Monday, October 19, 2020

Lost in the uncomfortable night of nothing

Although long recognized as a work of World literature, Urn-Burial (1658) is for many  neither an easy or a palatable read. With its melancholic meditations on the uncertainty of life, the unknowingness of the human condition, the fragility of mortality and the certainty of death, all couched in splendid flourishes of Baroque oratory, Thomas Browne's philosophical discourse will never be everyone's favourite bedtime reading. 

In addition to its ornate literary style and near taboo subject-matter to modern sensibilities, another stumbling block hindering appreciation of Urn-Burial is that its author frequently shifts the focus of his discourse in order to give expression to quite different facets of himself. This results in surprising changes of perspective, alternating from the viewpoint of pioneering scholar of comparative religion to local historian, to scientist and archaeologist, to antiquarian and Christian moralist, often without alerting his reader of the fact other than beginning a new paragraph.

In modern times Urn-Burial  has been recognised as closely corresponding to the Nigredo of alchemy. The black despair and melancholy experienced by the adept beginning their quest is encapsulated in  Browne's succinct phrase lost in the uncomfortable night of nothing an expression apt for the suffering of millions world-wide today, anxious about income and the future, grieving, ill or depressed in the wake of the current pandemic.

Thomas Browne began his medical career in Norwich in 1637, just a few years before English society was sufficiently polarized to engage in Civil war (1642-49) resulting in an estimated 100,000 deaths. Never one for political controversy Browne occupied himself with establishing his medical practice in Norwich and revising his encyclopaedia Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646) during the English Civil war. 

The very title of Browne's colossal endeavour depicts superstition and erroneous beliefs as if a disease of epidemic proportions. (Lt. Pseudo false, Doxia Truth, Epidemica Epidemic). The prescription for curing such epidemics of 'vulgar errors'  were for Browne the combined medicine of - consultation of the Classical authors of antiquity, empirical experiment, inductive reasoning, and collaborative debate with contemporaries. Often engaging in all of these methods in order to ascertain truth, Browne is credited with introducing up-to-date scientific journalism to the English reading public as well as hypothesis in the pages of Pseudodoxia Epidemica.

Its in a chapter refuting  the myth that  the Basilisk is capable of killing by emitting deadly rays from its eyes that Browne engages in a medical speculation of great importance to our times-

'if Plagues or pestilential Atoms have been conveyed in the Air from distant Regions, if men at a distance have infected each other,........there may proceed from subtler seeds, more agile emanations, which contemn those Laws, and invade at distance unexpected'. [2] 

As a doctor Thomas Browne (1605-82) could not help but take an interest in disease. Along with his interest in ancient Greek medicine, primarily the writings of Hippocrates, Browne also took an interest in ancient Greek mythology. In his medical essay A Letter to a Friend (circa 1656) he alludes to the Greek myth of the origin of disease, Pandora and her Box. The Greek myth recounts how Pandora was given the gift of a sealed jar which held within it all the misfortunes for humanity. Her great curiosity overcame her fear of what the jar contained and breaking its seal she released disease, sorrow, conflict and war with only hope remaining inside the jar. The name Pandora means 'All Gifts' both good and bad gifts being bestowed upon Humanity. 

Whilst alluding to the Greek myth of Pandora and theorizing upon the origin of disease, Browne in A Letter to a Friend  also introduces the word 'Pathology' into English language 

'New Discoveries of the Earth discover new Diseases: for besides the common swarm, there are endemial and local Infirmities proper unto certain Regions, which in the whole Earth make no small number: and if Asia, Africa, and America should bring in their List, Pandora's Box would swell, and there must be a strange Pathology'.

Its possible that during his youthful travels and studies in Continental Europe attending the Universities of Padua in Italy, Montpelier in France and Leiden in Holland from 1629-32 Browne on hearing of an outbreak of the plague in Milan,  steered  well clear of the Italian city. Alternatively he may simply have seen the column  which was erected in August 1630 in Milan informing of the crime and punishment of those believed to have started the outbreak. In either event, the Milan plague of 1630 was still in Browne's memory in his old age when he compiled his list of lost, rumoured and imaginary books, paintings objects known as Museum Clausum (c.1675) which includes the sinister fantasy item of -

* Pyxis Pandoræ, or a Box which held the Unguentum Pestiferum, which by anointing the Garments of several persons begat the great and horrible Plague of Milan. [3]

As a Royalist Browne must have been under intense psychological distress during the years of the Protectorate of Cromwell (1650-59) and his Urn-Burial has been described as a threnody to the waste of human life during the English civil war. Inspired from the accidental unearthing of several burial urns in a Norfolk field just as its secondary title A Discourse upon the supulchrall urnes lately found in Norfolk, informs, Urn-Burial opens with dazzling literary showmanship  naming the main themes of the discourse, notably Time and Memory, Death and the after-life. 

In his scientific, spiritual and mystical analysis of death and the after-life Browne first surveys the burial rites and custom of various nation's throughout history, his early comparative religion skills naming the Chinese, Persian, Roman, Greek and Egyptian civilizations, the Moslem, Hindi and Judaic religions, as well as one of the very earliest mentions of the Zoroastrian religion in Western literature. Like his contemporary Athanasius Kircher (1602-80) Browne recognised the syncretic nature of religious symbols, but like Kircher he was often misguided in his comparative religion studies.

The unknowingness of the human condition is illustrated in striking medical imagery in Browne's speculation that- 

'A Dialogue between two Infants in the womb concerning the state of this world, might handsomely illustrate our ignorance of the next, whereof methinks we yet discourse in Plato's den, and are but Embryon Philosophers'.

Closely related to Browne's medical imagery, there is also what might be termed opiate imagery in Urn-Burial. As a physician Browne was licenced to acquire Opium, the only available painkiller available in his day. Widely in use since the sixteenth century, the Swiss alchemist-physician Paracelsus (1493-1541) was among the earliest advocates of opium. Such was its widespread usage in the seventeenth century that Browne's contemporary Dr. Thomas Sydenham (1624-89) the so-called 'Father of English medicine' and whose books are well-represented in Browne’s vast library, declared- 

'Among the remedies which has pleased the Almighty God to give to man to relieve his sufferings, none is so universal and so efficacious as opium.'

Browne's commonplace notebooks include observations upon dosage and effects of opium, while  knowledge of its recreational usage with sex can be found in Pseudodoxia Epidemica 

'since Opium it self is conceived to extimulate unto venery, and the intent and effect of eating Opium, is not so much to invigorate themselves in coition, as to prolong the Act, and spin out the motions of carnality'. [4]

In Urn-Burial the poppy flower, Opium and Oblivion are invariably interconnected. 'But the iniquity of Oblivion blindly shaketh her poppy' for example. In a heady fusion of philosophical stoicism, medical imagery and empirical observation, Browne declares of the human condition and also perhaps of the psychological effects of opium -

'There is no antidote against the Opium of Time, which temporally considereth all things.'

Its  been proposed that one reason why the prose of Urn-Burial  and its twin The Garden of Cyrus, in particular the transcendent prose of the fifth and last chapter of each Discourse is unlike any other writing of seventeenth century English literature may have been from Browne writing under the influence of opium. During the decade of the Protectorate of Cromwell (1650-59) and the highly uncertain days which it engendered, it may have been very tempting for Royalist supporters, especially those of an enquiring nature such as Browne, to reach into the medicine cabinet.

Urn-Burial also features a short, but detailed description of Browne's single, credited scientific discovery, the formation of the waxy substance which coagulates upon body fat known as adipocere. 

'In a Hydropicall body ten years buried in a Church-yard, we met with a fat concretion, where the nitre of the Earth, and the salt and lixivious liquor of the body, had coagulated large lumps of fat, into the consistence of the hardest castile-soap: whereof part remaineth with us'.

Burial, putrefaction and interment are all synonymous with the Nigredo stage of alchemy defined by C.G. Jung thus - 

'the original half animal state of unconsciousness was known to the adept as the Nigredo, chaos, confused mass, as inextricable interweaving of the soul with the body'. [5] 

 According to Jung-

'the nigredo not only brought decay, suffering, death, and the torments of hell visibly before the eyes of the alchemist, it also cast the shadow of melancholy over his solitary soul. In the blackness of his despair he experienced.. grotesque images which reflect the conflict of opposites into which the researcher's curiosity had led him. His work began with a katabasis, a journey to the underworld as Dante also experienced it'. [6] 

Urn-Burial alludes to several Soul journeys of classical literature including Homer's Odyssey in which the wily hero Ulysses descends into the Underworld, Macrobius's planetary Soul journey from Cancer to Capricorn and the Greek philosopher Plato's myth of Er, as well as Dante's Inferno. The religious mystic in Browne knew that each one of us from birth, conscious or not of the fact, embarks upon a soul-journey with Death as a final port of call.

