Thomas Browne 1605-1682
English prose writer, essayist, and physician.
The following entry provides criticism on Browne's works from 1973 through 2003.
Sir Thomas Browne holds a unique place in the development of English writing because of the diversity of his interests and training. A physician by training and profession, Browne is now remembered most often for his writings and contribution to the growth of English letters. In works such as the Religio Medici (1642), Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646), and Hydriotaphia (1658), Browne covers a vast variety of subjects, including theories on religion and philosophy, and reflects on issues such as human mortality, time, and eternity. His writing was unique in its combination of empirical observation and religious exploration, and he is often praised for his lyric and rich writing style, which is akin to Senecan prose. Most significantly, Browne lived and wrote during tumultuous times in English history. During his lifetime he was witness to a civil war, the Interregnum, and eventually the Restoration. His writings, especially the Religio Medici, reflect many of his concerns about the events of his time, and through his words Browne is acknowledged now as a master of English prose, leading his readers with both his expression and rhythm to an experience in discovery and tolerance.
Browne was born in London, England, in 1605. He was the fourth and only son of a successful merchant, also named Thomas Browne, and his wife, Anne Garroway Browne. The family lived in Cheshire in fairly comfortable circumstances, even following Browne's father's death in 1613. He attended Winchester grammar school, where he studied Latin and Greek, and in 1623, he went on to Broadgates Hall at Oxford. The school, which was later renamed Pembroke College, followed the traditional curriculum at Oxford, and Browne studied grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, and geometry. In 1624 the school added the study of anatomy to its curriculum, which was an added advantage to Browne, who became a physician. Browne graduated from Oxford in 1626, and received a master's degree from there in 1629. He then left to live on the Continent, continuing his medical studies until the mid-1630s. During these years, Browne traveled across Europe extensively, visiting and staying at some of the most distinguished medical schools. When he returned to England in 1637, he was awarded a doctorate in physics at Oxford. He then settled in Norwich, beginning his practice as a physician, and serving as mentor to many younger doctors. He married Dorothy Mileham in 1641; they had several children together, although only a daughter, Elizabeth, survived into adulthood. Scholars surmise that it was during his years as a physician in Norwich that Browne began working on his best-known work, the Religio Medici. Comprised mostly of Browne's own opinions and theories regarding the church and religion, the work was not originally intended for publication. The style of the work is unusual because Browne often writes in the first person, and the work is structured more like a conversational letter or meditative lecture than a formal work of prose. Yet the scope of the work, with its personal observations and the model it presents of Christian belief and practice, is often interpreted as a prescriptive text. Browne published several more texts after the Religio Medici, and at his death in 1682, he left behind a large body of unpublished correspondence. These were issued posthumously, as well as other works, such as A Letter to a Friend (1690) and Christian Morals (1716).
The Religio Medici was published anonymously, probably without Browne's permission, in 1642. It garnered immediate attention because of its content; divided into two main parts, the work first explains the author's religious beliefs, and then discusses the practical application of these beliefs in the real world, as well as the consequences of not following these principles. As he explores questions of belief and practice, Browne imparts a great deal of significance to the role of human choice in the application of religious beliefs. He also writes in detail about the doctrine of incarnation, stating that Christ was in fact both man and God, and therefore both spirit and flesh. It is in the statement of his theories about incarnation, God, and life that Browne shines as a prose writer, using the style of Senecan prose to build one argument on another. Critics have often remarked on his ability to present, with increasing intensity, the central belief system he is espousing. In his lifetime, though, Browne's work was soundly critiqued for both its style and content. As early as 1643, less than a year after the text was published, Sir Kenelm Digby, a contemporary, published a critique of the work. The following year, Alexander Ross issued an analysis of Browne's work, criticizing him for his errors and sparking a vigorous debate over the validity of the doctor's religious beliefs. The controversy over the accuracy of Browne's theories in the Religio Medici became a major topic of critical debate during the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Browne next issued Pseudodoxia Epidemica, also known as Vulgar Errors. This was a large project and took Browne most of his life to complete. Comprising seven volumes, the work once again focuses on issues of religious belief and theory. In contrast to the Religio Medici, this work was less personal in its concerns, and focused more heavily on an examination of truths, observations, popular mythology, and contemporary commentary on the discovery of new and interesting facts. In many ways, Browne's focus in this work is more closely related to his profession—the discussion revolves around significant scientific developments during Browne's time, and he uses moralized natural histories, encyclopedias, and other studies of his era as his focus. For each proposition he states, Browne considers the position taken by established authorities, the evidence in support of the position, and so on. Browne's next works were published together in 1658. These were Hydriotaphia: Urne Buriall and The Garden of Cyrus; in both, Browne uses events in reality to offer observations on the nature of mortality and immortality. While the subject matter of both pieces is regarded as significant, critics have most often focused on Browne's grand style and variety.
