Reference > Cambridge History > Cavalier and Puritan > Antiquaries > Religio Medici
  Sir Thomas Browne Browne’s style and vocabulary  


The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VII. Cavalier and Puritan.

X. Antiquaries.

§ 2. Religio Medici.

The first instance of that expression, and, in some eyes, the most considerable, Religio Medici, appeared in a fashion which could not but provoke comment, but which, perhaps, has actually provoked it to an unnecessary extent. That Browne may have conceived the idea, or parts of the idea, of the book during his foreign tour is highly probable; but there is not any reason to doubt the tradition—supported by or founded upon, a positive chronological reference of his own, which throws it back seven years from 1642—that it was written during his residence at Halifax, in or about 1635. Like much of the literature of the age—a fact which Dr. Johnson somewhat sceptically ignored—it was copied in manuscript again and again. There still exist some half dozen of such copies; and one of these, getting into the hands of a printer, Crooke, was published in the year above mentioned, 1642. A copy having fallen in the way of the earl of Dorset was by him recommended to Sir Kenelm Digby; and that remarkable Amadis-Paracelsus made it the subject of Observations, written in the space of considerably less than twenty-four hours, which came to Browne’s knowledge and extracted an elaborately courteous reply from him, part explanation, part disavowal—at least of the thing having been authorised. He then took it into his own hands and, in 1643, issued “a true and full coppy of that which was most imperfectly and surreptitiously printed before.”   5
  If Johnson was unduly suspicious of this transaction, Browne’s excellent editor, Simon Wilkin—it is rare luck for any man to have two such editors as Wilkin and Greenhill—has been justly thought to have been unnecessarily indignant at the suspicion. Very likely Browne did not instigate the publication; it is equally likely that he was not wholly sorry for it. The book, not unassisted by the discussion with Digby, became popular; and, being translated (again, it would seem, without Browne’s direct privity) into Latin by John Merryweather in 1644, it achieved a continental reputation extremely uncommon in those days in the case of the work of an English author. Guy Patin’s notice, with the curious but not inappropriate description of Browne as un mélancolique agréable en ses pensées is one of the commonplaces of the subject. The book’s combination of theology and physics exactly suited the bent of the time, and, though its great literary excellence could only be perceived by readers of the original, and those not the first-comers, the peculiarity of the mental attitude was of wider appeal. In both respects, some special notice must be taken of it.   6
  The original cause of the book, at least the ostensible cause, is, of course, clear enough: a defence of himself, if not, also, of his brethren, from the ancient imputation of irreligion which Chaucer has epigrammatised. But those circumstances of the time which already have been glanced at complicated the conditions. On the one hand, there was the still raging battle of sects and churches—as obstinate and as confused as the famous conflict in Spenser, where the knights are constantly changing their allies and their enemies; on the other, there was the steady rise of what was not yet called materialism or antisupernaturalism. Browne took in all these things and, of course, was (as he could not but have anticipated) claimed as a partisan, or denounced as an enemy, by the most opposite parties. Nor has there ever yet been reached any distinct or complete agreement as to his position, of which we shall ourselves, perhaps, be able to take a clearer view when we consider his Vulgar Errors. In reading Religio, a man need not have been—need not even be—an absolute fool if he is somewhat irresolute between Browne’s apparently inconsistent declarations, or, rather, between his positive declarations on the one hand, and the qualifications—still more the atmosphere and background of thought—by which they are accompanied, surrounded and thrown into relief. He proclaims, almost ostentatiously, belief in some literal interpretations of the Bible, and in some general acceptances of the supernatural which, even at his time, were not uncommonly questioned by the knowing. Yet, in some cases, even of these, he hints “new and not authentic interpretations” (such as those to which, he says, a Jesuit once objected), and his whole attitude and atmosphere are those, rather, of a man arguing for his own right to believe if he lists, than of an Athanasian positiveness. Against such a man, it is sure to be a case of Hinc movet Euphrates, illinc Germania bellum. Eastern dogmatism will doubt the logician and western scepticism will contemn the believer.   7

  Sir Thomas Browne Browne’s style and vocabulary  
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