The Swiss psychologist C.G.Jung (1875-1961) freed modern-day scholarship from many of the prejudices and misunderstandings which have hindered study of western esoteric traditions. Today, the thematic concerns of Urn-Burial can confidently be identified as matching the nigredo of alchemy and may even be the template upon which Browne modeled his discourse upon. Urn-Burial's counterpart, The Garden of Cyrus reinforces this interpretation for its opening pages muse upon paradise, a frequent symbol of the albedo or whitening in the alchemical opus succeeding the Nigredo.

C.G. Jung  states- 'As we all know, science began with the stars, and mankind discovered in them the dominants of the unconscious, the "gods," as well as the curious psychological qualities of the zodiac: a complete projected theory of human character'.  [7]   

As the most remote planet known to the ancients, Saturn was believed to be a cold, heavy planet, qualities which were confirmed millennia later by modern science. In the western esoteric traditions of alchemy and astrology, Saturn is associated with restriction, contraction, limitation and melancholy and as the ruler of isolation and quarantine Saturn is the lockdown god par excellence.  'Old Father Time' depicted with his scythe as the Grim Reaper is a variant upon Saturn's symbolism.

Originally an Italian agricultural god, other implements associated with Saturn include the pruning-hook,  spade and the hour-glass, as well as the oar for its slow, regular strokes which, like the ticking of a clock,  propel a boat through time.

Positive aspects of Saturn's symbolic attributes include the highest insight of the scholar, spiritual revelation and the crystallization of ideas. 
Interest and knowledge of astrology and alchemy along with planetary symbolism advanced considerably during the Renaissance. Browne's era, the seventeenth century is considered to be the Golden Age of alchemy, its long decline beginning at the century's close. 

In his spiritual testament Religio Medici (1643) Thomas Browne candidly confesses-

‘If there be any truth in Astrology, I may outlive a Jubilee, as yet I have not seen one revolution of Saturn, nor hath my pulse beat thirty years’. [8]

Like many thinkers and artists in the Renaissance Thomas Browne was able to identify with the psychological aspects of planetary symbolism, stating in Religio Medici - 

'I was born in the planetary hour of Saturn and I think I have a piece of that leaden planet in me'. [9] 

Although often associated with melancholy Saturn like Mercury, was also associated with transformation and the two alchemical 'gods' are frequently linked together in western esoteric tradition literature and iconography. Because of its powers of transformation Saturn was considered by alchemist and hermetic philosopher alike to be a touchstone of the alchemical art as much as Mercury or Hermes, the more commonly associated 'deity' of alchemy. Hermetic themes preoccupy much of Urn-Burial's counterpart, The Garden of Cyrus, a literary work which is replete with planetary symbolism. 

Its interesting to note in passing that Browne's Saturnine characteristics seem to have appealed to the German author, translator and UEA academic, W. G Sebald (1944-2001). Meditations about Browne and his prose weave throughout W.G. Sebald's much admired hybrid work The Rings of Saturn (1995 English translation 1998).

The woodcut reproduced in the Theatrum Chemicum (above) is a symbolic illustration of the Nigredo of alchemy. The adept, seen encased within a bubble has the two great luminaries, the Sun and Moon, along with the five planets above him. He is depicted as under the influence of the black star, Saturn. A raven alights upon him while two angels keep watch. Consisting of five folio volumes the Theatrum Chemicum (1613) was the most comprehensive anthology of alchemical writings in the seventeenth century and the handbook of many a would-be hermetic philosopher. Both C.G. Jung and Thomas Browne owned an edition of the Theatrum Chemicum. Isaac Newton filled the margins of his copy with annotations. [10]

The woodcut illustration of the Nigredo was copied and reproduced in countless editions of alchemy until the 18th century. It must have fascinated C.G.Jung for he reproduced it twice in his collected works. Highly apt as lost in the uncomfortable night of nothing, it wouldn't have been totally out of place as a frontispiece for Urn-Burial.  

The first volume of the Theatrum Chemicum (Chemical Theatre) features over 400 pages of writings by the Belgian physician Gerhard Dorn (c. 1530 - c. 1584). The foremost promoter of Paracelsian alchemy, Dorn devised his own planetary symbolism in order to express his psychological insights, including that of an  'invisible sun'. We can be confident that Browne read the Theatrum Chemicum closely, he appropriated Dorn's planetary symbolism of an 'invisible Sun' for his own purposes, featuring it at the apotheosis of Urn-Burial as the mysterious life-force we each possess. In a high flourish of Baroque oratory Browne declaims- 

'But man is a Noble Animal, splendid in ashes, and pompous in the grave, solemnizing Nativities and Deaths with equal lustre, nor omitting Ceremonies of bravery, in the infamy of his nature. Life is a pure flame, and we live by an invisible Sun within us'....

A major theme of Urn-Burial is the futility of the endeavour to be remembered after death, especially through funerary monuments, including the earliest and most spectacular, the pyramids of ancient Egypt. Thomas Browne did not need to look far from his doorstep for ostentatious displays of vain-glory or 'pompous in the grave' monuments. 

Though little known, the city of Norwich is home to one of the world's largest and finest collections of funerary monuments. Erected by various civic dignitaries, Norwich's surviving monuments are evidence of the great wealth the City once generated as an important European trading City. Browne would have had opportunity to see these extravagant and costly monuments, mostly sculpted from marble stone, some of which are adorned to saturation point with obscure and learned religious symbols which the City's merchant mayors loaded onto them, seemingly in competition with each other. But it is just as Browne repeatedly stresses in Urn-Burial, the dignitaries who wanted their names to be remembered and for their monuments to be admired, are now long forgotten and their monuments are housed mostly behind the locked or restricted access doors of disused and redundant churches. It was only as recently as 2012 that the source of the Layer monument (below) was identified. A wealth of religious iconography, some of which is esoteric, remains to be studied on the funerary monuments of the medieval churches of Norwich. Photographs and details of Norwich funerary monuments are featured throughout this essay.


As great a religious mystic as Julian of Norwich or Meister Eckhart, Thomas Browne was well-aware of various altered states of religious consciousness, naming many at the conclusion of  Urn-Burial thus-

'And if any have been so happy as truly to understand Christian annihilation, extasis, exolution, liquefaction, transformation, the kiss of the Spouse, gustation of God, and ingression into the divine shadow, they have already had an handsome anticipation of heaven; the glory of the world is surely over, and the earth in ashes unto them'.

Much of Browne's mysticism rests in his highly original symbolism and the plexiformed construction and relationship of his two 1658 discourses. Although appearing identical, each being prefaced with a dedicatory epistle and consisting of five chapters, not unlike two white, crystalline substances once tasted are found to differ sharply; Urn-Burial is discovered to be the bitter salt of  Stoicism, a sprinkling of which is essential for spiritual well-being in the face of illness or disease, death and the grave.  In complete contrast, The Garden of Cyrus with its playful delight in demonstrating archetypal pattern, design and order in art and nature is written in a literary style not unlike a hyperactive sugar rush.  

A large part of esoteric schemata involves correspondences and polarities or opposites. Together the diptych discourses display polarity in theme, imagery and style. (Browne is credited as introducing the very word 'Polarity' into the English language). It was Frank Huntley who first advanced the interpretation that Browne's Discourses simultaneously progress in sequence from the Grave to the Garden, mirror each other in imagery, such as darkness and light, and are circular with Cyrus concluding Oroboros-like returning to night, sleep and darkness. [11]

A plethora of opposites exist between the two Discourses including and this list is far from exhaustive - Earth and Heaven, Grave and Garden, Accident and Design, Darkness and Light, Doubt and Certainty, Death and Life, Ephemeral and Eternal, Time and Space, Microcosm and Macrocosm.  

Contemplation of the body and soul in Urn-Burial gives way to a preoccupation with ideas associated with the mind and Spirit in The Garden of Cyrus. In terms of planetary symbolism Urn-Burial is strongly Saturnine with its theme of Time while The Garden of Cyrus has Space as its template and is utterly Mercurial in its communication of esoteric revelations. Even stylistically the two Discourse differ, the slow-paced, Baroque oratory of Urn-Burial's primary appeal is to ear its sonorous prose is best appreciated read aloud. In complete contrast the sensory organ of the eye and the visual in design, pattern and shape is prominent throughout the hasty, excited prose of Cyrus. 

Given Browne's deep interest in the esoteric we cannot overlook C.G.Jung's observation that the opposites and their union was the chief preoccupation of alchemists. Jung's study of alchemy led him to believe that the opposites are one of the most fruitful sources of psychic energy and for him their union played a decisive role in the alchemical process stating -'the "alchemystical" philosophers made the opposites and their union one of the chiefest objects of their work'. [12] The resultant synergy and unconscious associations for the reader between the two Discourses may well be Browne's literary concept of the Philosopher's Stone.