Browne is consistently acknowledged as one of the finest prose writers of his day. His writing style was rich and varied, and many scholars have remarked upon his use of humor and richness of allusion, even in the most intense of discussions. In his own lifetime, Browne's literary reputation was first built upon the multivolume Pseudodoxia Epidemica. Critics during his time, including Samuel Pepys and Samuel Johnson, admired his work greatly, while the Romantics in the eighteenth century also viewed his work with great interest. In modern evaluations of Browne's work, his clear thinking and rhythmic writing style continue to be acknowledged, and he is appreciated as a skilled articulator of the events of his time. In 1972, however, Stanley Fish, in his Self-Consuming Artifacts: The Experience of Seventeenth-Century Literature, criticized Browne for his beliefs regarding the nature and function of art. Fish's critique of Browne has evoked passionate responses from contemporary critics, Frank J. Warnke among them. According to Warnke, although Fish's evaluation of Browne has some merit, it is essentially unfair to the intention of Browne's writing, which per Warnke, has a very personal and persuasive aesthetic. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Browne did not comment openly on the political and religious events of his time. His works, especially the Religio Medici, writes James N. Wise (1973), are works of “contemporary argumentation.” In this text, says Wise, Browne clearly makes an argument for tolerance and charitableness. Wise feels that it is precisely Browne's carefully structured ambivalence in matters of reason and faith that constitute his best method of persuasion. In his review of Browne's place among seventeenth-century prose writers, Laurence Stapleton (1973) characterizes him as “the most original prose writer” of his time. Stapleton observes that Browne's method of writing, especially his skillful combining of observation and evaluation set the standard for many later authors, including Samuel Johnson and De Quincey. Modern evaluations of Browne's work focus primarily on his Religio Medici. Jonathan F. S. Post (1987) observes that whatever Browne's other qualifications, it is his unique writing style, “one of the most distinctive and recognizable in the history of English prose,” which remains his most remarkable achievement.
Religio Medici (prose) 1642
Pseudodoxia Epidemica: or, Enquiries into Very Many Received Tenents, and Commonly Presumed Truths [Vulgar Errors] (prose) 1646
Hydriotaphia: Urne burial, or, A Discourse of the Sepulchrall Urnes Lately found in Norfolk. Together with The Garden of Cyrus, or the Quincunciall, Lozenge, or Net-work Plantations of the Ancients, Artificially, Natrually, Mystically Considered. With Sundry Observations (prose) 1658
Certain Miscellany Tracts (prose) 1683
A Letter to a Friend, Upon Occasion of the Death of His Intimate Friend (prose) 1690
Posthumus Works of the Learned Sir Thomas Browne, Kt. M.D. (collected works) 1712
Christian Morals (prose) 1716
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SOURCE: Stapleton, Laurence. “Sir Thomas Browne and Meditative Prose.” In The Elected Circle: Studies in the Art of Prose, pp. 42-72. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1973.
[In the following essay, Stapleton offers an evaluation of Browne's major prose works.]
Sir Thomas Browne is in one way the most original prose writer of the seventeenth century; not simply for the uniqueness of tone, the individual voice imparted to every sentence, but because he evolved a form of writing that contained the seed of growth. The sermon had no future, the Baconian essay was perfected by Bacon, never to be equalled. Browne's prose, in contrast, created an encounter of thought with observation available for new development long afterwards by writers as different as Dr. Johnson and De Quincey, Emerson and Melville.
