Celebrating true Norwich great Sir Thomas Browne
PUBLISHED: 11:21 16 October 2017 | UPDATED: 15:53 17 October 2017
Thousands of Norwich shoppers pass his statue every day, but how much do we really know about Sir Thomas Browne? On the eve of a series of events celebrating the 17th-century writer and scientist, his biographer Hugh Aldersey-Williams hails the genius of one of Norfolk’s most brilliant minds.
How many people die on their birthday? It is a question that you might think experts have been able to answer. But the problem may be more complicated than it first seems.
The 17th-century Norwich doctor and writer Sir Thomas Browne called it a ‘remarkable coincidence’ to die on your birthday. Then he himself did precisely that! He expired on October 19 1682, 77 years to the day after he was born.
This year, for the first time, Norwich will be celebrating this date as Sir Thomas Browne Day, with a host of talks, demonstrations and displays in the city.
So what’s the answer? Is it a remarkable coincidence at all? Logic says one in 365 of us will die on our birthday – to the grim reaper it is just another day of the year, after all. But statisticians argue the toss. Some say we are disproportionately likely to die on that day (because of the excitement?). Others reckon survival is more likely, as we strive to chalk up another year. Despite the availability of birth and death data of millions of people, the answer is still not clear.
Thomas Browne is famous above all for his essays. The first of these, published in 1643, was an early example of the confessional autobiography, which he called Religio Medici, or ‘The Religion of a Doctor’. Browne dispelled the impression that he was an atheist because of his rational, scientific work as a physician, movingly setting out the terms of his Christian faith. Another highly literary work was Urn Burial, a meditation on funeral rites, ancient and modern, prompted by the uncovering of some Romano-British burial urns at Walsingham (he is contemplating one of those urns in his Hay Hill statue).
But his most popular work was called Pseudodoxia Epidemica. This was a catalogue of urban (and rural) myths and ‘old wives’ tales’ of the 17th century. Browne debunked each foolish belief with characteristic wit and style, showing great tolerance of the simple souls who might fall for such things.
‘Fake news’ is a phrase that has been added to many dictionaries over the last year. It sounds like a recent thing. But Browne’s Pseudodoxia reminds us that there has always been fake news. Long before President Donald Trump popularised the phrase in his self-justifying tweets, people heard stories about fabulous animals, unfamiliar peoples and miraculous cures and found it difficult to judge their truthfulness.
There were fake pictures too. Not the misleading photos showing crowds at political rallies or persons falsely claimed to be missing after disasters, but the motifs that people might see in heraldic designs or the biblical scenes in stained-glass windows and illuminated books. What were people to make of unicorns and gryphons, for example? Were there really red lions and blue boars? Or, if he was the first
man, how come Adam had a navel?
Browne was on hand to resolve such puzzles. He drew not only on his reading of classical and modern philosophers and scientists. He also did his own experiments, which he then described in order to offer the most persuasive argument to his readers.
It was believed, for instance, that a dead kingfisher, hung up by a string, could be used as a reliable indicator of the wind direction. (The custom is referred to in Shakespeare’s King Lear.) Browne described how he obtained a dead kingfisher and suspended it near an open window. It swung every which way. But for Browne, this was not quite enough. He then hung up a second kingfisher, and judged that because each turned independently of the other, there was no truth in the belief –
a far more conclusive experiment.
Browne also gave the English language many new words. Some were related to his profession as a doctor: ‘coma’, ‘hallucination’ and ‘medical’ itself. Others were to do with facts and lies, and what could be proven and what could not, such as ‘incontrovertible’ and ‘aberrant’. He was also a great naturalist, and named birds such as the mistle thrush and the shearwater. Observing birds arriving exhausted on Norfolk for the winter, he deduced that they must be ‘migrant’ species. On Thomas Browne Day, the Oxford English Dictionary plans to post one of Browne’s words as its ‘word of the day’.
Happy birthday, Sir Thomas!
Hugh Aldersey-Williams is the author of The Adventures of Sir Thomas Browne in the 21st Century (Granta), now out in paperback.
Wednesday October 18
7pm, Millennium Library
The Curious Words of Sir Thomas Browne, lecture by Professor Claire Preston. Free. Book at www.sirthomasbrownedaytalk.eventbrite.co.uk
Thursday October 19
11am-2pm, Hay Hill
Scientists from the Norwich Research Park will be on hand to gather your 21st-century ‘old wives’ tales’
11.30 am, St Peter Mancroft: Guided tour of the Browne artefacts in the church, by local expert Barbara Miller
1pm, Hay Hill, and 3.30pm,
The Forum: Norwich-born Browne expert Kevin Faulkner performs Browne in costume
2pm, Norfolk Record Office
Victoria Draper leads a tour of archive material, including Browne.
Saturday October 21
10am-noon, Castle Museum
Sir Thomas Browne at the Castle
1pm, St Peter Mancroft
Concert by members of Sistema Norwich
Wednesday October 25
10am and 3.30pm, The Forum: Biographer and science writer Hugh Aldersey-Williams re-enacts Browne’s experiments
New interpretation panels will be unveiled at the Browne sculptures on Hay Hill, and there will be displays related to Sir Thomas Browne throughout the Norwich Science Festival, October 16-30, at the Book Hive Bookshop, the Millennium Library, The Forum and the Castle.
All events are free. For further details, see: www.sirthomasbrowne.org.uk