The psychological element in Browne's writings was admired by the poet Coleridge who declared of him that he, 'added to the consciousness hidden worlds within worlds' The Swiss psychologist C.G. Jung when introduced to Browne's declaration that- There is all Africa and her prodigies in us was deeply moved and immediately wrote it down. Understanding of the relationship between the two doctors Browne and Jung is a rich, yet little explored field. Both doctors for example, held a deep understanding of the human condition acquired from their profession and both knew that with suffering comes spiritual growth. Urn-Burial and The Garden of Cyrus as well as A Letter to a Friend were all written as condolences for bereaved patrons. 

Browne describes the blessings of not knowing the future and the relationship between memory, suffering and self-preservation  in Urn-Burial thus -

'Afflictions induce callosities, miseries are slippery, or fall like snow upon us, which notwithstanding is no unhappy stupidity. To be ignorant of evils to come, and forgetful of evils past, is a merciful provision in nature, whereby we digest the mixture of our few and evil days, and our delivered senses not relapsing into cutting remembrances, our sorrows are not kept raw by the edge of repetitions'.

Writing currently at a time of great sorrow and potentially in the near future of great anger, strife and conflict if the consequences of the Pandemic and the socio-economic inequalities it has highlighted throughout the world are not resolved, C.G. Jung reminds us that -

'Tears, sorrow, and disappointment are bitter, but wisdom is the comforter in all psychic suffering. Indeed, bitterness and wisdom form a pair of alternatives: where there is bitterness wisdom is lacking, and where wisdom is there can be no bitterness'. [13] 

The dark, sombre and gloomy half of Browne's literary diptych speaks for our times and for all times. The worthy doctor gently draws to our attention to the fact that - 'the certainty of death is attended with uncertainties, in time, manner, places', and of how little we know of ourselves, and how unlikely it is we will be remembered beyond a generation or two at most. Our days are finite and numbered and the inescapable port of call on our soul-journey is death he reminds us, in ornate, baroque prose seldom, if ever equaled in style. 

Browne's Urn-Burial is a high watermark in English prose. Acknowledged as a work of World Literature, its pages, as countless readers throughout generations have discovered, are a valuable source of wisdom.  Reading Urn-Burial today is a timely reminder of how vulnerable we are to the invisible and unseen, and of how temporal our lives are; something which the devout Norwich physician seldom, if ever, needed reminding of.


[1 ] The great plague of Milan in 1630 was alleged to have been started by a Milanese barber and the Commissioner of Public Health. They were executed and a column was erected in Milan in August 1630 informing of their crime.  

[2] Pseudodoxia Epidemica Book 3 chapter 7 of  'On the Basilisk'.

[3] Miscellaneous tract 13  item 24 of Antiquities and Rarities of several sorts in Museum Clausum (circa 1675)

[4] Pseudodoxia Epidemica Book 8 chapter 7

[5] Collected Works  Vol. 14:696

[6] C. W.  Vol.14: 93

[7] C.W. Vol. 12:346. 

[8] Religio Medici Part 2 :11

[9] Religio Medici Part 2 :6 

[10] The Theatrum Chemicum is listed in the 1711 Sales Catalogue of Browne Library on page 25 no. 124  as 5 vols. Strasbourg 1613

[11] Frank Huntley Sir Thomas Browne: A Biographical and Critical Study, pub. Ann Arbour 1962 

[12] CW 8:414 and CW 12: 557 and CW.  vol. 14 Foreword 

[13] C.W 14: 330

Books consulted 

* Reid Barbour - Sir Thomas Browne A Life pub. Oxford University Press 2013

* Thomas Browne: Selected Writings edited and with an introduction by Kevin Killeen pub.Oxford          University Press 2014


*Top - Woodcut, the Nigredo Vol. 4 Theatrum Chemicum (1613) 

* Death wearing a Crown (Corona) Joseph Paine Monument (1673), St. Gregory's, Norwich 

* Detail of allegorical figure of Time from the Sotherton Monument (1611), Saint Andrew's, Norwich.

*  Woodcut, the Nigredo Vol. 4 Theatrum Chemicum (1613)

* The Layer Monument (1608) St.John the Baptist, Maddermarket, Norwich

* SCIOLTA  (Freed) Allegorical image of the soul released from the cage of the body.  Suckling Monument  (1616) St. Andrew's Norwich 

* 4th edition of Pseudodoxia Epidemica with first publication of Urn-Burial and The Garden of Cyrus appended.

Recommended Listening

Icelandic composer Johann Johannson (1968-2018) is still missed in the music world. 

His song 'The Sky's gone dim and the Sun is Black' could not be more nigredo in mood.

The English composer William Alwyn (1905-85) was a prolific film-score composer who had a life-long love of the writings of Sir Thomas Browne. His 5th Symphony entitled Hydriotaphia is based upon his reading of Browne  and was first performed in Norwich in 1973.

Stevie Wonder's  Saturn (1976) with lyrics  -  
We can't trust you when you take a stand/
With a gun and bible in your hand/ 
Saying, Give us all we want or we''ll destroy.

Dr. Browne may well have prescribed George Harrison's song All things must pass (1970) to his patients. As a devout Christian he would have known that Harrison's song-title originates from the prophecy of Christ in the Gospel of Matthew in which the Judaic prophet Jesus says “All these things must come to pass'. But its not the transitory nature of life and inevitability of death which Harrison is singing about here, but simply the passing of The Beatles as a group.

Links to Wikipedia entries on  Nigredo -  Theatrum Chemicum - Gerhard Dorn

This essay with thanks to Dr. E. Player.

 In Memoriam  Jennifer Carrier. 

Sunday, September 13, 2020

The River, the City and the Artist

As one of Europe's most ancient cities, Norwich has a long and illustrious history. Like many great cities, it was founded on the banks of a river. Vital to Norwich's development and growth in trade and commerce, transport and culture, in the nineteenth century the river Wensum became a popular setting for artists of the Norwich School of Painters. 

In the briefest, highly selective sketch of Norwich's history - 

Norwich's  origins can be traced back to three Danish-Saxon fishing communities which once dwelt upon the terraced shingle banks of the Wensum known as Conesford, Westwic and Norwic which unified under the name of of Norwic (North port or settlement)  to become Norwich. Fully established as a town by the 10th century CE Norwich had its own mint which issued coins with the word NORVIC inscribed upon them. Following the Norman conquest of 1066, stone quarried from Caen in Normandy was transported across the North Sea and river to build and construct the City's two Norman architectural jewels, its Castle and Cathedral. 

The City's independence and trading status were enhanced under a Charter granted by King Richard I (the Lion heart) in 1194 for an annual payment to the King which freed the City and its citizens from all rents, tolls and taxes previously paid and permitted them to elect their own Reeve, (the senior official responsible under the Crown who often acted as chief magistrate). King Richard's Charter, granted in reward for Norwich's contribution to his ransom when kidnapped whilst returning from the Crusades, effectively allowed the City to be self governing, giving Norwich the same rights as London.

From the 13th century onward Norwich became a manufacturing city, exporting a wide variety of goods including pottery, wool and textiles, via the river Wensum. The river effectively connected the City to trade as far afield as Scandinavia and Russia, Germany and the Baltic North Sea cities as well as the Netherlands and Flanders. 

Norwich's trade and commerce with the Netherlands and Flanders in particular was vigorous throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Dutch and Flemish (modern-day Belgium) influences in fields as diverse as horticulture, architecture, textiles in particular wool, painting, religious denomination, civic social policy and not least, migration over the centuries have all been significant in contributing to Norwich's economic well-being and cultural heritage. 


Like many cities in medieval Europe, Norwich built a wall around itself for defense, taxation of goods and control of entry to trade in the City. The city walls were built circa 1280 to 1340. At around 4 kilometres in length they enclosed an area larger than the city of London. Norwich's city walls were supplemented by Cow tower and Bishop gate bridge strengthening defenses at its weakest point, the exposed bend of the river which  semi-circles around the Cathedral. The Wensum was integral to the defense of medieval Norwich. Its semi-circular bend from New Mills at the north of the City to Carrow south-east of the City effectively functioning as a wall. 

The medieval river-gate at Carrow is unique to European city defenses. Consisting of two 'Boom' towers'  one standing on each side of the river, by placing either a timber 'boom' or chains between them, effectively prevented any vessel from sailing further upstream. Their ruins at Carrow bridge, along with a long stretch of the city's medieval walls nearby, survive to the present-day.  


