeitgeist of Browne’s century and perhaps his finest accomplishment is to give the reader access to the mindset of a 17th century physician, living in a country divided by civil war and profound religious beliefs. Today, we tend to think of the 17th century (and pretty much any earlier period) as a time dominated by superstition and misinformation. As Aldersey-Williams demonstrates, unless his reader can momentarily grasp the given landscape of basic religious beliefs, assumptions, and arguments that pervaded 17th century England, when “belief in the devil was necessarily a concomitant of belief in God,” we will never understand how Browne could testify as he did at the witchcraft trial. Browne’s myth-busting stopped only at the boundaries that his faith required and protected.
So little is known about Browne’s life that a full-fledged biography is simply not in the cards. Instead, Aldersey-Williams focuses each chapter on a key theme from Browne’s life and career:  Physic (that is, medicine), Animals, Plants, Science, Tolerance, Faith, Melancholy, and Objects (in which Aldersey-Williams attempts to track down the actual objects of Browne’s life). The chapters turn into time-traveling essays that encompass the evolution of ideas and practices over the centuries. In the chapter on Melancholy, for example. Aldersey-Williams slowly makes his way through a discussion of Browne’s obsession with death and with ancient burial practices (Browne rushed to be a first-hand witness to several newly unearthed Roman or early English burial grounds) to the broader 17th century conception of melancholy (think of Shakespeare’s Hamlet from the early 1600s and Robert Burton’s magnificent tome of 1621 The Anatomy of Melancholy ) and finally into a careful dissection of the modern understanding of depression and its various clinical definitions in the latest edition of Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).
We tend to think of Shakespeare when we think of writers who coined new words and creatively expanded the English language, but Browne, who wrote with “delirious” style, was every much his equal in this regard. He is credited with creating 784 new words, including medical, precarious, insecurity, incontrovertible, hallucination, electricity, cylindrical, and ferocious – as well as providing “the first evidence of the true sense of another 1,616” words.
“Thomas Browne is my obsession,” Aldersey-Williams admits, but he is overly modest when he makes no major claims for his book, saying that he hoped only to “have found a way to bring Thomas Browne wide notice.”
I cannot extend Brownean scholarship. I have made no historical discovery about him, found no lost book, no forgotten manuscript (O happy author). Indeed all I seem to have found is that many of the objects supposed to have an association with Browne have disappeared. Nor can I offer the definitive interpretation of his texts (O naive author).
Like Sebald, Aldersey-Williams finds a kindred spirit in Browne. “I have chosen Thomas Browne to accompany me on this exploration of knowledge and unknowable truth. He may seem an odd, even perverse, companion to take. He is often wrong about things, and even when he is right, his scientific knowledge is bound to be out of date. But I have done it for good reasons: because I am fascinated by him, of course; because I am fascinated by his period; and above all because I believe the way he sees the world has lessons for us today.” And the two traits of Browne’s that Aldersey-Williams seems to most anxious for us to understand in the early years of the 21st century are civility and tolerance. Browne had an “almost boundless tolerance for the individual” (as opposed to the  often irrational collective behavior of the crowd).
His attitude towards other religions and races, shaped by his European travels and wide learning, is mostly exemplary; it stands up well to scrutiny today. By the standard of his day, it is almost miraculous in its benevolence. He speaks up for the classes of humanity that were often ostracized or demonized.  - Terry Pitts

It would be all too easy to portray the 17th-century physician and writer Sir Thomas Browne as an amusing oddball. Here is a man whose rather short list of publications includes an essay on funerary urns, a treatise on planting trees in patterns of five, and the catalogue of a fantasy museum. (Among the exhibits were a landscape painting depicting “the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea” and a crucifix made from “the cross Bone of a Frog’s Head”.)
His greatest work was an encyclopedia of false belief and superstition, grandiosely entitled Pseudodoxia epidemica, of which the standard English title, Vulgar Errors, is a rough translation. In it, the claim that bear cubs are born as formless lumps and then literally “licked into shape” by their mothers was solemnly disproved. So too was the idea that the root of the mandrake plant screams when it is pulled from the ground. And Browne patiently explained why all paintings of Adam and Eve were faulty, as they depicted them with navels, even though neither of them had emerged from a mother’s womb.
What has kept Browne’s name alive is not so much the contents of these works – though once you start reading Vulgar Errors, it’s surprisingly difficult to stop – as their style. In turn languorous, pointed, grandiose, crisp, mellifluous and sententious, Browne’s prose brims with verbal, aural and intellectual delight. Even a simple sentence such as the opening one in his essay “On Dreams” transports you immediately to a different level: “Half our dayes we passe in the shadowe of the earth, and the brother of death exacteth a third part of our lives.” No wonder, then, that Browne has been the private passion of a series of great stylists, from Coleridge to Virginia Woolf.
But to think of him just in terms of odd preoccupations and an exotic style is to get the man badly wrong. He was a highly qualified medical expert, educated at Oxford, Montpellier, Padua and Leiden; he knew Latin, Greek and Hebrew; his reading was broad and deep, and he corresponded with some of the leading intellectuals of his day. His interests were not at all quaint. The essay on urns involved not just a meditation on death (and what could be more serious than that?) but also an exploration of Roman archaeology, and the treatise on tree-planting broadened into a much wider study of geometrical patterns in nature, of a kind that biologists were just beginning to engage in. Had he not lived in Norwich, he might well have attended the meetings of the Royal Society and become one of its Fellows.
Most importantly, Browne was an anti-dogmatist: he believed in the value of rational doubt, considering all sides of a question, and avoiding peremptory conclusions. His other great work, Religio medici, was an essay on religious belief, which explained how it was that a scientifically minded physician could also accept the mysteries of Christian faith.
The science writer Hugh Aldersey-Williams describes Thomas Browne as his obsession. Living in Norwich, he is frustrated to find that few people there recognise Browne’s name, and dismayed to learn that Browne’s private meadow, where he studied wild plants, has become a car park. (His house, or rather the site of it, now contains a branch of Pret a Manger.)
Aldersey-Williams is keen to find fragments of his hero’s existence and eager to tell us the details of his life and thought. But while this book is less than a biography (not pretending to perform that task), it is much more than an affectionate portrait or a work of local piety. For Aldersey-Williams is convinced that Browne is very much a man for the modern age.
What does that mean? It’s rather hard to say. This is a very personal book, essayistic, digressive and idiosyncratic. In places, the author wants to tell us how Browne contributed to the modern world – his forward-looking approach to archaeology or biology, for example. He also informs us that Browne invented many words that we now take for granted. (This seems to be true of “electricity”, but most of the other examples he presents are faulty, based on out-of-date information in the Oxford English Dictionary.)
Above all, he thinks that we could benefit from Browne’s ability to combine rational scientific thinking with a calm acceptance of the idea that there may be greater truths that lie beyond science. One of the things we learn about Aldersey-Williams (and we learn almost as much about him as about Browne) is that he is an atheist; but he is also offended by antireligious intolerance, and sees Browne as a better intellectual role model for us all.
Parts of this book work very well, and parts do not. (Memo to all writers of quasi-biographical studies: never write a fantasy dialogue between you and your subject. It induces stylistic seasickness, mingled with sheer embarrassment.) Any attempt to interest people in Thomas Browne’s writings must be a good thing. But his deepest belief was that every detail of the world is suffused with order and meaning by God. He was absolutely a man of the 17th century, and can only look uncomfortable when dressed up in 21st-century clothes. -

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