Saturday, June 01, 2024

'the Mathematicks of the neatest Retiary Spider'

Recent media coverage on how the combination of climate warming and global air-traffic are encouraging new, exotic species of spider to inhabit Britain reminded me that observations on spiders are woven through the literary works of the philosopher-physician Sir Thomas Browne (1605-82). [1] 

A family portrait shows the infant Thomas on his mother's knee with a pet rabbit in his lap, and abundant evidence suggests that as an adult Browne possessed a rare empathy towards all living creatures, including his patients. His introduction of the word 'Veterinarian' into English language commemorates his love of animals.

Thomas Browne first declared an interest in spiders in his spiritual testament Religio Medici (1643)

'indeed, what reason may not go to School to the wisdom of Bees, Ants, and Spiders? what wise hand teacheth them to do what reason cannot teach us ? these narrow Engines there is more curious Mathematicks, and the civilitie of these little Citizens, more neatly set forth the wisdom of their Maker'. [2] 

Browne's curiosity about spiders typifies his interest in the small in nature. Assisted by the gift of sharp eyesight he jotted observations in his notebooks which were later worked into future publications, such as-
'Concerning Spiders much wonder is made how they fasten their webbe, to opposite parts'.

and - 'How some spiders lay a white egg bigger then their bodies, & though that kind bee but shorter legged, runneth about with it fastened unto their belly'. [3]

A recent publication notes-

'Spiders are dominant predators in virtually every terrestrial ecosystem. A marvel of evolution with species numbering in the tens of thousands, they have been walking the earth since before the dinosaurs. Spiders manipulate the silk strands of their webs to act as a sensory field, which vibrates across wide frequencies that they can read in detail. Young spiders spin silk lines that interact with the electrical fields in the atmosphere, enabling them to balloon across huge distances. Some spiders even gather in groups to impersonate ants in astonishing displays of collective mimicry'. [4]

In Browne's day the most comprehensive survey of insects along with their predatory hunter, the spider, was Thomas Muffett’s Theatre of Tiny Animals. Thomas Muffett (1553-1604) was an English naturalist and physician who supplemented the material he'd inherited from Edward Wooton and the Swiss naturalist Conrad Gesner for his book which was ready for publication by 1590. However, due to the expense of its wood-cut illustrations and a lack of interest in natural science in England at the time, it was not published until many years after Muffett's death, in 1634. 

Muffett was also an early supporter of the radical physician and alchemist Theophrastus Paracelsus (1493-1541) who encouraged physicians to investigate and experiment with nature’s properties in order to discover new remedies, the dawn of chemical medicine no less. Following Paracelsian teaching, Muffett included in his book a chapter which speculates on the medicinal potential of venom injected by the spider through its fangs into its prey, along with the need for a medical antidote to its poison. (Frontispiece of Muffett's book below) [5]


It was the Romantic poet and literary critic Coleridge (1772-1834) who once remarked that in Sir Thomas Browne there is, 'the humourist constantly mingling with, and flashing across, the philosopher'. A fine example of the poet's psychological observation  occurs in Browne's advice to a correspondent desperate for relief from the painful condition of gout to - 'Trie the magnified amulet of Muffetus of spiders leggs worn in a deeres skinne'. [6] 

Muffett's book is referenced a number of times in Browne's vast work of encyclopedic scope known as Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646-72). Spiders are mentioned in a variety of ways in its compendious pages. 

Although often highly critical of artist's representations of mythic creatures such as the basilisk and griffin, Browne does not object to how spiders are portrayed in Heraldry-

'We will not dispute the pictures of Retiary Spiders, and their position in the web, which is commonly made laterall, and regarding the Horizon; although if observed, wee shall commonly find it downward, and their heads respecting the Center' [7] 

Giving credence to the eye-witness testimony of the  Belgian scientist and mystic Jean van  Helmont (1579-1644) a transitional figure in the history of science, who like Browne, subscribed to the doctrine of correspondences and signatures which interpreted the spider as a symbol of ill-omen, he states-

'And Helmont affirmeth he could never find the Spider and the Fly on the same tree; that is the signs of War and Pestilence, which often go together'. [8] 

Browne swiftly dismisses the received wisdom that there are no spiders in Ireland - 'Thus most men affirme, and few here will beleeve the contrary, that there are no spiders in Ireland; but we have beheld some in that country'. [9] 

And crucially, in a chapter titled 'Concerning other Animals, which examined prove either False or Dubious' he wields his scientific credentials in order to demolish the folk-lore myth of the supposed antipathy between a toad and spider, informing his reader-

'having in a glass included a toad with several spiders, we beheld the spiders without resistance to sit upon his head, and pass all over his body, which at last upon advantage he swallowed down, and that in few hours to the number of seven’.[10]

Browne’s vivarium experiment is exemplary of his scientific journalism, an eyewitness report written in early modern English on the results of a simple experiment; it also evokes a scenario in which the worthy physician is an intrepid hunter and capturer of spiders !