It would have been after passing between the 'Boom-towers' water-gate at Carrow (historical photo above) that visitors by river to Norwich would have seen the city's many churches towers, (Norwich has the large number of  medieval churches in Northern Europe).  The city's two largest architectural structures, the  Castle  perched upon earthwork mound and Cathedral with flying buttresses and spire pointing heavenwards would have been visible many miles from the low viewpoint of water before arriving at the walled city.   

A spectacular section of the old city wall  survives to this day. It  rises sharp up the valley with the Black Tower at its summit. The  surviving section  is a remarkable display of medieval engineering skill and dramatic to view. Poorly signed, this section of the City's medieval walls remains unknown to many locals even.

Tragically, shortly after the completion of the City wall, Norwich, like almost every other city in Europe suffered from the pandemic of the Black Death which peaked from 1347 to 1351. The Black Death was the second disaster affecting Europe during the 14th century, the Great Famine occurring 1315–1317. The Black Death plague is estimated to have killed between 30% to 60% of Europe's population. Norwich was not exempt from this death-toll with over half its population dying from the disease. It was against the background of the Black Death that the city's Christian mystic Julian of Norwich (1343–c.1416) wrote her Revelations of divine Love, the first book to be written by a woman in English,which continues to grow in popularity for its spiritual message. 

A major contributing factor to Norwich's identity occurred during the Elizabethan era when Protestant refugees from the Spanish Netherlands were invited to settle in Norwich to invigorate the City's declining textile industry. In 1565 some 30 households of master weavers and their families, 300 people in total, traveled from the Netherlands to Norwich seeking refuge from Spanish Catholic persecution. Reports of the City's religious tolerance resulted in many more religious refugees migrating from the Netherlands and contributing to Norwich's manufacturing industries of weaving and wool. At one time almost one third of Norwich's population consisted of skilled artisan refugees, a crucial factor in shaping the City's identity. 'The Strangers' as they were known, brought with them their pet Canary birds. Fancy breeds of the Canary bird were  bred in in the city  and in the early 20th century  they became emblematic of Norwich football team. The Canaries holds claim to having the world's oldest football supporter's song, On the ball, City. 

England's first provincial newspaper the Norwich Post was printed in Norwich in 1701. Succeeded by the Norwich Mercury in 1737,  its reflective of the city's high literacy rate as well as its radical politics. Support for the French revolution was initially high in Norwich, its leading intellectual William Taylor even visiting Paris in order to  kiss the soil of Liberty. Norwich's radical and sane politics continues to the present-day. In the 2016 advisory Referendum it voted for the UK to Remain in the European Union. 

Its been said that prosperity and literacy were the two factors which were the driving forces between 1750-1850 which contributed to Norwich's theatrical, artistic, philosophical and musical life. Together, they cross-fertilised Norwich's cultural life in a way that was unique outside London. 

In contrast to its close continental connections Norwich was, and still is, geographically remote from any other English town in transport links, a situation which was not improved until the mid-nineteenth century with the advent of the railway. Indeed, its been said  that it was sometimes quicker for a Norwich citizen to travel via river, sea and canal to Amsterdam than to London until the arrival of the railway. Travelling to London involved traversing marsh and forest on poor roads with the risk of robbery and overnight hostelry and rest for horses. In contrast, travelling to Amsterdam involved transportation via tidal river, sea and canal, its primary hazard being crossing the North Sea.

Whether because of its radical politics or more likely a received perception of the City as a 'back-water', Norwich was not officially recognized  as a seat of learning until 1963 when elected as the host city to the University of East Anglia. The University was named  'East Anglia' as representative of the region as a whole rather than its host city, resulting in few even today knowing its location. The University  didn't however hesitate to adopt Norwich City's  'Do Different' motto as its own. 

Currently teaching over 17,000 students statistically UEA is the British University with the highest percentage of students nationwide who choose to settle in the city of their graduation, a major contributing factor to the City's 9% population growth in the past decade. Prestigious UEA alumni include the geneticist, Paul Nurse, awarded the 2001 Nobel Prize in Medicine and novelist, Kazou Ishiguru, awarded the Nobel prize for Literature in 2017.  

With its many continental connections and influences its not too surprising that Norwich is one of the most European influenced of all English cities. The City's 'Do different' mindset is in evidence today in its growth as a regional retail centre, as a place of academic excellence and as a place which has a unique blend of international and local artistic life. 

2. Norwich School of Painters

John Thirtle's (1777-1839) watercolour Rainbow effect, King Street, (40 x 63 cm) depicts the City's busy river. The low eye-level of Thirtle's water-colour creates the effect of the viewer as part of the river-traffic. A rainbow, reflected in water following an evening downpour makes for a dramatic moment.  Observation of Nature, including atmospheric effects such as weather and changes of daylight being of particular interest to the Norwich School of artists.

In the foreground of Thirtle's water-colour there can be seen the river vessel most commonly associated with Norfolk, the wherry, a low draught, single sail craft capable of transporting heavy loads. In the background can be seen  a segment of the city wall rising steep up the  wooded valley with the Black tower at its summit. This section of the old city wall as previously discussed, survives to the present-day. 

John Thirtle was one of a number of Norwich artists  associated with The Norwich Society of Artists  which was established by the two friends who married sisters, John Crome (1768-1821) and Robert Ladbrooke (1768 –1842). The Society was formed in 1803 in order to hold regular meetings and discussions to establish 'An enquiry into the Rise, Progress and Present state of Painting, Architecture and Sculpture, with a view to point out the Best Methods of study to attain the Greater Perfection in these Arts'.

The clear-cut world of Classical representation of form and content is finely balanced with Romanticism in many artworks of the Norwich School, not least in the bold and skillfully executed water-colours of J.S. Cotman (1769-1842) including his Trowse Hythe (Below). Trowse, on Norwich's outskirts, is where the smaller river Yare joins the Wensum and where the river Wensum mysteriously ends.  

Its the sheer modernity of J.S. Cotman's art, in particular his water-colours which arrests the viewer today. Unsurprisingly Cotman's art received a mixed reception in his life-time. Curator and expert on the Norwich School of Painters Ms. Giorgia Bottinelli assesses J.S. Cotman thus- 

'One of the most original watercolourists of the nineteenth century, John Sell Cotman never achieved fame as an artist in his lifetime, something he so desperately craved and which fleetingly appeared to be within his grasp early in his career. On the whole his work did not appeal to the 19th century taste for the romantic and the picturesque: it was often controlled and unsentimental, with a focus on abstracted shape and inherent structure. It was not until the early 20th century and the rise of modernism that his work finally achieved the recognition it rightfully deserved'. [1] 


Several of John Crome's greatest art-works are set within only a short walk from his doorstep, the Colgate region of Norwich, including his late work Norwich river: Afternoon (above). 

Usually considered to be the leading light of the Norwich School of artists, John Crome was a shrewd, self-taught artist who survived the perils of bankruptcy, debt, imprisonment, madness, early death from disease, alcoholism and lack of patronage which others in the Norwich School suffered in their precarious careers as artists. In 1816, following Napoleon's defeat when  it was once more safe to visit France Crome did so, exhibiting and selling his paintings in Paris as well as purchasing paintings there.

John Crome studied the works of 17th Dutch masters closely in particular those by Hobbema, Cuyp, and Ruisdael to create art which celebrated the beauty of the Norfolk landscape. Far from merely imitating Dutch painting styles Crome learnt from the Dutch masters to develop his own unique style and today his paintings are ranked alongside Turner and Constable as amongst the finest in nineteenth century British art.  

The bright colouration and highly-polished finish of John Crome's Norwich river:Late Afternoon has often been commented upon. Its title reflects the close attention Norwich School artists played to qualities of light. 

Scientific analysis of  the canvas of Norwich river:Late Afternoon revealed that it was not in fact canvas but mattress ticking, a cotton or linen textile tightly woven for durability and to prevent feathers poking through the fabric. It was used to cover mattresses. Whether Crome's usage of mattress ticking was from necessity or experiment is not known. 

It was whilst working on a painting entitled A view of the Water Frolic, Wroxham Broad in mid-April 1821 that John Crome contracted a fever, dying later in the month. His last words were reputed to be, 'Oh Hobbema, my dear Hobbema, how I have loved you !'   

 Joseph Stannard's  Thorpe Water Frolic, Afternoon
(Height 109.8 x Width 175.8 cm. dated 1824). 