In his lifetime Browne published four books (Religio Medici 1642, Pseudodoxia Epidemica 1646, the related pieces Urn Burial and Garden of Cyrus 1658). After his death another discourse appeared, Christian Morals (1716). Although he may not have finished working on it, its composition is deliberate and represents a further stage in Browne's development.
In the making of Religio Medici, Browne was fortunate in being at a remote place where he had little access to books. We need not doubt his statement that it was composed...
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SOURCE: Wise, James N. “Browne and His Critics.” In Sir Thomas Browne's ‘Religio Medici’ and Two Seventeenth-Century Critics, pp. 1-11. Columbia, Mo.: University of Missouri Press, 1973.
[In the following essay, Wise provides a brief overview of Browne's ideas concerning the nature of divinity in the context of critical reaction from Alexander Ross and Kenelm Digby.]
Why should we look once again at the writings of three controversialists of seventeenth-century England—Sir Thomas Browne, Sir Kenelm Digby, and Alexander Ross? Browne has become so traditionally a part of the history and texture of classic English prose style that we sometimes unconsciously undervalue his ideas and their power to arouse dispute in his time. The primary purpose of this study is to assert his significant, albeit ambivalent, position in the history of ideas in seventeenth-century Europe. Only minimal attention will be paid to Browne's stylistic excellence as such—a matter forcefully and definitively analyzed by other critics, including Coleridge, whose superb comments were collected as recently as 1955.
In Chapter II I provide a condensed reading of Religio Medici, which emphasizes areas of controversy in the work that were not closely examined by either Digby or Ross. In doing so I have explicitly avoided a survey of the existing scholarship, yet it should be clear to the reader that my...
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SOURCE: Breiner, Laurence A. “The Generation of Metaphor in Thomas Browne.” Modern Language Quarterly 38, no. 3 (September 1977): 261-75.
[In the following essay, Breiner contends that Browne consistently uses metaphors to convey the principles and ideas contained in his works, and that there is a commonality in the images he uses in most of his prose works.]
Thomas Browne has been variously treated as a scientist, a religious writer, and a prose stylist. But largely because of seventeenth-century tensions between science and religion, even between plain honesty and literary style, studies along these lines tend to diverge in their conclusions, and produce incompatible versions of the man and his work. It seems possible to resolve these discrepancies by isolating an element that literally informs all three aspects of his work: speculation, faith, and style. The fact is that in Browne's most personal essays—Religio Medici, Urn Burial, The Garden of Cyrus—the bulk of his tropes, for all their heterogeneity, share a covert “master figure”; that is, they tend to be derived from a form composed of a commanding center with its symmetrical ambience. A resemblance to the quincunx that dominates The Garden of Cyrus should be apparent, but this even more abstract figure rises to the status of an archetype primarily because of a characterizing ambiguity: the ambience can be...
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SOURCE: Caldwell, Mark L. “The Transfigured ‘I’: Browne's Religio Medici.” Thought: A Review of Culture and Ideas 57, no. 226 (September 1982): 332-44.
[In the following essay, Caldwell observes that the Religio Medici derives its sense of unity from its fine melding of the personal and the eccentric, in terms of Browne's thoughts and ideas.]
Browne was once revered for a quaint willingness to share with his reader the aimless, eccentric privacies of his informal thought. The ellipses and protean divagations of his style, the chatty asides and apparent confessions of endearing prejudice, were thus viewed as inevitable marks of a personality escaping the restrictive boundaries of rational discourse. “Fond of the curious,” Coleridge said, “he loved to contemplate and discuss his own thoughts and feelings, because he found … that they, too, were curiosities; and so, with a perfectly graceful interesting ease, he put them, too, into his museum and cabinet of rarities, … reading nature neither by sun, moon, or candle-light, but by the light of the fairy glory around his own head.”1 And such attitudes have persisted. As late as 1959, for example, Margaret Bottrall argued that the elusive penetralia of the Religio Medici were ultimately wound together by “Browne's vivid sense of his own uniqueness.”2
But in fact...
