Sunday, July 25, 2010


More avian facts and speculation in relation to Sir Thomas Browne and avian symbolism; here's the Ostrich, the largest of all birds and flightless.

I've occasionally wondered just how Browne actually managed to acquire an ostrich. Here's how I deductively speculate he might have.......Edward Browne, his eldest son, who lived in London, had access to the Royal Court of Charles II. Sometime during the 1670's the King of Morocco's ambassador gave as a gift of good-will, no less than six ostriches to Charles II; shortly after the novelty of viewing these rare birds abated for the Royal Court of Saint James Palace, Edward made so bold as to request sending one to his father. Remembering that King Charles had been acquainted with the Browne's senior and junior, since his visit to Norwich in September 1671, engaging in extended conversation with both father and son, it's not improbable that King Charles II could have indulged the dutiful son and zoologically inclined father. Unless of course there were other paths by which Browne could have acquired an ostrich . Do tell! With more than a dash of tolerant astonishment, Browne writes of the ostrich-

When it first came into my garden, it soon ate up all the gilliflowers, tulip-leaves, and fed greedily upon what was green, as lettuce, endive, sorrell; it would feed on oats, barley, peas, beans; swallow onions; eat sheep's lights and livers. When it took down a large onion, it stuck awhile in the gullet, and did not descend directly, but wound backward behind the neck; whereby I might perceive that the gullet turned much; but this is not peculiar to the ostrich; but the same hath been observed in the stork, when it swallows down frogs and pretty big bits. It made a strange noise; had a very odd note, especially in the morning, and perhaps, when hungry.... If wearing of feather-fans should come up again, it might much increase the trade of plumage from Barbary.

It would appear from the above quotation that ostrich-feathers have been a fluttering element of ladies fashion for many generations now; while among the many creatures discussed in Browne's encyclopaedia Pseudodoxia Epidemica a chapter is devoted to the ostrich which debates upon the common misapprehension, 'That the ostrich digesteth iron'. (Bk 3: Ch.22)

Browne's study of bird-life in Norfolk was extensive enough to assist with notes, descriptions and illustrations of various birds to John Ray (1627-1705) and Francis Willoughby (1635-72) for the first definitive work upon British birds entitled Ornithologia (first published in London 1678). A copy of it is listed as once in Browne's library. (1711 Catalogue p.18 no.33)

Evidence that Browne was familiar with the gentleman's sport of Falconry exists in the form of a short surviving tract on hawks and falconry (Tract V). In Religio Medici he uses imagery associated with falconry terms:

thus I teach my haggard and unreclaimed reason to stoop unto the lure of faith ( R.M. 1:10)

It's also in Religio Medici that an extraordinary example of cosmic avian symbolism occurs - a likening of the act of incubation to the Creation:

This is that gentle heat that brooded on the waters, and in six days hatched the world; (R.M.I:32)

Thoughts on birds and perhaps upon alchemy also, preoccupied Browne's mind late in his life, when compiling Museum Clausum, an inventory of imaginary or lost, books, pictures and objects which includes the curio-

A large Ostrich's Egg, whereon is neatly and fully wrought that famous battle of Alcazar, in which three Kings lost their lives.

The battle in which three Kings lost their lives refers to the historical battle of Alcazar, Northern Morocco, in 1578 when Portugal and a large Ottoman Army fought against the Moroccans.

But it's also possible to interpret this image as an allusion to the operations of an alchemist working in his 'elaboratory', for the apparatus capable of acid-dissolving in it 'stomach' was nick-named, 'the ostrich' by alchemists. Although only the egg of an ostrich is named here, the egg itself was also a common symbol in alchemy, representing death and re-birth. Far less tenuous is the fact that the three substances believed to be the foundation of all life by alchemists, namely Salt, Sulphur and Mercury, were alluded to in alchemical tracts as none other than three Kings.

The alchemist in his 'elaboratory' witnessed the 'death' and 'rebirth' of substances. The substance of mercury or 'quicksilver' as it was sometimes known, 'quick' signifying its 'living' qualities as a liquid metal, in particular, fascinated alchemists.

Doubts that Browne was only peripherally involved in laboratory alchemy evaporate in his confession in Religio Medici-

I have often beheld as a miracle, that artificial resurrection and revivification of Mercury, how being mortified into thousand shapes it assumes again its own, and returns into its numerical self. (R.M. Part 1:48)

But perhaps the real alchemy here is none other than Browne's selection and conjoining of an unusual artifact to an historical event; for both object and event share the provenance of North Africa. Browne displays a witty and refined aesthetic sensibility in his conjuring of a neat and fully wrought delineation of a battle upon an egg! He is after all, the aesthete who openly confessed-

I can look a whole day upon a handsome picture, though it be but of an Horse. (R.M.Part 2:9)

An example of American Masonic Folk Art, a finely incised Ostrich Egg commemorating George Washington. (1852)
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