Joseph Stannard (born Norwich September 13th 1797 - died Norwich 6th December 1830) began exhibiting his paintings in 1811 when aged just 14. Like his younger brother Alfred, he was keen oarsman. He was also an  accomplished ice-skater who entertained Norwich folk with his skating skills during cold winters. Often in financial difficulties and/or poor health, Stannard's growing years were dominated by the Napoleonic wars which were prohibitive to travel in mainland Europe. When stability did return to Europe with the victory of Waterloo, he took the opportunity to visit Holland where  he viewed paintings by seventeenth century Dutch landscape masters Ruisdael, Berchem and Hobbema which deepened his interest in marine and seascape subjects; the marine artist Van de Velde in particular influenced him.

 In 1824 Joseph Stannard's fortune changed when the Norwich manufacturer, art collector and patron, John Harvey commissioned him to paint Thorpe Water Frolic:Afternoon.

Harvey was inspired with the idea of having a festivity on the river at Thorpe, just outside Norwich, from his witnessing water-festivities at Venice while on the Grand tour of Europe. The first water-frolic at Thorpe in 1824 attracted crowds of over 30,000 when the population of Norwich was little more than 10,000. Harvey's agenda was to establish Norwich as a sea-port for the export of his merchandise. 
Like all good sailors particular attention is paid to weather conditions and a vigorous cloudscape frames Stannard's water-frolic.There's an interesting inter-play between Stannard the sailor who has depicted the rigging and canvas sails of boats with every rope in its correct place and the medium of canvas on which he painted. The canvas of Thorpe Water Frolic, Afternoon is dominated by a large canvas, a sail catching the breeze.  Stannard's own boat The Cytherea is on the extreme right and was described in a contemporary newspaper report of the event -

'its colour is purple; the inside is adorned with an elegant gilt scroll, which completely encircles it; on the back-board where the coxswain sits, is a beautiful and spirited sea-piece, representing a stiff breeze at sea, with vessels sailing in various directions, painted in oils, and the spoons of the oars are neatly covered with gilt dolphins'.

Art historian Trevor Fawcett speculated- 'If the Thorpe water frolics were really great pageants, as the Norwich Mercury suggested, and if the multitudes who attended were all actors, then Stannard played his part thoroughly...[2]

Although there is a judicious amount of poetic licence in Stannard's Thorpe Water Frolic its also an important social document. Norwich's textile and loom workers, courting couples and rugged seamen all enjoying a care-free day on the river away from cramped working conditions are all depicted. They, along with Stannard in red, shielding his eyes to view his patron, are on the right bank of the river. Thomas Harvey standing in a gondola, the growing middle-class, civic dignitaries, naval officers and the aristocracy of Georgian England are on the left bank of the river. 

Joseph Stannard never became an official member of the Norwich School but nevertheless he clearly admired  and was influenced by John Crome and an enigmatic relationship exists between the two artists. As a precocious artist, Stannard's family requested Crome to teach young Joseph, but Crome quoted an astronomical fee which was seen as a blank refusal by the Stannard family. 

Curiously,  Stannard's Thorpe Water Frolic shares two details with John Crome's late work Norwich river:Afternoon firstly, of a small boy at the stern of a boat trailing a toy, and secondly of a woman dressed in bright yellow apparel, also at boat's stern. (The first recorded use of chrome yellow as a colour name in English was in 1818).

Norwich surely lost a great artist with Joseph Stannard's early death from tuberculosis aged just 33. However, his masterpiece, the river-scene Thorpe Water-Frolic:Afternoon remains a jewel in the crown of Norwich Castle Museum's extensive collection of paintings by the Norwich School.

Joseph Stannard has been assessed thus-

'As a draughtsman Joseph Stannard stands out as a major figure, there being almost a majestic grace and simplicity about his work. Whilst most of the Norwich School painters specialised in landscape, he retained an interest in seascape painting and achieved a quality which not only outrivalled most of his fellow painters, but most of the painters of the 19th century. The late Major boswell, whose family had dealt in the Norwich School paintings for generations, maintained that Joseph Stannard was the greatest genius of the School'. [3]
The Norwich School of Artists great achievement was that a small group of self-taught working class artists were able to feature urban Norwich with its churches, court-yards and cityscapes and rural Norfolk with its windmills, heath, marsh, woodlands and waterways as settings for their art.  Undaunted by meagre local patronage, together, leading artists Crome and Cotman, along with Joseph Stannard, established a school of landscape which continues to grow in reputation and stature.
The art historian Nikolaus Pevsner claimed that the picturesque was England's greatest contribution to European visual culture. Defined as visually attractive, especially in a quaint or charming way, English picturesque art is now, largely through the pioneering achievements of the Norwich School of artists, can now be recognised as Norwich's greatest contribution to European painting.

3. Just a little Browne and Norwich's future

According to the church historian Thomas Fuller (1608-61)  17th century Norwich was, 'either a city in an orchard, or an orchard in a city, so equal are houses and trees blended in it' . This blending of the urban with leaf continues in present-day Norwich with its reputation as one of greenest of English cities. Thomas Browne, the city's first botanist, natural historian, archaeologist and literary figure of significance, was a contemporary of  the historian Thomas Fuller, and indeed a book by Fuller is listed as once in Browne's vast library. 

In many ways Thomas Browne (1605-82) is one of most dazzling and valuable jewels in the crown of Norwich's cultural heritage. Known of world-wide, contributing to diverse fields of knowledge Browne's star is currently in the ascendent with a resurgence of interest in the physician-philosopher and his diverse literary works. Browne was also, as the archaeologist Alan Carter noted, one of the first to speculate upon Norwich's origins. In Urn-Burial  (1658) he alludes to coins minted in Norwich (the earliest with  the inscription name Norvic is dated 850 CE), to the city being established sometime after the Roman occupation of Britain, and to it being a place of size before  destruction by fire following a Viking raid by King Swen Forkbeard in 1004 CE-

'Vulgar Chronology will have Norwich Castle as old as Julius Caesar; but his distance from these parts, and its Gothick form of structure, abridgeth such Antiquity. The British Coins afford conjecture of early habitation in these parts, though the City of Norwich arose from the ruins of Venta, and though perhaps not without some habitation before, was enlarged, builded, and nominated by the Saxons. In what bulk or populosity it stood in the old East-angle Monarchy, tradition and history are silent. Considerable it was in the Danish Eruptions, when Sueno burnt Thetford and Norwich', [4]

More often than not Thomas Browne refers to the Wensum simply as 'the Norwich river'. Its been speculated that the word 'Wensum' is a corruption of the old English of 'wendsome' meaning winding, and this, as almost all old rivers, the Wensum certainly is, as can be seen in the photo below of the river Wensum at Drayton, a few miles north-west of Norwich. 

Geographically speaking, the Wensum is an old or senile river, that is a river with a low gradient and low erosive power and with having flood-plains. Today the Wensum is listed as a biological Site of Special Scientific Interest and as a Special Area of Conservation. Nevertheless it is under threat of environmental damage from a proposed Western Link Road (WLR) which will seriously damage river wildlife and its immediate environment with little, if any benefit to the easing of  traffic in the region whatsoever.[5]

On several occasions in his Natural History notes Thomas Browne refers to the network of shallow lakes in the north-east quarter of Norfolk as 'broad waters' . In all probability its from his description that the nomenclature of these shallow lakes  originated from to become  known as the Norfolk Broads. Today, the Norfolk Broads have National Park status and protection 'however it was not until the 1960's that aerial photography determined the Norfolk Broads were in fact not natural but man-made, the product of many years of digging for peat as a source of heat which following flood and inundation from the sea, formed the present-day Broads. 

On the river upstream between New Mills to Hellesdon Mills its possible to often spot the iridescent blue plumage and bullet-like flight of the kingfisher zipping low over the water. As a keen ornithologist who at one time or another kept an eagle, cormorant, bittern, owl and ostrich to study, Browne noted of Norfolk -

The number of rivulets becks & streams whose banks are beset with willows & Alders which give occasion of easier fishing & slooping to the water makes that handsome coloured bird abound which is called Alcedo Ispida or the King fisher. They build in holes about gravel pits.. their nests wherein is to bee found great quantity of small fish bones. & lay very handsome round & as it were polished eggs.

Browne was a keen botanist and noted of the aquatic plant Acorus Calamus  known as Sweet Flag (photo below).


'This elegant plant groweth very plentifully and beareth its Julus yearly by the banks of Norwich river  chiefly about Claxton and Surlingham. & also between norwich & Hellsden bridge so that I have known Heigham Church in the suburbs of Norwich strewed all over with it, it hath been transplanted and set on the sides of Marish ponds in several places of the country where it thrives and beareth ye Julus yearly. [6]

The Sweet Briar bridge to Hellesdon (photo above) is a great example of the legacy from the 1930's. Constructed in 1932, Sweet Briar bridge, along with the acres of landscaped parks of Eaton and Wensum, innovative social housing at Mile Cross, libraries, and urban regeneration in general, were all constructed and achieved through the collective work-force of the unemployed of Norwich during the Great Depression of the 1930's era.