A passage in Pseudodoxia reveals Browne unquestionably agreeing with his near exact contemporary and favourite author, the Jesuit priest, scientist and scholar of comparative religion, Athanasius Kircher (1602-80). In his Ars Magnesia (Art of Magnetism, 1631) Kircher included a chapter on musical cures for those bitten by spiders, such music, he believed, was evidence of the invisible, magnetic forces of attraction within music. Submitting to the authority of 'the learned Kircherus' but perhaps more significantly, not dismissing the possibility that music may possess curative properties, Browne states-  

'Some doubt many have of the Tarantula, or poisonous Spider of Calabria, and that magical cure of the bite thereof by Musick. But since we observe that many attest it from experience: Since the learned Kircherus hath positively averred it, and set down the songs and tunes solemnly used for it; Since some also affirm the Tarantula it self will dance upon certain stroaks, whereby they set their instruments against its poison; we shall not at all question it'. [11] 

Above - a page from Ars Magnesia [12]

The intricate geometry of the spider's web attracted the attention of natural philosophers throughout the 17th century including the Italian polymath Mario Bettini (1582-1657) whose Beehives of Universal Philosophical Mathematics (1656) like Browne's Pseudodoxia is a compendium of early scientific enquiries. Listed as once in Browne's library, each chapter of Bettini's book is a self-contained 'Beehive' in which a proposition or topic of early modern science is discussed, including Euclidean geometry, mathematics, acoustics, the camera obscura, optics, discussion on the flight of projectiles, the art of navigation, and the measurement of time. In chapter two of Bettini's book the geometry and mathematics of the spider's web are examined (below)[13].

Spiders and their webs are naturally to be found in Browne's Garden discourse, The Garden of  Cyrus (1658). Following the sequence of its full running title The Garden of Cyrus, or The Quincuncial Lozenge, or Network Plantations of the Ancients, artificially, naturally, mystically considered (1658) spiders are first considered artificially in terms of mathematics and geometry, they are next considered naturally, with an eyewitness description of their reproduction, and finally, at the discourse's mystical conclusion in  which highly original arachnid imagery occurs. 

Exemplary of the discourse's theme - 'how nature Geometrizeth, and observeth order in all things', Browne first describes the spider's web in mathematical detail and is appreciative of its beauty (the adjective 'elegant'  is encountered frequently throughout the discourse).

'And no mean Observations hereof there is in the Mathematicks of the neatest Retiary Spider, which concluding in fourty four Circles, from five Semidiameters beginneth that elegant texture'.

The proportional ratio of the spider's legs are also an 'artificial consideration', Browne informing his reader that  -'The legs of Spiders are made after a sesqui-tertian proportion'. (sesqui-tertian being the mathematical ratio of one plus one and a third).

Following these 'artificial considerations' spiders are next considered naturally with a superb example of Browne's observational skills-

'And he that shall hatch the little seeds, either found in small webs, or white round Egges, carried under the bellies of some Spiders, and behold how at their first production in boxes, they will presently fill the same with their webbs, may observe the early, and untaught finger of nature, and how they are natively provided with a stock, sufficient for such Texture'. [14] 

Illustration courtesy of  Silvanus Services 

Its not impossible that the word 'incubation' which Browne's credited with introducing into the English language may have derived from his empirical study of spiders' eggs 'at their first production in boxes' as from his ornithological studies. 

Not all of Browne's observations on spiders are woven into either Pseudodoxia or Cyrus. His notebook observation on  the material used by spiders for example - 

'Spiders are presently buisie in their texture upon the little stock of their moysture & soon exhaust themselves, without addition of nutriment, as we have tried in some hudled under the bellie of the damme, in a round folicle bagge wh. sticketh close unto it, by some lentous cement, mostly of the same matter with their webbe.' [15] 

Mention of retiary networks occur frequently in The Garden of Cyrus. While the spider's web is nature's network, Browne also names artificial networks, including, 'that famous network of Vulcan, which inclosed Mars and Venus'. His acquisition of Kircher's recently published work of comparative religion Oedipus Egypticus (Rome 1652-54) spurs him to mention the ancient Egyptian god Horus who's depicted in Kircher's reproduction of the Bembine Tablet of Isis, (a syncretic Roman artwork which is alluded to twice in The Garden of Cyrus) - 'Nor is it to be over-looked how Orus, the Hieroglyphick of the world is described in a Net-work covering, from the shoulder to the foot'. 

It's also in The Garden of Cyrus that Browne alludes to the goddess of wisdom Minerva and the myth of how spiders originated- 

'But this is no law unto the woof of the neat Retiarie Spider, which seems to weave without transversion, and by the union of right lines to make out a continued surface, which is beyond the common art of Textury, and may still nettle Minerva the Goddesse of that mystery'. [16]

The ancient Greek myth of how the goddess Minerva engaged in a weaving contest with the mortal Arachne and its consequences is narrated by the Roman poet Ovid in his epic poem the Metamorphoses. In Ovid's Metamorphoses the myths of ancient Greece are linked by a common theme of transformation. A chaotic universe is subdued into harmonious order, animals turn into stone, men and women are rewarded and punished by gods and goddesses for their deeds to become trees, birds and stars. One of the most influential works in Western culture, Ovid’s Metamorphoses was a valuable source of information and inspiration to poet, painter and scholar throughout the Renaissance. A Latin edition of Ovid’s verse. along with translations in French and Italian, as well as a popular 1626 English translation by George Sandys, are all listed as once in Browne’s library. [17]

Ovid tells how the talented shepherd’s daughter Arachne challenged Athena to a weaving contest. When Athena, the goddess of wisdom couldn't find fault with Arachne’s tapestry she became angry and hit her with a shuttle. Ashamed of her offense, Arachne attempted suicide by hanging herself but instead Athena  transformed her into a spider condemning her to create webs for eternity. A cautionary tale of hubris, lack of humility and a warning to those who would challenge the gods,  Ovid depicts Athena’s transforming of Arachne thus –

‘You may go on living, you wicked girl, but you must be suspended in the air forever. …Then as she departed, she sprinkled Arachne with the juice of Hecate’s herbs. Immediately, at the touch of this baneful poison, the girl’s hair fell out, her nostrils and her ears went too. And her head shrank to nothing. Her whole body became tiny. Her slender fingers were fastened to her sides, to serve as legs, and all the rest of her was belly; from that belly, she yet spins her thread, and as a spider is busy with her web as of old’. [18] 

16th century woodcut

Imagery of the spider spinning its web features in the drowsy, mystical conclusion of The Garden of Cyrus. At the approach of night, sleep and dreams the learned doctor, reluctant to pursue his quincuncial quest any longer, aware of how the day's thoughts and actions are distorted in dreams, poetically declares-

'We are unwilling to spin out our awaking thoughts into the phantasms of sleep which often continueth precogitations making Cables of cobwebs and wildernesses of handsome groves'.

