04 December 2007

Thomas Browne. Religio Medici, 1642/1643

As for those wingy Mysteries in Divinity, and airy subtleties in Religion, which have unhing’d the brains of better heads, they never stretched the Pia Mater* of mine. Methinks there be not impossibilities enough in Religion for an active faith...I love to lose my self in a mystery... ’Tis my solitary recreation to pose my apprehension with those involved enigmas and riddles of the Trinity, with Incarnation, and Resurrection. I can answer all the Objections of Satan and my rebellious reason with that odd resolution I learned of Tertullian, Certum est, quia impossibile est.** I desire to exercise my faith in the difficultest point; for to credit ordinary and visible objects is not faith, but persuasion. Some believe the better for seeing CHRIST’S Sepulchre; and, when they have seen the Red Sea, doubt not of the Miracle. Now, contrarily, I bless my self and am thankful that I lived not in the days of Miracles, that I never saw CHRIST nor His Disciples. I would not have been one of those Israelites that pass’d the Red Sea, nor one of CHRIST’S patients on whom He wrought His wonders; then had my faith been thrust upon me, nor should I enjoy that greater blessing pronounced to all that believe and saw not. ’Tis an easie and necessary belief, to credit what our eye and sense hath examined. I believe He was dead, and buried, and rose again; and desire to see Him in His glory, rather than to contemplate Him in His Cenotaphe or Sepulchre...

*A membrane surrounding the brain.
**It is certain because it is impossible

Thomas Browne. RELIGIO MEDICI. . [London]: Andrew Crooke, 1642.

Current Selling Prices
$4000-$10000 /£2000-£5000

The supreme literary achievement by an English doctor. Possibly any doctor, although Chekhov was a doctor, Somerset Maugham too, William Carlos Williams wielded a stethosccope, also the mighty Conan Doyle, but surely none wrote better prose than Sir Thomas Browne. Virginia Woolf said of his Religio Medici ('The Religion of a Doctor') that it paved the way for all future confessionals, private memoirs and personal writings. Browne's playful conceits, his intimacy with the reader and his psychological self examination are noticeably modern in tone. Browne, a great favourite in his day, was rediscovered by the Romantics - Charles Lamb introduced his work to Coleridge, who after reading it exclaimed, "O to write a character of this man!" Thomas de Quincey praised the 'sublimity' of his style. In our time he was again discovered by the great German writer W.G. Sebald who taught in Norwich, where Thomas Browne had practiced as a physician three centuries earlier. Sebald's 'Rings of Saturn' refers to Browne (who was born under the sign of Saturn on October 19, 1605 and curiously died on the same day he was born on October 19, 1682.) This is said to be a Saturn-like thing to do, there is a suggestion he may have planned or foresaw it, but really it's only a 365-1 chance.

The curious thing about first editions of Religio Medici is that they were not authorised by Browne and two such editions came out in 1642. An old auction catalogue (sorry source temporarily lost) declares:-
'Written in 1635, it was not published until 1642, when two unauthorized editions appeared from the same printer, one of 80 leaves and one of 96. The earliest bibliographical authorities---Wilkin, Greenhill, Williams---judged the longer version to be the earlier edition. Geoffrey Keynes in his standard bibliography of Browne (1924) reversed the order on the basis of the amount of wear to William Marshall’s engraved title, calling the shorter version the earliest. In 1948, Elizabeth Cook argued for a second reversal on the basis of textual analysis, re-establishing the longer version as the first edition. The matter of priority may be said to be still unsettled... Religio Medici describes the religion and philosophy of a tolerant, humorous and latitudinarian mind" (DSB)... (he) had an active interest in a wide range of subjects, from archaeology and philosophy to physics and biology. Religio Medici, his first published work, was a philosophical tract as much as a religious one, a Platonist's contemplation on the world. Its publication met mixed reactions; in Paris it was published by a Roman Catholic; in Rome it was listed on the Index Expurgatorius.'
Always a good sign to have your book banned in Rome. The first authorised edition appeared in 1643- it was titled: "A True and Full Copy of that which was most Imperfectly and Surreptitiously Printed before under the Name of: Religio Medici." Effectively the third edition, it was also published by the Andrew Cooke who had issued the two surreptitious editions. One imagines that Browne was an unlitigious, relaxed sort of cove--you couldn't pull that trick off with many modern authors. The authorised edition corrected printing and textual errors, but also modified the tenor of some of the more dogmatic assertions. The book was a great success, reprinted eleven times during the author's lifetime and translated into Latin, Dutch, French and German.

VALUE? A copy of the unauthorised 1642 made $20K in 2001 described thus- "contemporary blind-ruled sheep - extremities rubbed, tightly bound - title page dust-soiled; a few pencil marks in margins; library stamp.' The 1643 'authorised' edition made $4K in NY 2004 'with a bit of loss from a rust hole and cut close with a few catchwords clipped; repaired worming in final gathering affecting a few letters; some browning' - obviously not quite full size - buyers still prefer tall copies with good margins, although this is less of a fetish than it was 100 years back.

As a great classic it is always going to make goodly sums and can also be sold as a medical book to the many collectors who have made fortunes in medicine. A great copy would probably make £10,000, a copy turned up at the Macclesfield sale (2005) and made £2000 but it lacked the engraved title page (above)- the cataloguer gamely suggested that it had never been bound in, but a book without a title page unless larded with wonderful colour plates, is a pitiful thing. Whether it is much read anymore is doubtful. If I had a copy I would put it on the shelf with other pompous quartos bang next to my late 1628 Burton's 'Anatomy of Melancholy' (sadly sold to raise funds.) With the unfortunate death of Sebald (auto accident near Poringland, Norfolk) Browne may again be slightly forgotten; as Virginia Woolf said 'few people love the writing of Sir Thomas Browne, but those that do are the salt of the earth.'


Anonymous said...

Was Sir Thomas Browne of Irish Stock? I always come acroos Brownes in Ireland, Browns with an E.

Anonymous said...

I am amazed athat stated, about religio medici. 1642.which had 190 pages, 25 lines to each page,copies seen.I have a copy, but with two engravings, and hard cover, as bought by a rich person.verified by the B.L. Their copy with out hard cover, in its original state.The 1642 copy traced through to modern day copies.Amazing.

ConnieH said...

i have a copy printed in 1885, with newspaper clipping stuck inside front cover, hardback, but written in on almost every page. does anyone know how much this is worth?
email me at fifimontgomery@hotmail.com
many thanks

Anonymous said...

i just found a copy of this book (the 1643 edition)in my basement. its in an okay condition, the leather covers are falling apart and there is a little bit of writing on a few of the pages but all of the pages are completely intact, along with the engraved title page. the cover, besides the leather, is still completely bound to the book. any idea of its value?

Anyamountofbooks said...

Please email us and we can make an offer--- this is the first authorised edition. charingx@anyamountofbooks.com