The river Wensum upstream of New Mills is navigable only to light, non-powered vessels and is at turns scenic, neglected and wild. Its only with one's eye at water level that one gains a perspective of  the sheer size and abundance of mature trees growing near the river. Approaching Hellesdon Mill two varieties of willow can be seen growing together. (above). 

The weeping willow is a naturally occurring mutation of Salix babylonica which was introduced to England from China in the early 17th century during a time of fascination with all things Chinese ts cultivated for it's beautiful appearance. The more common willow Salix fragilis, 'crack willow', is named for the loud noise it makes when it breaks.  Grown on the river-bank so that its binding roots protect the bank from erosion its used for commercial willow farming (withey beds) and is managed by pollarding. Some of humans' earliest manufactured items may have been made from willow. A fishing net made from willow discovered by archaeologists dates back to 8300 BCE and basic crafts, such as baskets, fish traps, wattle fences and wattle and daub house walls, were often woven from osiers or withies (rod-like willow shoots, often grown in coppices). [7]

The Dictionary of British Place-names states that the name Hellesdon comes from Hægelisdun (the spelling of the location 985 CE), meaning 'hill of a man named Hægel', with the spelling changed to Hailesduna by 1086. Hægelisdun is recorded  traditionally, as the place where King Edmund was killed by Viking invaders in 869 CE, although there remains no agreement on exactly where King Edmund died.

Its intriguing to think that momentous history such King Edmund dying in battle near Norwich remains ultimately unknown, such speculation returns our far from exhaustive essay where it began, the remote in time origins of the city, whilst also  exploring the fascinating relationship between city, river and artist.

At the current time of writing, Norwich faces the same challenge as many cities throughout the world in the wake of the Pandemic (2020 - ?) how to make the city, in particular its centre, a safe place to visit, work, socialise and be entertained.  Norwich,  having survived war, plague, flood, fire, famine, rebellion and riot in its thousand plus year history, will surely become a busy, enterprising city, proud to 'Do Different'  once more in the near future.


The Wensum river at 'The Willows', five minutes from my doorstep.


* The Anglo-Saxon origins of Norwich: the problems and approaches by Alan Carter Anglo-Saxon England Vol. 7 (1978), pp. 175-204  pub. Cambridge University Press
* The Norwich Knowledge: An A-Z of Norwich - the Superlative City Pub. 2011
by Michael Loveday. Highly recommended
* Norwich, the growth of a city.  Green and Young Norfolk museums Service 1981

* The Norwich School of Painters -  Harold Day pub. Eastbourne Fine Art 1979
* The Norwich School of Artists - Andrew Moore pub. HMSO Norfolk Museum Services 1985
*Romantic Landscape:The Norwich School of Painters -Brown/Hemingway/Lyles pub. Trustees of the Tate Gallery 2000
* A Vision of England : Paintings of the Norwich School ed. Bottinelli pub. Norfolk Museums 2013


[1] EDP May 20th The artist they called too colourful
[2] from article by Trevor Fawcett-Roper in Norfolk Archaeology 1976
[3] The Norwich School of Painters -  Harold Day pub. Eastbourne Fine Art 1979
[4] Urn-Burial (1658)
[6] Notes on Natural history of Norfolk especially its birds and fishes pub. Jarrolds 1905.
[7]  Info on Willow by Nik Thomson with thanks.

Archaeological maps of the development of early Norwich.

*All text identical to the Wikipedia entry on the Norwich School of Artists was penned by myself in 2003.

* Essay dedicated to the memory of the Norwich artist Joseph Stannard, b. Norwich, 13th September 1797 - 1830. Stannard's premature death surely lost the City a great artist.

Also in memory of Jennifer Carrier, long-time friend and Norwich 'old girl'.

Wednesday, July 01, 2020

Dr. Browne's 'readie way to read the characters of Morpheus'.

Thomas Browne's On Dreams is exemplary of the seventeenth century physician-philosopher's deep learning and dedication to his medical profession. Furthermore, Browne's short tract reveals him to be a pioneering psychologist, not least for anticipating concepts associated with the psychology of Carl Gustav Jung.

Its worthwhile reminding ourselves of the nature of dreams and the historical antecedents of their interpretation. Dreams can have a wide variety of moods and feelings, frightening or anxious, exciting and adventurous, sometimes with a magical content or empowering, sometimes with a sexual element and most often simply puzzling. Dreams can give a creative or inspiring thought, and in the past they've been viewed  as a conduit of God-given prophecy and revelation. The ancient Sumerians of Mesopotamia left evidence of dream interpretation dating back to at least 2100 BCE. In one of the world's oldest literary works The Epic of Gilgamesh the hero Gilgamesh escapes the vengeance of the gods by paying attention to dreams which warn and show him how to overcome his enemy.  The Greek physician Hippocrates (469–399 BCE) had a simple dream theory: during the day, the soul receives images; during the night, it produces images, similarly, the Greek historian Herodotus in his Histories, wrote, "The visions that occur to us in dreams are, more often than not, the things we have been concerned about during the day".

Thomas Browne (1605-82) demonstrates his familiarity with Hippocrates' theory to the causes of dreams stating in accordance to the ancient Greek physician, 'the thoughts or actions or the day are acted over and echoed in the night'. Browne himself had an intimate relationship to the world of dreams. Living in an age of grim living conditions and little entertainment, dreaming was a welcome diversion in seventeenth century England.  Browne confesses of his enjoyment of dreaming in  Religio Medici (1643) thus-

'There is surely a nearer apprehension of any thing that delights us in our dreams, than in our waked senses........I thank God for my happy dreams, as I do for my good rest, for there is a satisfaction in them unto reasonable desires, and such as can be content with a fit of happiness; and surely it is not a melancholy conceit to think we are all asleep in this world, and that the conceits of this life are as mere dreams to those of the next, as the Phantasms of the night, to the conceit of the day'. [1]

Dreams were rich nourishment for Browne's imagination, not least because he was able to lucid dream, that is, to be conscious of oneself actually dreaming, and thus able to take an active instead of a passive role in the events occurring in a dream, effectively controlling the action of a dream. Browne  elucidates on  his rare gift in Religio Medici thus -

'yet in one dream I can compose a whole Comedy, behold the action, apprehend the jests, and laugh myself awake at the conceits thereof; were my memory as faithful as my reason is then fruitful, I would never study but in my dreams, and this time also would I choose for my devotions, but our grosser memories have then so little hold of our abstracted understandings, that they forget the story, and can only relate to our awaked souls, a confused and broken tale of that that hath passed'. [2]

On Dreams opens with fleeting allusion to night and sleep, themes which, together with dreams inspired some of the greatest passages of Browne's literary art. Citing the Old Testament book of Genesis and its story of Jacob's dream, Joseph's interpretation of the Egyptian pharaoh's dreams and Nebuchadnezzar's demand not only for the interpretation of his dream but of his dream itself, Browne in common with other Renaissance thinkers viewed dreams as God-given communications and their interpretation sanctioned in the Bible. 

Even as late as the seventeenth century the little-understood psychic phenomena of the dream was believed to be of either divine or diabolical origin. Browne's remark that, 'We have little doubt there be demoniacal dreams' seems  to be an observation based upon personal, first-hand experience. If there are demonic dreams Browne argues -

'Why may there not be Angelical ? If there be Guardian spirits, they may not be unactively about us in sleep, but may sometimes order our dreams, and many strange hints, instigations, or discoveries which are so amazing unto us, may arise from such foundations'.

And in fact a belief in Guardian angels as well as witches was integral to Thomas Browne's spiritual hierarchy. Its unsurprising therefore that the Christian in Browne is concerned  in On Dreams about the possibility of sinning in one's dreams. In his short tract he also condemns those who have paid too close attention to their dreams at the expense of common sense, stating, 'Yet he that should order his affairs by dreams, or make the night a rule unto the day, might be ridiculously deluded'.

On Dreams includes examples of Browne's 'dimensional imagery' in which the very large and very small are juxtaposed, noting that in dreams -

'the phantastical objects seem greater than they are, and being beheld in the vaporous state of sleep, enlarge their dimensions unto us; whereby it may prove easier to dream of Giants than pygmies'.

The very same juxtaposition of giant and pygmies, Browne's 'dimensional imagery' is featured in his late work Christian morals, in moralizing highly relevant to our own day.