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SOURCE: Warnke, Frank J. “A Hook for Amphibium: Some Reflections on Fish.” In Approaches to Sir Thomas Browne: The Ann Arbor Tercentenary Lectures and Essays, edited by C. A. Patrides, pp. 49-59. Columbia, Mo.: University of Missouri Press, 1982.
[In the following essay, Warnke refutes Stanley Fish's critique of Browne's work, stressing that a common religious background is not a necessity when trying to appreciate the artistic or religious ideas in a work of prose.]
It was in some ways refreshing when, in his Self-Consuming Artifacts of 1972, Stanley Fish attacked Sir Thomas Browne as being “the bad physician.”1 Not since Sir Kenelm Digby's contemporaneous Observations had the worthy doctor been really strenuously condemned, and, after some three centuries of laudatory appreciations and respectful analyses, the bristling rejection was stimulating. It gave one the warm feeling one gets on hearing motherhood maligned, or patriotism, or apple pie. Yet, unless one is relentlessly frivolous (as I may yet prove to be), Fish's attack must, I think, be refuted—not by rejecting his aesthetic and methods (which I think have much to recommend them) but by applying that aesthetic and those methods more rigorously, more radically, than Professor Fish himself has done, though assuming, be it admitted, a rather different set of beliefs concerning the nature and function of art....
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SOURCE: Ellrodt, Robert. “Time and the Body in the Works of Sir Thomas Browne.” In Multiple Worlds, Multiple Words: Essays in Honour of Irène Simon, edited by Hena Maes-Jelinek, Pierre Michel and Paulette Michel-Michot, pp. 97-101. Liège, Belgium: University of Liège, 1987.
[In the following essay, Ellrodt discusses Browne's conception of time in his works.]
Sir Thomas Browne's conception of time, though often clothed in biblical imagery, is largely derived from the Platonic tradition. Yet his medical profession seems to be responsible for the most distinctive and original features of his intuition of temporality.
A vivid consciousness of physiological time is often disclosed in an unpremeditated way through the choice of an image or a phrase. The author of Christian Morals warns us: “Thou hast an alarum in thy Breast, which tells thee that thou hast a Living Spirit in thee above two thousand times in an hour.”1 Whether Browne hints at heartbeats—this heart would beat very slowly indeed—or in Keatsian phrasing at the soft fall and swell of tender-taken breath—which would be more easily reconciled with scientific accuracy—is still a matter of dispute. But one thing is certain: time is measured by the fundamental rhythm of our physiological life. That is why the longest lives, those enjoyed by the patriarchs of the Old Testament, are described as made...
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SOURCE: Post, Jonathan F. S. “Elements of Style and The Politics of Laughter: Comic Autobiography in Religio Medici.” In Sir Thomas Browne, pp. 57-94. Boston, Mass.: Twayne Publishers, 1987.
[In the following essays, Post outlines the main elements of Browne's style, focusing on his Religio Medici and characterizing it as a text that lends itself to loose interpretation due to Browne's use of wit and comic improvisation.]
Whatever Browne's achievements were as a scientist and an Anglican apologist, he is best known today as a stylist who created one of the most distinctive and recognizable voices in the history of English prose. The “stylist,” Austin Warren reminds us in his valuable essay on Browne, is someone “whose originality lies not in his big ideas (his major concepts, often philosophically derivative and ‘eclectic’) but in his little ideas, his discriminations and nuances, his intellectual sensibility.”1 Warren is not arguing that ideas are unimportant to Browne or that the author's style can be understood apart from its intellectual context; he is making the simple but valuable observation that in reading Browne's published and some of his unpublished work (not his domestic correspondences) we are always very conscious of the author's “attire.” Coleridge said as much when he remarked that Religio Medici “is a fine Portrait of a handsome man...