Browne's arachnid imagery shares an uncanny affinity to arachnid imagery by the German literary figure Johann Goethe (1749-1830. In the Second Part of the tragic drama Faust its protagonist, doctor Faust, reflects at the approach of night, sleep and dreams -

'How logical and clear/the daylight seems,
Till the night weaves us/ in its web of dreams !' [19]

Both Browne and Goethe allude to the illusionary nature of life through imagery involving the spider's web, a deceptive, near invisible trap of entanglement, not unlike the veil of Maya, or world of appearances in Buddhism.  And in fact the two literary figures share a remarkable affinity not only in arachnid imagery but also scientific outlook. A  strong case can also be made for Urn-Burial and The Garden of Cyrus and Goethe's Faust Part I and II both utilizing the commonplace Renaissance schemata of Microcosm and Macrocosm as thematic templates in their sequential progression.

In essence, with its fixation on the inter-related symbols of the number five, quincunx pattern and retiary network, The Garden of Cyrus is a literary work which is highly influenced by the humanist scholar Pico della Mirandola (1464-94) who introduced and developed Pythagorean 'philosophizing with number' into mainstream Renaissance thought. 

In Pythagorean numerology number acquires a metaphysical symbolism capable of enabling speculation upon theology, cosmology, geometry, mathematics and music. Pythagorean concepts involving number, astronomy and geometry inspired devout early scientists and hermetic philosophers alike throughout the Renaissance. The German astronomer Kepler (1571-1630) as well as Van Helmont, Bettini, Kircher and Thomas Browne all subscribed to the Pythagorean idea that mathematical truths could be discovered through analysis of number, geometry and pattern in Nature. Spiders along with bees were thought to be a Heaven-instructed mathematicians capable of 'geometrical forethought' and in possession of knowledge transcendent to humanity. The eight-legged spider and its ability to construct a complex geometric pattern attracted their attention for possible clues towards discovering hidden mathematical truths.

In Browne's hermetic vision of universal connectivity, The Garden of Cyrus, 'the mathematicks of the neatest retiary spider' and 'the mystical mathematicks of the City of Heaven' are intrinsically related to each other in microcosm-macrocosm harmony.

Finally, in the age of the world-wide web, itself a complex invention of wonder, not unrelated to illusion, its interesting to note that Browne is credited as introducing the word ‘network’ in its context of an artificial construction into English language. Its amusing to think that the word 'network' used today to describe broadcasting, communication and transport connectivity, originates in no small measure from Thomas Browne's contemplation of one of nature's marvels, the retiary spider and its web.

See also


[1] Exotic spiders flourishing in Britain
[2] Religio Medici Part 1 : 15 
[3] Miscellaneous writings Keynes 1946.
[4]  The Lives of Spiders: A Natural History of the World's Spiders 
pub. Princeton University Press, June 2024
[5] Muffett’s Insectorum sive Minimorum Animalium Theatrum listed in the 1711 Sales Catalogue of Browne's library page 18 no. 51
[6] Miscellaneous writings Keynes 1946
[7]  Pseudodoxia  edited Robbins OUP 1981 
      Book 5 chapter 19 24-27
[8] Book 2 chapter 7 
[9] Book 7 chapter 15 line 23
[10] Book  3 chapter 28
[11] Book 3 chapter 27
[12] Ars Magnesia. 1631 Herb.  Sales Catalogue page 30 no. 53
[13] Fucaria & Auctaria ad Apiaria Philosophiae Mathematica 1656
Sales Catalogue page 28 no. 16
[14] Cyrus Chapter 2
[15] Miscellaneous writings Keynes 1946 
[16] Cyrus Chapter 3
[17] Over a dozen books by Ovid are listed in the 1711 Sales Catalogue 
[18] Ovid Metamorphoses Book 6 lines 1-150 
[19] Faust Part 2 lines 11411-2


* Many thanks to Julie Curl for her illustration. With her professional skills of the inter-related fields of archaeology, botany, zoology and illustration Ms. Curl shares several of Browne's interests which have cast new, interpretative light on the philosopher-physician. 

See Sylvanus Services for more information.

* See also 

* Although  Thomas Muffett (1553-1604) had a daughter, no earlier reference to the nursery rhyme Little miss Muffett can be found before 1805.

Little miss Muffet
Sat on a tuffet
Eating her curds and whey.
Along came a spider 
Who sat down beside her
And frightened miss Muffett away.
* Arthur Rackham's illustration of the well-known nursery rhyme has a spider of terrifying proportions who ambiguously raises his hat to Miss Muffett.


* The Spanish artist Velasquez (1599-1660) in his late masterwork Las Hilanderas or 'The Spinners' (1657) alludes to the ancient Greek myth of Arachne. It was however not positively identified as depicting Arachne and Minerva's spinning contest until 1948, almost 300 years after first painted. (below)


* The rock band 'The Who's 1966 song 'Boris the Spider', written and sung by bassist  John Entwhistle, seems to prophetically name a short-lived, future British Prime Minister.

