Monday, October 19, 2020

Lost in the uncomfortable night of nothing.

Although long recognized as a work of World literature, for many Urn-Burial (1658) is neither easy or comfortable to read. With its melancholic meditations on the uncertainty of life, the unknowingness of the human condition, the fragility of  our 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 to modern sensibilities near taboo subject-matter, another stumbling block hindering appreciation of Urn-Burial is that it frequently shifts focus, giving expression to quite different facets of its author. This results in surprising changes of perspective, alternating from the viewpoint of pioneering scholar of comparative religion to that of local historian, to scientist and archaeologist, to antiquarian and Christian moralist, often without any warning to the reader, other than beginning a new paragraph.

In modern times Urn-Burial  has been recognized 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 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 in 'snatches of time, medical vacations' with compiling and revising his encyclopedia Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646),  first published during the English Civil war. 

The very title of Browne's colossal endeavour depicts superstition and erroneous beliefs as if a disease.(Lt. Pseudo false, Doxia Truth, Epidemica widespread occurrence of an infectious disease). The prescription for curing such epidemics of 'vulgar errors' for Browne is 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 as one of the first to introduce up-to-date scientific journalism to the English reading public as well as examples of scientific hypothesis in the pages of Pseudodoxia Epidemica.

It's in a chapter of Pseudodoxia Epidemica which discusses whether the mythic creature known as  the Basilisk is capable of 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) naturally took an interest in disease. Along with his interest in ancient Greek medicine, primarily the writings of Hippocrates. He also took an interest in ancient Greek mythology. In his medical essay A Letter to a Friend (circa 1656) Browne 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. 

Its whilst alluding to the Greek myth of Pandora and theorizing upon the origin of disease in his A Letter to a Friend that Browne introduces the word 'Pathology' into the 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'.

Whether Browne, during his travels in Continental Europe from 1629-32 attending the Universities of Padua in Italy, Montpelier in France and Leiden in Holland, upon hearing of an outbreak of the plague in Milan, steered well clear of visiting the Italian city, or, alternatively, viewed the column erected in Milan informing of the crime and punishment of those believed to have started the outbreak, is not known. However, the Milan plague was still in Browne's memory in his old age, its mentioned in his bizarre inventory of lost, rumoured and imaginary books, paintings and objects known as Museum Clausum (c. 1675) in 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. Prompted by 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 customs of various nations throughout history. His early comparative religion skills references the Chinese, Persian, Roman, Greek and Egyptian civilizations, the Moslem, Hindi and Judaic religions, as well as making one of the very earliest references to the Zoroastrian religion in Western literature. 

Like his near contemporary, Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), Browne recognized the syncretic nature of religious symbols, but just like Kircher, he was often misguided in his comparative religion studies.

The unknowingness of the human condition is illustrated in striking medical imagery thus- 

'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. 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 the so-called 'Father of English medicine' Dr. Thomas Sydenham (1624-89) whose books are well-represented in Browne’s library,  once 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.'

Observations upon dosage and effects of opium can be found in Browne's commonplace notebooks whilst  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 seventeenth century English literature, may have been from Browne writing under the influence of opium. As a physician Browne was licenced to obtain Opium, the only available painkiller available in his day. 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, particularly those of an empirical 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 the body fat of a corpse, named 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 commentary on the planetary Soul journey Scipio's Dream 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. As the ruler of isolation and quarantine, Saturn is the god of lock-down par excellence.  'Old Father Time' depicted with his scythe as the Grim Reaper is a variant upon symbolism associated with Saturn.

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 during 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 also 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, of the Corvid family of birds, alights upon his stomach while two angels keep watch over him. 

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 in his collected works twice. 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  (Theatre of Chemistry) 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 which it 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 their monuments admired, are now long forgotten and their monuments are housed behind locked or restricted access doors of  mainly disused or redundant churches. It was only as recently as 2012 that the source of the Layer monument's (below) iconography was identified. A wealth of religious symbolism, 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 altered states of spiritual consciousness, naming several 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 proper name symbolism along with 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, Browne's twin Discourses, not unlike two side-by-side 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 sweetness of The Garden of Cyrus with its playful delight in 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 in his Religio Medici 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 naturally held a deep understanding of the human condition acquired from their profession, and both knew that with suffering comes spiritual growth.  Browne's Urn-Burial and The Garden of Cyrus as well as his 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. 

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.

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

This essay with thanks to Dr. E. Player.

 In Memoriam  Richard Paul Faulkner (1958-2020)