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SOURCE: Wilding, Michael. “Religio Medici in the English Revolution.” In Dragons Teeth: Literature in the English Revolution, pp. 89-113. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1987.
[In the following essay, Wilding offers a critical reading of Browne's Religio Medici in the context of the English Revolution, especially as it relates to the breakdown of censorship during the time the work was composed.]
Not only radicals wrote in a coded, careful, cautious way. Sir Thomas Browne, generally deemed to offer an escape from the political strife of his age, emerges upon analysis, as so many supposedly apolitical figures so often do emerge, as deeply, committedly, and indeed polemically, conservative. Commentator after commentator has accepted Browne's statement ‘To the Reader’, which prefaces the authorized edition of Religio Medici (1643), that the work was written ‘about seven yeares past’ and thus has read it as a product of the 1630s, as a late metaphysical meditation.1 Yet in this very stress on times past—and he repeats his assertion, ‘it was set downe many yeares past’—Browne is emphasizing times present, the time of publication, the time of his readers. In stressing how things may have changed, how ‘there might be many things therein plausible unto my passed apprehension, which are not agreeable unto my present selfe’, he is...
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SOURCE: Silver, Victoria. “Liberal Theology and Sir Thomas Browne's ‘Soft and Flexible’ Discourse.” English Literary Renaissance 20, no. 1 (winter 1990): 69-105.
[In the following essay, Silver offers a detailed analysis of Browne's Religio Medici in response to previous critical analyses of the work, including its famed dismissal by Stanley Fish. Silver admits that while she dismisses Fish's arguments against Browne in general, she agrees with the critic when he states that Browne is often defended to the extreme by his admirers, who fail to recognize the conservative and often “luscious” nature of Browne's writing.]
Near the end of her fine and appreciative article on the Religio Medici, Anne Drury Hall remarks that “It has become almost a topos of Renaissance criticism to disparage Browne's ease in favor of Donne's toughness.” And in characterizing that posture, it is primarily Stanley Fish to whom she alludes: “Browne does not, it is argued, pursue the logical consequences of the paradoxes he sets up, nor does he feel their emotional pull with sufficient sensitivity.”1 Although Drury Hall considerably softens Fish's polemic, these are the terms in which he denounces Browne's prose, religious sensibility, and intellect (as Drury Hall discreetly acknowledges in a footnote).2 And yet, although I too resist Fish's substantive argument against the...
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SOURCE: Straznicky, Marta. “Performing the Self in Browne's Religio Medici.” Prose Studies, History, Theory, Criticism 13, no. 2 (September 1990): 211-29.
[In the following essay, Straznicky studies the strategy of self-presentation as used by Browne, contending that this duality is presented most clearly by Browne in the speaking voice of the text.]
… at my death I meane to take a totall adieu of the world, not caring for a Monument, History, or Epitaph, not so much as the bare memory of my name to be found any where but in the universall Register of God.1
To whom does this voice belong? Apart from the obvious irony that a statement renouncing worldly fame appears in print, there are several matters which may lead us to ask this question. We know the passage occurs nearly halfway through a revealing and rather intimate book named Religio Medici; contrary to what the passage suggests, we do know the name of the author, Sir Thomas Browne (certainly not an unfamiliar one in the history of literature); and we know that Browne revised the work in order to set straight a version pirated by Andrew Crooke. But we know, too, that in his epistle to the reader, Browne makes an extended apology for the greenness of the work, insists that “the intention was not publick,” and, moreover, that “there might be many things therein...
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SOURCE: Cunningham, Andrew. “Sir Thomas Browne and his Religion Medici: Reason, Nature, and Religion.” In Religio Medici: Medicine and Religion in Seventeenth-Century England, edited by Ole Peter Grell and Andrew Cunningham, pp. 12-61. Aldershot, England: Scolar Press, 1996.
[In the following essay, Cunningham explores the relationship between Browne's role as a physician and his contributions to the understanding of religion; also includes an overview of Browne's life and works, focusing in detail on his Religio Medici.]