* 'The Kiss of the Spiderwoman' (1985) links the spider to the archetype of the femme fatale.

Tuesday, March 05, 2024

A Browne bookshelf


I've found these books on Thomas Browne to be useful over the decades. From left to right - 

* Collected Works of Thomas Browne Religio Medici edited by Reid Barbour and Brooke Conti. pub. Oxford University Press 2023

* Approaches to Sir Thomas Browne, The Ann Arbor Tercentenary Lectures and Essays. edited by C.A.Patrides pub. Uni. of Missouri Press 1982

* The Opium of Time: Gavin Francis pub. Oxford Uni.Press 2023 

* Sir Thomas Browne- Joan Bennett
pub. Cambridge Uni. Press 1962

* The Strategy of Truth – Leonard Nathanson  pub. Uni. Of Chicago 1967

* Sir Thomas Browne: A Doctor’s Life of Science and Faith - J.S. Finch pub. Henry Schuman N.Y. 1950

* 4th edition of Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1658) with Urn-Burial and The Garden of Cyrus appended.

Thomas Browne Selected Writings ed. Kevin Killeen pub. Oxford Uni. Press 2014 

* Thomas Browne: A Biographical and Critical Study - Frank Huntley pub.  Uni. of Michigan 1962

*The Miscellaneous writings of Sir Thomas Browne edited by Geoffrey Keynes pub. Faber and Faber 1946

*  2 of the 3 volumes of The Works of Sir Thomas Browne edited by Simon Wilkins  pub. Henry Bohn 1832

Not included in photo -

*  A Catalogue of the Libraries of Sir Thomas Browne and Dr Edward Browne, his son. A Facsimile Reproduction  with an Introduction, Notes and Index by J.S. Finch. pub.  E. J. Brill 1986 (Essential for understanding the extraordinary range of Browne's interests and studies).

*  The Major Works of Sir Thomas Browne edited and with an Introduction by C. A. Patrides Penguin  1977 (First favourite).

*  Peter Green Writers and their Work no. 108 pub. Longmans and co. 1959 ( brief but insightful essay 36 pp )

* King James Bible (1611). Fundamental to Browne's spirituality, frequently referenced throughout his writings and a major influence upon his literary style.

Thursday, October 19, 2023

'the Theatre of ourselves' : the proto-psychology of Doctor Browne

Because of the multiplicity of his interests, scientific, antiquarian and esoteric, the philosopher-physician Thomas Browne (1605-82) is often termed a polymath but an equally useful and perhaps preciser definition of him, one which is tailor-made for both his profession and deep interest in people, is that of early or proto-psychologist. 

As a doctor practising in the 17th century Browne had plenty of occasion to observe mental trauma through sickness, disease and bereavement.  Living through one of the most psychologically disturbed times in English history he also witnessed extremes of human behaviour during the Civil war and its consequences.

Primary elements of Browne's proto-psychology include - a capacity for self-analysis,  a lifelong interest in people, usage of proper-noun symbolism and a fascination with the inner world of dreams. Furthermore, modern scholarship has detected a remarkable relationship between Browne's proto-psychology to the analytical psychology of Carl Jung.

Officially published in 1643 Browne's Religio Medici remains a classic of World literature; its thought-provoking soliloquies reward the attention of casual reader and academic alike. 

The first ever comparative edition of Religio Medici was published by Oxford University Press in April 2023 after protracted delay. Edited by Reid Barbour and Brooke Conti, the scholarly introduction to the Oxford edition of Browne's Collected Works discusses Religio Medici's major themes and reception, citing the Romantic poet Coleridge, who proposed it should be read  'in a dramatic & not in a metaphysical View - as a sweet Exhibition of character & passion & not as an Expression or Investigation of positive Truth'. [1]

The first volume of the ambitious project to publish a critical edition of the complete works of Thomas Browne reproduces three different versions of Religio Medici for the first time ever. 

The Pembroke manuscript, a subsequent revised version and the official version are all reproduced,  making it easy to identify text which Browne excluded from the authorized version. Only the early Pembroke version includes the following text, declared in a typical fusion of spirituality, scientific credentials and hermetic imagery- 

'Those strange and mystical transmigrations that I have observed in silkworms, turned my Philosophy into Divinity...............I have therefore forsaken those strict definitions of Death, by privation of life, extinction of natural heat, separation &c. of soul and body, and have framed one in hermetical way unto my own fancy - death is the final change, by which that noble portion of the microcosm is perfected (Latin trans.) for to me that considers things in a natural or experimental way, man seems to be but a digestion or a preparative way unto the last and glorious Elixir which lies imprisoned in the chains of flesh'. [2]

The first readers of Religio Medici were at turns shocked, astonished and admiring of Browne's frank display of his enigmatic personality and advocacy for tolerance in religious belief. He also invites his reader to witness the labyrinthine meanderings of his thought. A precocious talent for self-analysis is prominent throughout its pages.

In many ways examination and understanding of self is the bedrock foundation of Browne's proto-psychology; without such rigours he would never have achieved individuation or developed fully in his creativity. In Religio Medici the newly-qualified physician informs his reader of the psychic crisis he experienced in his trial of self- examination. His devout Christian faith was of its time, Hell along with the Devil were very real psychic entities to him in his self-analysis.

