Search tips
Search criteria 


Logo of medhistThe Wellcome Trust Centre of the History of Medicine (UCL)Medical History
Med Hist. 2010 April; 54(2): 278–279.
PMCID: PMC2844266

Book Review

Sir Thomas Browne: the world proposed
Reviewed by Steve Ridge

Reid Barbour and  Claire Preston (eds),  Sir Thomas Browne: the world proposed,  Oxford University Press,  2008, pp.  xii, 368, £60.00 (hardback  978-0-19-923621-3). 

Reid Barbour and Claire Preston consider the seventeenth-century physician, linguist and natural historian Sir Thomas Browne (1605–1682) to have written probably the most remarkable prose in the English language. In this volume, Browne is celebrated as both a literary and an intellectual figure across sixteen chapters by British and American scholars engaging with his imaginative and eloquent meditations upon a number of wide-ranging themes including memory, authority, classicism, disease, witchcraft and historiography.

In her chapter, Preston explores the medical, anatomical, natural-historical, spiritual, antiquarian and literary aspects of Browne’s A letter to a friend. For Preston, this advice to a fellow knight dying of the wasting disease phthisis comprised a profound ars morendi wherein the specifics of an individual case history gave way to a consideration of general truths. That is, for Preston, Browne was ultimately concerned with providing impersonal sententiae addressed to public patterns rather than a consilium addressed to private virtue. Reid Barbour’s contribution considers Browne’s fascination with skin as a site for decipherment of the hieroglyphics of nature, rather than merely as a physiological object of medical knowledge. For Barbour, we are to regard Browne’s explorations of artistic, moral, theological and racial implications as “larger meanings of skin” than his concerns with anatomy, healthy function and disease. Browne is presented here as ultimately having regarded the skin as holding more secrets about the human decipherer than about the divine geometer. In Barbour’s reading of Christian morals, God had ensured that “pocked and scarred” humans loved one another not by obscuring the signs inscribed upon the surface of bodies but by ensuring “that the reader [was] short-sighted” (p. 292).

The volume’s historiographical approach is set out in the introduction, where Barbour and Preston casually dismiss what they choose to call a “neo-historicist focus upon subversion and the structures of power” without exemplifying it beyond a 1987 essay by the Australia-based novelist Michael Wilding. Barbour and Preston do not engage with Wilding’s argument but merely report that it is “reductive” and that he sees oppressive conservatism where they see coherent, orderly and co-operative “social and moral advancement” (pp. 2, 4). The editors signal an intention to use Quentin Skinner’s perspective of “language as action”, and the volume indeed pursues a hermeneutic reading of Browne. There is a concomitant concern with symbolism and meaning (rather than practical and material technologies) across ten of the sixteen chapters, with some employment of Wittgensteinian notions of language (chapters 6 and 8). Only the last two of the sixteen chapters in this volume offer an argument for how their literary and intellectual descriptions of Browne might serve as reflection upon twenty-first-century notions of sickness, mortality, memory, authority and identity. That is, most of the contributors do not demonstrate how their readings of Browne are important critiques of certain aspects of current practices that constitute our selfhood. Browne’s medical arguments are presented in such a way as to leave the present somewhat unchallenged. Presumably, we are not to question current medical beliefs, but instead to use them to assess those of the past. This is unfortunate given that this volume is precisely an engagement with ethical and aesthetic truth together with related subjectivities. Notwithstanding this, the contributors provide a wide-ranging, finely-detailed, lucid and highly readable account of the writings of Sir Thomas Browne in relation to the pressing spiritual and political problems of seventeenth-century England.

Articles from Medical History are provided here courtesy of Cambridge University Press