THE MAN, HIS MIND AND HIS BRAIN
Sir Thomas Browne was the first to use the expression Religio Medici for the title of a book. Ever since its first publication in 1642 his little book has claimed an attention out of all proportion to its size. It made the religion of physicians an issue, and made Browne himself the most famous physician to have had a religion. It has in recent centuries generally been interpreted as a brave and laudable call for toleration in religion, put forward in a period of great religious strife, and simultaneously as an argument for the compatibility of devout Christian faith with the free investigation of nature. Thus in the twentieth century Sir Thomas is presented as a physician who on the one hand was tolerant in the domain of religion, and who on the other also claimed that faith and reason—for which people have...
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SOURCE: Kitzes, Adam H. “Hydriotaphia: ‘The Sensible Rhetorick of the Dead.’” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 42, no. 1 (winter 2002): 137-54.
[In the following essay, Kitzes studies the problem of decay in language as it is addressed by Browne in his Hydriotaphia, writing that in this work, Browne clearly concluded that the decay experienced by society is a result of its own constitution and not of any external influences.]
In Philosophy where truth seemes double-faced, there is no man more paradoxicall then my self; but in Divinity I love to keepe the road, and though not in an implicite, yet an humble faith, follow the great wheele of the Church, by which I move, not reserving any proper poles or motion from the epicycle of my own braine.
I love to lose my selfe in a mystery to pursue my reason to an oh altitudo. 'Tis my solitary recreation to pose my apprehension with those involved aenigma's and riddles of the Trinity, with Incarnation and Resurrection.
Thomas Browne's published works are no “well-wrought urns.” They are more like the urns he writes about with such interest in Hydriotaphia (1658): subject to corruption, hard to pin down, and seemingly animated by some spectral agent that...
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SOURCE: Wong, Samuel Glen. “Constructing a Critical Subject in Reigio Medici.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 43, no. 1 (winter 2003): 117-36.
[In the following essay, Wong explores the reasons why Browne's work became such an integral part of the public and literary discourse concerning authorial intention and critical interpretation.]
This essay reexamines the relationship among three works: the Religio Medici of Sir Thomas Browne which first appeared in 1642; Browne's preface to the 1643 Religio; and Observations upon “Religio Medici,” the commentary written by Sir Kenelm Digby near the end of 1642. Read in concert, these works reveal how Browne's masterpiece became a public text defined by the complex intercourse of authorial and critical intention. While much of the criticism of Browne's work has been concerned with parsing his prose, calibrating his religious beliefs, or assessing his place in scientific history, critics have paid less attention to the ways in which Religio, together with Observations, illuminates in striking fashion the dynamics of early modern critical reception and authorial defense—how the construction of author and book as subjects of critical reading by Digby, and by Browne in response to Digby, complicates the idealized performance of subjectivity in Religio itself.1 In what follows, I hope to...
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Camé, Jean-Francois. “Imagery in Browne's Religio Medici.” Cahiers Elisabethains 18 (October 1980): 53-68.
Highlights Browne's use of the trope, or metaphor, in Religio Medici.
Davis, Walter R. “Urne Buriall: A Descent into the Underworld.” Studies in Literary Imagination 10, no. 2 (fall 1977): 73-87.
Examines Urne Buriall as a metaphorical text of discovery and journey.
Erwin, Mark T. “Hyroglyphs of Revelation: Thomas Browne and Thomas Pynchon.” Pynchon Notes 22-23 (spring-fall 1988): 47-56.
Offers an overview of the affinity between the religious and scientific ideas of Browne and Pynchon and how they used these in their writing.
Front, Dov. “Which Is the First Unauthorised Edition of the Religio Medici?” Book Collector 45, no. 3 (autumn 1996): 334-40.
Explores the controversy surrounding the publication of Browne's Religio Medici.
Grundy, Dominick. “Skepticism in Two Essays by Montaigne and Sir Thomas Browne.” Journal of the History of Ideas 34, no. 4 (October-December 1973): 529-42.
Focuses on the use of skepticism in the writings of Michel de Montaigne and Thomas Browne.
Guibbory, Achsah. “Sir Thomas Browne's...
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