'The heart of man is the place the devil dwells in. I feel sometimes a hell within myself, Lucifer keeps his court in my breast, Legion is revived in me'. [3]

'Tis that unruly regiment within me that will destroy me, 'tis I that do infect myself, the man without a Navel yet lives in me;  I feel that original canker corrode and devour me. Lord deliver me from myself'.[4]

'The Devil that did but buffet Saint Paul, plays me thinks at Sharp with me. Let me be nothing if within the compass of my self, I do not find the battle of Lepanto passion against reason, reason against faith, faith against the Devil, and my conscience against all..There is another man within me that's angry with me, rebukes, commands and eastwards me'. [ 5] 

'Thus did the devil did play Chess with me and yielding a pawn thought to gain a Queen from me. And whilst I laboured to raise the structure of my reason he strove to undermine the edifice of my faith'. [6]


Its testimony to his deep interest in people that even when advanced in years, when asked for his medical advice, Browne dutifully made the journey from his home in Norwich to the sea-port of Yarmouth. He recorded his doctor's call on what must be a very early known case of the eating disorder bulimia in a notebook thus-

'There is a woman now Living in Yarmouth named Elizabeth Michell, an hundred and two years old, a person of 4 foot and an half high, very lean, very poor, and Living in a meane room without ordinary accommodation. Her youngest son is 45 years old; though she answers well enough to ordinary Questions, yet she conceives her eldest daughter to be her mother. Butt what is remarkable in her is a kind of boulime or dog appetite; she greedily eating day and night all that her allowance, friends and charitable people afford her, drinking beer or water, and making little distinction of any food either of broths, flesh, fish, apples, pears, and any coarse food in no small quantity, insomuch that the overseers of late have been fain to augment her weekly allowance. She sleeps indifferently well till hunger awakes her and then she must have no ordinary supply whether in the day or night. She vomits not, nor is very laxative. This is the oldest example of the sal esurinum chymicorum, which I have taken notice of; though I am ready to afford my charity unto her, yet I should be loth to spend a piece of ambergris I have upon her, and to allow six grains to every dose till I found some effect in moderating her appetite: though that be esteemed a great specific in her condition'. [7]


Symbols are integral to Browne's proto-psychology. In Religio Medici Egyptian hieroglyphs, the 'book of nature' and music are all proposed to be symbols containing a wealth of hidden spiritual wisdom to the receptive enquirer. The sources of Browne's literary symbolism are varied. The Bible and Greek mythology were two happy hunting grounds for his proper-name symbolism. He was also capable of  developing 'home-grown' symbols such as the urn and quincunx which enable him, 'by concentrating, almost like a hypnotist, on this pair of unfamiliar symbols, to paradoxically release 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'. [8]  

Geographic place names with their frequently unconscious associations are also utilized by Browne. One in particular made a big impression upon C.G. Jung. 

It was the South African traveller and explorer Laurens van der Post (1906-96) who introduced Carl Jung  to one of Browne's greatest psychological observations. It celebrates the mystery of consciousness and employs an original proper-place name symbolic of the unconscious psyche.  

Van der Post quoted Browne’s bold declaration - 'We carry within us the wonders we seek without us. There is all Africa, and her prodigies in us'; and recorded Jung's response. ‘He was deeply moved. He wrote it down and exclaimed 'that was, and is, just it. But it needed the Africa without to drive home the point in my own self'. Clearly, Jung was impressed by Browne's proto-psychology proper-name symbolism. [9]

It remains unknown whether Jung read Religio Medici which was translated into German in 1746. He was however fond of quoting its title and once stated – ‘For the educated person who studied alchemy as part of his general education it was a real Religio medici  [10]

According to Jung the seventeenth century was the era in which alchemy and hermetic philosophy attained their most significance. In his view Browne’s era was 'one of those periods in human history when symbol formation still went on unimpeded'. He also noted that Hermetic philosophy was, in the main, practised by physicians not only because many known alchemists were physicians, but also because chemistry in those days was essentially a pharmacopeia.  [11] 

From proto-psychologists such as Browne there emerged the beginnings of the modern science of psychology.  As 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]

Jung's psychology is based upon the protean multiplicity of symbols which the human psyche ceaselessly creates. The symbolic meaning of almost every ancient world myth, animal, geometric form, feature of Nature,  planetary god and number is elaborated upon in his writings, for he believed that-  

'The protean mythologeme and the shimmering symbol express the processes of the psyche far more trenchantly and, in the end, far more clearly than the clearest concept; for the symbol not only conveys a visualization of the process but—and this is perhaps just as important—it also brings a re-experiencing it'. [13]

A superb example of how Browne’s proto-psychology anticipates Jung's interpretation of symbols can be  seen in the Roman god Janus. The double-faced god Janus who presents his two faces simultaneously to  the past and future pops up as a proper-name symbol in each of Browne’s literary works. In Urn-Burial  the gloomy but realistic thought that, 'one face of Janus holds no proportion to the other' occurs, while in Cyrus the finger language of  'the mystical statua of Janus' is featured. The double-faced god clearly held proto-psychological significance to Browne. Centuries later, Carl Jung declared the Roman god Janus to be none other than,  'a perfect symbol of the human psyche, as it faces both the past and future. Anything psychic is Janus-faced: it looks both backwards and forwards. Because it is evolving it is also preparing for the future'. [14] 

Listed as once in Browne's library, the five gargantuan tomes of the Theatrum Chemicum were the most popular and comprehensive collection of alchemical literature available in the seventeenth century. A woodcut depicting the Nigredo stage of alchemy is reproduced in its first volume. (above). Encased within a bubble the researcher lays prone with a black crow on his stomach. The five planets and two luminaries orbit above him. The black star of Saturn, a planet long associated with melancholy and isolation as well as deep insight, radiates its dark influence upon the researcher. 