'without which, though Giants in Wealth and Dignity, we are but Dwarfs and Pygmies in Humanity, and may hold a pitiful rank in that triple division of mankind into Heroes, Men and Beasts'.  (C.M. 3:14)

In the painting The Gentleman's Dream or Disillusion with the World (1655) by the Spanish Baroque-era artist Antonio de Peruda (c.1611-1678) a courtier sleeps and dreams beside a table displaying various vanitas objects. A guardian angel unfurls a scroll with the words, "Eternally it stings, swiftly it flies and it kills", inscribed upon it, a waspish allusion to the sting of Time.

Browne references both ancient and modern philosophers in On Dreams including the Greek philosopher Pythagoras who was a big influence upon his philosophy, as declared in Religio Medici - 'I have often admired the mystical way of Pythagoras' and a creative influence of the discourse The Garden of Cyrus. [3]

In addition to Pythagoras, the Italian physician, mathematician and general polymath Jerome Cardan  is also mentioned twice in the tract. Jerome Cardan (1501-76) was highly influential in various disciplines, writing over 200 works on science. His interests included medicine, biology, engineering, chemistry, astrology and astronomy and he's credited with inventing several mechanical devices including the combination lock and the Cardan shaft with its universal joints which allow for the transmission of rotary motion at various angles and used in car-motors to the present day.  He was often short of money and kept himself solvent by being an accomplished gambler and chess player. Cardan had a reoccurring dream which ordered him to write De subtilitate rerum (1550) a book which Thomas Browne was critical of when assessing Cardan in his encyclopedic endeavour  Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646-72) -

'We had almost forgot Jeronymus Cardanus that famous Physician of Milan, a great Enquirer of Truth, but too greedy a Receiver of it. He hath left many excellent Discourses, Medical, Natural, and Astrological; the most suspicious are those two he wrote by admonition in a dream, that is De Subtilitate & Varietate Rerum. Assuredly this learned man hath taken many things on trust, and although examined some, hath let slip many others. He is of singular use unto a prudent reader but to him that desireth hoties, or to replenish his head with varieties, like many others before related, either in the original or confirmation, he may become no small occasion of error'. [4]

Browne's judgement of Jerome Cardan didn't prevent him from acquiring sometime in 1663 or shortly after (he often purchased book upon notification of their publication by book-dealers) an edition of Jerome Cardan's complete works which included Somniorum Synesiorum, omnis generis insomnia explicantes, libri IIII (Synesian dreams, dreams of all kinds set forth, in four books). [5]

Jerome Cardan's work on the interpretation of dreams is partly inspired by Synesius of Cyrene (c.370-c.413 CE) a Greek bishop of ancient Libya and author of  De insomniis (On dreams). Cardan divided dreams into four categories based on their causes: digestive dreams caused by food and drink; humoural caused by imbalances in the four humours; anamnestic caused by passions or changes in emotion; and finally prophetic dreams of a supernatural or divine origin. Jerome Cardan viewed the first three categories as natural and ordinary bodily processes. Most of this work however, is devoted to a discussion of prophetic dreams which he views from a philosophical perspective.

Jerome Cardan is one of several radical, independent-minded figures from Renaissance intellectual history whom Browne was highly critical of yet read closely. Other notable candidates of similar critical influence upon Browne include Cardan's countryman, the polymath Giambattista della Porta (1538-1615) the Belgian scientist Van Helmont (1577-1644) the Swiss physician Paracelsus (1494-1541) and the German scholar of comparative religion Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680). 

Browne sometimes wrote with his most recent reading in mind. From his mention of the Italian polymath and physician Jerome Cardan twice in On Dreams its possible for his short tract to be tentatively dated as written circa 1663, a date deduced from two facts. According to the 1711 Auction Sales Catalogue an edition of Jerome Cardan's Opera (Complete works) is listed as once in Browne's library, dated 1663 [5]. Coincidentally, almost half of Thomas Browne's eldest son Edward Browne's dissertation for his bachelor of medicine degree, on the use of dreams to the physician, was written in 1663.[6] Its therefore possible to speculate that Browne may have composed On Dreams for the assistance of his son. In any event the short tract On Dreams isn't dissimilar in either its literary style or subject-matter to Browne's  A Letter to a Friend  (circa 1656) in which dreams as experienced by the dying are commented upon. As such On Dreams may be read as an appendage to A Letter to a Friend, Browne's major medical writing.

There's a fascinating relationship between Thomas Browne to the Swiss psychologist  Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961). For example, both men were physicians who took their psychiatric responsibilities seriously, both studied comparative religion and alchemical literature in depth and both had a big  interest in their own and others' dreams. I've written at length about this fascinating relationship  elsewhere on this blog. [7] 

C.G.Jung's Memories, Dreams, Reflections (1963) like Browne's Religio Medici (1643) is an autobiographical account and spiritual testament which includes many philosophical digressions. The biggest difference between the two autobiographies being whilst Religio Medici was penned before its author embarked upon a medical career, C.G. Jung's Memories, Dreams, Reflections was written after a long medical career, shortly before the author's death. It includes recollections of some of the many dreams Jung had, of digging up the bones of prehistoric animals, of kneeling to hand a girl an umbrella, of a tree transformed by frost, of his father reading a fish-skin bound Bible and many equally bizarre others. According to Jung-

'The dream is a little hidden door in the innermost and most secret recesses of the psyche, opening into that cosmic night which was psyche long before there was any ego consciousness....All consciousness separates; but in dreams we put on the likeness of the more universal, truer, more eternal man dwelling in the darkness of primordial night. [8]

In On Dreams Browne declares- 'We owe unto dreams that Galen was a physician, Dion an historian, and that the world hath seen some notable pieces of Cardan' to which one might add we owe unto dreams that the Swiss psychologist C.G. Jung embarked upon a long study of alchemy.

Jung's dream which heralded his encounter with alchemy occurred in 1926 when he dreamt he was travelling through the Lombardy plain in Northern Italy. Upon viewing a large manor house located near Verona he entered its courtyard. Suddenly its gates slammed shut and he thought to himself, 'Now, we are caught in the seventeenth century'. Only much later did Jung come to realize that his dream alluded to his many years of studying alchemy, the golden age of alchemy being the seventeenth century.

Amazingly, Memories, Dreams, Reflections includes an endorsement of Browne as a psychologist. Jung's autobiography is prefaced by a verse chosen by his secretary Aniela Jaffe to describe the psychologist, but the author of the verse, the English romantic poet Samuel Coleridge is eulogizing upon Thomas Browne, not C.G. Jung. This verse is notable for its early usage of the word 'consciousness' which the Oxford English Dictionary attributes to the poet William Wordsworth, Coleridge's sometime mentor as the first to use and in all probability was 'borrowed' from him. Coleridge's enthusiastic response to Browne focuses upon the self-analytical and mind-expanding qualities of the physician-philosopher.

He looked at his own Soul
With a Telescope. What seemed
all irregular he saw and
shewed to be beautiful
Constellations: and he added
to the Consciousness hidden
worlds within worlds.

Thomas Browne's anticipation of a Jungian interpretation of dreams is boldly declared in On Dreams -

Many dreams are made out by sagacious exposition from the signature of their subjects; carrying their interpretation in their fundamental sense & mysterie of similitude, whereby he that understands upon what natural fundamental every notional depends, may by symbolical adaptation hold a readie way to read the characters of Morpheus.

Browne's proposal of 'symbolical adaptation' as 'a readie way to read the characters of Morpheus' (the god of sleep is known as 'Fashioner' in Ancient Greek: μορφή meaning 'form, shape') requires elaboration.

Its worth remembering first that the word 'symbol'  derives from the Greek σύμβολον symbolon, meaning "token, watchword" from σύν syn "together" and βάλλω bállō " "I throw, put". The meaning of symbol as "something which stands for something else" was first recorded  in Edmund Spenser's epic poem The Faerie Queene (1596)

According to C.G Jung - 'Symbols are never simple - only signs and allegories are simple. The symbol always covers a complicated situation which is so far beyond the grasp of language that it cannot be expressed at all in any unambiguous manner. [ 9]

'If symbols mean anything at all, they are tendencies which pursue a definite but not yet recognisable goal and consequently can express themselves only in analogies.' [10]

The Renaissance study of nature included the study of human nature. It was the radical 'Luther of Medicine' the Swiss physician-alchemist Paracelsus who first encouraged and urged the physician to take dreams and seriously, declaring-

"The interpretation of dreams is a great art. Dreams are not without meaning wherever they may come from - from fantasy, from the elements, or from another inspiration". [11]

Orthodox Christian theology did not however always possess a clear-cut view or answer to the new spiritual and psychological concerns experienced by many during the Renaissance, an age of great change. The effects of urbanization for example increased interaction between widely differing social, cultural, moral and religious perspectives and increased awareness of sexuality. 