We can be confident Browne perused his edition of the Theatrum Chemicun closely for he 'borrowed'  from the highly moral and psychological writings of the Belgian alchemist Gerard Dorn (c. 1530-84) whose writings form the bulk of its first volume Dorn's image of an 'invisible sun'. Browne's 'borrowing' occurs in the fifth and final chapter of Urn-Burial where he inspirationally declares - 'Life is a pure flame, and we live by an invisible sun within us'.

Though he lacked modern-day terminology Browne nonetheless  was adept in his usage of symbols and imagery in his attempts to describe the workings of the psyche. He was well acquainted through his reading of alchemical literature such as the Theatrum Chemicum with the sophisticated, yet commonplace schemata of the alchemical stages of the opus known as the Nigredo (Blackness) and Albedo (Whiteness). There's strong evidence that this concept is utilized as the framework for his Discourses. A superabundance of similarities can be discerned, far beyond casual coincidence, between the themes, imagery and symbols of Urn-Burial and The Garden of Cyrus to those of the Nigredo and Albedo of alchemy. 

C.G. Jung helpfully defines the initial nigredo stage of alchemy thus-        

'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'.  [15] 

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

Alchemical literature frequently warns the researcher of the dangers of being engulfed and overwhelmed by the dark contents of the initial stage of the nigredo. Browne resisted this peril through professional acumen, but was also aware of how other's succumbed to the despair of the Nigredo -

'It is the heaviest stone that melancholy can throw at a man, to tell him he is at the end of his nature; or that there is no further state to come, unto which this seems progressional, and otherwise made in vain. [16]

Browne’s proto-psychology in Urn-Burial  stoically notes of the relationship between pain and memory.

‘We slightly remember our felicities, and the smartest strokes of affliction leave but short smart upon us. Sense endureth no extremities, and sorrows destroy us or themselves. … To be ignorant of evils to come, and forgetful of evils past, is a merciful provision in nature.' [17]

The Nigredo is encapsulated perfectly in Urn-Burial's pithy expression, 'lost in the uncomfortable night of nothing'.  Though little recognised, Browne's forensic survey of the burial rites and customs of  various world religions, contemplation of ancient world beliefs associated with death and the afterlife along with its mention of putrefaction and mortification makes it the most sustained and exemplary work of the Nigredo stage of alchemy extant in English literature.  

The succeeding stage of the alchemical opus was known as the albedo or whitening in which a widening of consciousness and revelation occurs. The albedo is frequently likened in alchemical literature to the Creation, Paradise and the Garden of Eden, each of which are alluded to in the opening paragraphs of The Garden of Cyrus. 

Misapprehension and prejudice continues to bedevil understanding of the vital influence which alchemy, Neoplatonic thought and Hermetic philosophy exerted upon artist, scientist and philosopher alike throughout the Renaissance. Such misapprehensions continue to hamper comprehension of Browne who read and studied alchemical literature closely, as the contents of his library reveals. Along with other spiritual alchemists Browne  intuited the bizarre symbolism and imagery of alchemy as a proto-psychology which discoursed upon the unconscious processes of the psyche to attain self-knowledge and individuation, the very Philosopher's Stone no less. In essence, Browne recognised in alchemical literature a kinship to the moralism and insights of Christian theology. Spiritually orientated alchemy is his greatest interest, as he makes clear in Religio Medici - 

'The smattering I have of the Philosopher's Stone (which is something more than the perfect exaltation of gold)  hath taught me a great deal of theology'. [18]

Even late in his life, when orthodox in his Christian faith, Browne justified the study of esoteric literature, naming two mystical scientists who he held in high regard in Christian Morals - 'many would be content that some would write like Helmont and Paracelsus; and be willing to endure the monstrosity of some opinions, for divers singular notions requiting such aberrations'. [19]

The frontispiece to Mario Bettini's Beehives of Univeral Mathematical Philosophy (published in 1656 and listed as once in Browne's library) is a fitting visualization of the overall mood-music of The Garden of Cyrus. In its foreground is a villa courtyard in which mathematical, optical and geometric instruments stand in vases as if cultivated plants. In the centre of the courtyard a peacock stands upon a sphere and displays its feathers, water flows from its feathered eyes creating a streaming fountain. Mercurius, the god of communication and revelation stands aloft a pyramid of skep beehives holding an armillary sphere. Ten bees in quincunx formation hover beside him.

The Garden of Cyrus is crowded with concepts and symbols from various Western esoteric disciplines. The quincunx is one of many symbols featured in the discourse. Although the quincunx is mentioned in classical antiquity the idea of it being a pattern which transcends the realm of the artificial originates from the Renaissance. The idea can be found in book 4 of the Italian polymath and scholar Giambattista Della Porta's vast agricultural encyclopedia known as Villa (1583-1592). Della Porta (1535-1615) asserts in Villa that the quincunx pattern in addition to featuring in gardens and plantations, 'is to be found in each and every single thing in nature'. An illustration of the quincunx pattern from Della Porta's Villa was borrowed by Browne for the frontispiece of The Garden of Cyrus. Astoundingly, centuries later, C.G. Jung declared the quincunx to be none other than 'a symbol of the quinta essentia which is identical to the Philosopher's Stone'. [20]     

In contrast to Urn-Burial's slow, stately rhythms, The Garden of Cyrus includes many paragraphs of rapid, near breathless prose. In a rare first person outburst Browne couples the game of chess to Persia to Egyptian deities, Hermes Trismegistus to cosmology to the potent alchemical 'coniunctio' symbol of Sol et Luna in a train of stream-of-consciousness association. 

'In Chess-boards and Tables we yet find Pyramids and Squares, I wish we had their true and ancient description, far different from ours, or the Chet mat of the Persians, which might continue some elegant remarkables, as being an invention as High as Hermes the Secretary of Osyris, figuring the whole world, the motion of the Planets, with Eclipses of Sun and Moon'. [21]

While Urn-Burial with its oratorical flourishes and 'full Organ-stop' prose exhibits distinctly baroque traits thematically and stylistically,  in complete contrast The Garden of Cyrus has strong Mannerist characteristics in style and theme. The Hungarian art-historian Arnold Hauser noted that Mannerist art delighted in symbols and hidden meanings and that it had an intellectual and even surrealistic outlook. He also noted that Mannerist art was inclined towards esoteric concepts and defined its qualities and excesses in words easily applicable to  Browne's creativity and the hermetic content of The Garden of Cyrus. 

'At one time it is the deepening and spiritualizing of religious experience and a vision of a new spiritual content in life; at another, an exaggerated intellectualism, consciously and deliberately deforming reality, with a tinge of the bizarre and the abstruse.' [22]

C.G. Jung studied and borrowed from hermetic philosopher and alchemist alike in the development of his psychology. His great achievement was identifying the unconscious imagery of the alchemists to be a proto-psychology which discusses the stages and processes of the psyche in its striving towards Self-realization and individuation. Foremost of all symbols in Jung's psychology are the archetypes, the primordial models of the psyche which he believed  are embedded at the deepest strata of  the collective psyche; some of the most important are the hero, the lover, the Great Mother, the wise ruler and the trickster. 

Although mention of archetypes can be traced back to Plato and Gnostic philosophers, one of the earliest modern usages of the word 'archetype' occurs in The Garden of Cyrus. Browne even attempts to delineate a specific archetype, that of the 'wise ruler' through proper-name symbolism allusion to the Persian King Cyrus, the biblical leaders Solomon and Moses, the Roman Emperor Augustus and the Macedonian Alexander the Great. The  archetype of the 'Great Mother' is also tentatively sketched in Cyrus through allusion to the matriarchal figures of Sarah of the Hebrew Old Testament, the Greek goddess Juno, and Isis of ancient Egypt.

Another great example of how Browne's proto-psychology anticipates Jung's occurs at the apotheosis of The Garden of Cyrus with his advising his reader  'to search out the quaternio's and figured draughts of this order'. Its advice was taken seriously by Carl Jung with the Swiss psychoanalyst firmly believing that the quaternity or patterns which are four-fold to invariably symbolize wholeness or totality;  and in fact the earliest known divisions of Space and Time - the four seasons of the Year and the four points of the compass are based upon a quaternity, as are the four humours of ancient Greek medicine along with the four temperaments of medieval medicine as well as the four gospels of the New Testament. Jung even structured his understanding of the psyche upon a quaternity, defining the psyche as comprising of four entities in totality, these being - Rational thinking, feeling, sensation and intuition.  


C.G. Jung once declared - 'the late alchemical texts are fantastic and baroque; only when we have learnt to interpret them can we recognise what treasures they hide'. [23] Today Urn-Burial and The Garden of Cyrus (1658) can be identified as Browne's supreme work of proto-psychology. Jam-packed with symbolism and imagery allusive to esoteric concepts, together they form a portrait of the psyche, unconscious and conscious, irrational and rational, stoical and transcendent, fearful of Death yet always planning for the future.  

Urn-Burial and The Garden of Cyrus are highly polarised to each other in respective truth, imagery and symbolism. The invisible world of decay and death in Urn-Burial is 'answered' by the visible world of growth and life in The Garden of Cyrus. Imagery of darkness in Urn-Burial  is mirrored by imagery of Light in The Garden of Cyrus. Likewise, the gloomy, Saturnine speculations of Urn-Burial are 'answered' by the cheerful, Mercurial revelations of Cyrus. Together the diptych traces a commonplace route of 'Soul-journey' literature from the Grave to the Garden. Browne’s soul-journey begins in the ‘subterranean world’ of Urn-Burial's opening paragraph and arrives at ‘the City of Heaven’ in the penultimate paragraph of Cyrus. The gordian knot of why these two philosophical discourses of 1658 share a multiplicity of oppositions or polarities thematically and in imagery such as -  Darkness and Light, Decay and Growth, Mortality and Eternity, Body and Soul, Accident and Design, Speculation and Revelation, World and Universe, Microcosm and Macrocosm is swiftly spliced by C. G. Jung's sharp remark - 'the alchemystical philosophers made the opposites and their union their chiefest concern'. [24]

If we choose to reflect in depth on the themes, rich imagery and symbolism within Dr. Browne's major work of proto-psychology and Hermetic philosophy, it can lead us deep into the mysteries of our inner world. Far from the received wisdom of Urn Burial being simply a gloomy essay on Death with an essay on gardening appended to it to bulk out for the printer, as one Victorian literary critic believed, the literary spiritual mandala of Urn-Burial   and The Garden of Cyrus with its Nigredo speculations and Albedo revelations is capable of unlocking the mysteries of the psyche/soul's architecture.