From their close understanding of the human condition and dissatisfied with Christian dogma alchemist-physicians  as diverse as Paracelsus, John Dee, Van Helmont, Jerome Cardan and Thomas Browne either augmented concepts originating from the western esoteric traditions or coined home-grown neologisms and symbols in order to describe their understanding of the psyche.  Each of these aforenamed alchemist-physicians took their own dreams far more seriously than most in contemporary society today; each recognized their dream-lives to be of great importance to their self-development or individuation process in Jungian terms. From alchemist-physicians analysis of their dreams there emerged the beginnings of the modern-day science of psychology. Their rudimentary and tentative understanding of the self and unconscious psyche  several of whom C.G. Jung found confirmation of his psychology,in particular Gerard Dorn, were the fruits of the Renaissance spirit of enquiry into nature, which includes human nature. As C.G.Jung explains-

'the language of the alchemists is at first sight very different from our psychological terminology and way of thinking. But if we treat their symbols in the same way as we treat modern fantasies, they yield a meaning - even in the Middle Ages confessed alchemists interpreted their symbols in a moral and philosophical sense, their "philosophy" was, indeed, nothing but projected psychology'. [12]

Thomas Browne's fascination with symbols is writ large throughout his oeuvre. Allusion to symbolism involving the alphabets of various languages, numbers, Egyptian hieroglyphs, Mercurial characters, kabbalistic signs and geometric symbols as well as metaphors, allegories, anagrams and  riddles can be found in his writings, not least in his highly hermetic discourse  The Garden of  Cyrus (1658) a literary work densely packed with symbolism. Not only is the ubiquity of the number five in art and nature prominent in The Garden of Cyrus but also its many closely-associated extensions including the V shape and the Latin numeral for 5, which by mirror doubling becomes the figure X, significant  to Christians as the first letter of the name of Christ in Greek, the ten commandments as well as the Pythagorean tetraktys, which by multiplication (X) becomes the reticulated network, as seen illustrated on the discourse's frontispiece. (Below)

The literary critic Peter Green recognized- 'there is nothing vague or woolly about Browne's mysticism...Every symbol is interrelated with the over-all pattern'. [13]

Crucially, in relation to Jungian psychology, Browne not only employs one of the earliest usages of the very word 'archetype' in The Garden of Cyrus  but even attempts to delineate the archetype of the 'wise ruler' through utilizing highly-original proper name symbolism, alluding to Solomon, Moses, Alexander the Great, Augustus and of course the titular hero of the discourse, Cyrus. Browne's proper-name symbolism also alludes to the archetypal figure of the ‘Great Mother' as a symbol of fertility and fruitfulness with mention of Sarah, Isis, Juno, Cleopatra and Venus. But if ever there were a sly, Royalist supporter's opposition to Cromwell's rule of England (1650-1658), its surely in Browne's repeated citing of examples of the 'Wise ruler' from history in  The Garden of Cyrus.

The religious mystic and symbol go together hand in glove. For most Christian mystics the inexhaustible symbolism of the Cross was sufficient for expression of their spiritual thought. The Elizabethan mathematician and hermetic philosopher John Dee (1527-1608) however devised his very own mystical symbol, the Monas Hieroglyphica a complex, metaphysical 'explanation' of the cosmos. Dee's Monas symbol became a printer's colophon which was avidly reproduced by various alchemystical philosophers in their publications. John Dee's eldest son Arthur Dee became a friend of Browne's upon his return from Russia and retirement to what was at the time, England's second city in terms of prosperity and population, Norwich.

Peter French  speculates- 'Little is known of this son of Dee's; one cannot help but wonder however, how much he may have influenced Browne, who was one of the seventeenth century's greatest literary exponents of the type of occult philosophy in which both the Dee's were immersed'.[14]

On Dreams is not Browne's only literary work in which the psychological is prominent. His two closely-related discourses of 1658 Urn-Burial and The Garden of Cyrus are a portrait of the human condition and psyche, depicting humanity as simultaneously irrational and rational, fearful of death, yet forever with the future in mind, serious and merry, enduring pain and illness as well as enjoying health and pleasure. Imagery involving Light and Darkness permeates the diptych discourses, as does the dominant themes of Time (Urn-Burial) and Space (The Garden of Cyrus) the basic framework of  the Mandala. Most often a circular visual image, but conceivable as a literary structure, in Jungian psychology the meditative image of the mandala symbolically represents the dreamer's search for completeness and self-unity; its function is to assist with healing and to help transform ordinary minds into enlightened ones. Plexiformed in their polarity, themes and imagery, Browne's diptych discourses are capable of achieving such a transformation to the receptive mind.  By focusing his reader's attention to the discourses primary symbols of Urn and Quincunx, Thomas  Browne  -

'by concentrating, almost like a hypnotist, on this pair of unfamiliar symbols, paradoxically releases the reader's mind into an infinite number of associative levels of awareness, without preconception to give shape and substance to quite literally cosmic generalizations...............Mystical symbolism is woven throughout the texture of Browne's work and adds, often subconsciously, to its associative power of impact. [15]

C.G.Jung, recognizing the enduring continuity of symbolism in the collective unconscious psyche throughout long stretches of time perceptively observes-

'The symbolic statements of the old alchemists issue from the same unconscious as modern dreams and are just as much the voice of nature'. [16] 

Browne concludes his short tract On Dreams refuting that children don't dream under six months old, that men don't dream in some countries by supplying a footnote upon the difference between false and true dreams in the form of the Ivory gate and the polished horn gate as mentioned in Homer's Odyssey, in which Penelope the hero's wife says of dreams-

"Ah my friend," seasoned Penelope dissented
"dreams are hard to unravel, wayward, drifting things-
not all we glimpse in them will come to pass...
Two gates there are for our evanescent dreams,
one is made of ivory, the other made of horn.
Those that pass through the ivory cleanly carved
are will-o'-the-wisps, their message bears no fruit.
The dreams that pass through the gates of polished horn
are fraught with truth, for the dreamer who can see them. [17]


In addition to being a superb introduction to his literary style, Browne's  proposal for 'symbolical adaptation' when interpreting dreams easily identifies the Norwich doctor as an early, pioneering psychologist.  Like a large percentage of Browne's writings, On Dreams includes spiritual-psychological observations which assist the perennial task of the human condition, namely, self-understanding in the individuation process, 'the Theatre of Ourselves', as the physician-philosopher defines the psyche.

Link to full text of  On Dreams

Books consulted

* Patrides C. A. ed. and with an introduction The Major Works of Sir Thomas Browne pub. Penguin  1977 includes On Dreams
* Finch J. S - A Catalogue of the Libraries of Sir Thomas Browne and Dr Edward Browne, his son. A Facsimile Reproduction with an Introduction, Notes and Index.  E. J .Brill    1986
* Jung C. G.  Memories, Dreams, Reflections trans. R & C Winston London 1979
* Jung C.G. Psychology and Religion Vol. 11 Collected works pub. RKP 1958
* Green, P. Sir Thomas Browne  pub. 1959 Longmans, Green & Co (Writers and Work, No.108).
* The Odyssey Homer translated by Robert Fagles 1996 Viking Penguin


[1] Religio Medici Part 2  Section 11
[2] Ibid.
[3] R.M. Part 1:12
[4] Pseudodoxia Epidemica Bk 1:18 no.13
[5] Sales Catalogue p.19 no 96  Opera Omnia 10 vol. Lyon 1663
[6] I am indebted to Ms. A. Wyatt for information about Edward Browne's bachelor of medicine dissertation and indeed on all matters relating to Thomas Browne's eldest son, Edward Browne (1644-1708).
[7]  Carl Jung and Sir Thomas Browne
[8]  Glossary  of  Memories, Dreams, Reflections.
[9] Carl Jung Complete Works  Vol:11 paragraph 385
[10] CW 14: paragraph 667
[11] Paracelsus: Selected Writings edited by Jolande Jacobi pub. Princeton University Press 1951
[12] CW 14: paragraph 737
[13] Green, P. Sir Thomas Browne pub. 1959 Longmans, Green & Co (Writers and Work, No.108)
[14] John Dee: The World of an Elizabethan Magus, by Peter J. French Pub. Routledge and Kegan Paul, London 1972
[15] Green, P. Sir Thomas Browne  pub. 1959 Longmans, Green & Co (Writers and Work, No.108)
[16] Collected Works vol. 11: paragraph 105
[17] Book 19 lines 560-565 The Odyssey Homer by Robert Fagles pub. 1996 Viking Penguin


'Before Waking'  40 x 50 cm. (2015) by Peter Rodulfo.

The Knight's Dream by Antonio de Peruda. (1655)

Henri Rousseau Le Rêve (The Dream) 1909. Rousseau's last painting.

'Dreaming Fisherman' by Peter Rodulfo