The altered state of consciousness known as dreaming fascinated Browne. It remains unknown why exactly we dream. For most dreams are involuntary,  a sequence of strange events and unfamiliar places which are out of one’s control  and which simply happen to one when asleep. Browne however was one of those fortunate people able to manipulate the sequence of events of a dream at will, so-called lucid dreaming. Supplementing his many observations on dreams in Religio Medici Browne describes his ability to lucid dream 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 fruitful I would chose never to study but in my dreams'. [25]

For those living in the grim realities of the seventeenth century, the ability to lucid dream must have been a welcome diversion. In tandem with his wide-ranging reading lucid dreaming was rich fuel for Browne’s artistic imagination. 

Concrete evidence of the relationship between Browne’s proto-psychology to modern-day psychoanalysis can be found in his short tract on dreams. Taking his cue from Paracelsus on the psychotherapeutic value of interpreting dreams, especially at a critical stage of a patient’s illness, Browne expounds his theory for interpreting dreams thus-  

'Many dreams are made out by sagacious exposition and from the signature of their subjects; carrying their interpretation in their fundamental sense and mystery of similitude whereby he that understands upon what natural fundamental every notional dependeth, may by symbolical adaption hold a ready way to read the characters of Morpheus'.    [26] 

Browne's proposal that dreams can be interpreted by 'symbolical adaptation' links him closely to Jung's psychology for the Swiss analyst also believed that his patients dreams could be interpreted through 'symbolical adaptation'. 

Browne mentions in his tract that dreams have changed lives, naming J.B. van Helmont and Jerome Cardan as recipients of transformative dreams. And centuries later, after dreaming of being trapped in the 17th century, Jung embarked upon what was to be over thirty years study of alchemy and its literature. 


Writing in 1961 the American psychiatrist Jerome Schneck asserted- 'When Browne is assessed with the context of modern medico-psychological principles, the strength and richness of his thoughts and the appreciation of him as a psychologically minded physician comes to more fruitful expression. It may be reasonable to predict that more elements of interest in Sir Thomas Browne will be discovered in the future. He will find a more significant place in psychiatry. His importance in the history of medicine will be more fully perceived'. [27]

Browne is indeed more interested in the Renaissance discovery of the psyche than in the discoveries made by the two scientific instruments developed in his lifetime, the telescope and microscope. This is because, above all, it is spirituality and the psychic processes of the mind, in particular self-realization and individuation which are his primary concern. Browne's only science of any value is his contribution to the science of the mind. Without doubt he'd have agreed with Carl Jung’s assessment of our modern-day world. 

‘Science and technology have indeed conquered the world, but whether the psyche has gained anything is another matter’. [28] 

Today, Sir Thomas Browne can confidently be termed an early or proto-psychologist. His capacity for self-analysis, deep interest in people, usage of symbolism and fascination with dreams are each vital components of his proto psychology. Though lacking in terminology, he nonetheless attempted to  through his proper-name symbolism and imagery such as 'the theatre of ourselves' to delineate the psyche. But perhaps his greatest achievement as a proto psychologist is simply his introduction into English language words useful to his profession such as - ‘medical’ ‘pathology’ 'suicide' ‘hallucination’ and best of all ‘therapeutic’. Furthermore, as I hope I've adequately proved, Thomas Browne’s proto-psychology has a unique, and yet to be fully explored relationship to the analytical psychology of Carl Jung.

See also 

Above - Author delivering a slightly different version of this essay in the Vernon Castle Room for the Norfolk Heritage Centre at the Millennium Library, Norwich. October 3rd 2023. 

Photo Header  - Rainbow Bricks Lego 1000 pieces completed October 2023

[1] Collected Works of Thomas Browne Religio Medici edited Reid Barbour and Brooke Conti 
Oxford University Press 2023

Photo  - first volume of  the Collected Writings of Thomas Browne.

[2]  Religio Medici Part 1 Section 39
[3]  Religio Medici Part 1 Section 51
[4]  Ibid.
[5]  R.M. Part 2 : 7
[6]  R.M. 
[7] Miscellaneous writing Keynes Faber and Faber 1931
[8]  Sir Thomas Browne - Peter Green  pub. Longmans, Green and co. 1959
[9]  ' Jung and the story of our times' Laurens van der Post Penguin 1976
[10]  C.W. vol. 10 :727
[11]  C.W. vol.13:353
[12]  C.W.  vol.14:737
[13] C.W. 13: 199
[14] C.W. vol. 6. Psychological Types (1921)  para. 717

Woodcut from Theatrum Chemicum Sales Catalogue page 24 no. 124  

[15] CW 14:93
[16] Urn-Burial chapter 
[17] Ibid.
[18] R.M. 1 :39
[19]   Christian Morals  Part 2 Section 5 

Photo - Mario Bettini's book is listed in the 1711 Sales Catalogue of Browne's library on p. 28 no. 16 under Folio by its half-title Fucaria & Auctaria ad Apiaria Philosophiae Mathematicae 1656. 
There are two different versions of the  frontispiece for 'The Garden of Mathematical Sciences'. 
Early editions include a frontispiece by Matthiae Galasso/Matthias Galassus while later editions feature Francesco Curti's colour engraving. Browne's edition was the earlier Matthias Galasso's frontispiece (below) 

[20]   C.W. 10:737
[21] The Garden of Cyrus Chapter 2
[22]  Arnold Hauser -  Mannerism: The Crisis of the Renaissance and the Origin of Modern Art 
Harvard University Press  1964
[23] 'Memories, dreams, Reflections' C.G. Jung  Chapter 7
[24] Foreword to C.W. vol. 14
[25] Religio Medici Part 2 ; 11
[26] On Dreams
[27] Psychiatric aspects of Sir Thomas Browne  by Jerome Schneck 1961
[28] CW13:163