Kevin Killeen, Biblical Scholarship, Science and Politics in Early Modern England: Thomas Browne and the Thorny Place of Knowledge

Kevin Killeen, Biblical scholarship, science and politics in early modern England: Thomas Browne and the thorny place of knowledge (Farnham: Ashgate, 2009). 268 pp. £55 hb. ISBN 978-0-7546-5730-9.

(BSLS members receive a discount on all Ashgate titles)

This thought-provoking monograph is one of several book-length publications on the writings of Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682) in recent years; it attests not just to a growing interest in Browne as a writer, but also to the significant trend in early modern studies that re-assesses the relationship between natural philosophy and religion at the point when these two subjects de-coupled. The practice of Biblical exegesis was a crucial point of contact (and reason for the divergence) between what we now consider the separate spheres of science and religion: the need to know about plants and animals mentioned in the Bible, or to distinguish between natural phenomena and ‘miracles’, had once proved an impetus for study of the natural world. Similarly, the Bible was thought to provide authoritative statements on the nature of the ‘created world’, and so was a possible source for the natural philosopher. But with the re-orientation of exegesis (in Protestant and Catholic Europe) that followed the Reformation, the ‘Book of Nature’ was no longer such a useful guide to the ‘Book of Scripture’. Reconciling biblical pronouncements with the ‘new philosophy’ also strained the relationship between these two disciplines, which became increasingly divorced from each other. Killeen’s work on Thomas Browne demonstrates how these two aspects of early modern culture that we now treat in isolation were combined in early modern habits of thought, and provides a sympathetic appraisal of one of the period’s most daunting prose writers.

Browne is a particularly appropriate writer to act as the focus of a study into the relationship between natural philosophy and biblical exegesis. He was celebrated for his wide reading and excellent memory; he had a wide acquaintance and was known and respected by several members of the new Royal Society. Like so many men of his class and time, he was much exercised by the question of biblical interpretation: this was an urgent issue in the England of the 1650s, when the Reformation Protestant consensus (built on the principle of giving priority to the literal sense of the Bible) was challenged by religious radicals who valorised charismatic inspiration and denied the value of any ‘humane learning’ to understanding the Bible. Killeen gives some consideration to Browne’s subtle engagement with the politics of his time, from his ostensibly irenic refusal to engage in inter-confessional polemic in Religio medici (1643, but probably written 1635-6) to his almost covert response to the iconoclastic fury that beset Norwich in the 1650s. (Chapter 6 explores the issue of iconoclasm in detail.) But Killeen’s core concern is Browne as the writer of Pseudodoxia epidemica (or Vulgar Errors, as it was widely known), first published in 1646.

Killeen makes good his claim that ‘Browne’s work is an important text of natural philosophy, not because of any scientific or philosophical originality, but precisely because it is a text so thoroughly immersed in exploring a culture of contested hermeneutics’ (p. 2). Browne was a thoughtful writer, but not an exact scientist. Killeen writes well on the ways in which Browne mines scientific innovations, Classical literature and Biblical exegesis as the disparate raw-materials out of which he constructed his answers to the ‘vulgar errors’, and Killeen argues forcefully that Browne cannot be made to swear allegiance to any particular philosophical school (although his opposition to a purely materialistic philosophy is clear). Crucially, Killeen shows that Browne’s confutation of error is not essentially ‘Baconian’, with empirical observation or experimentation correcting errors caused by an over-reliance on literary authorities. Very often, Browne’s answer rests in hermeneutics: mistakes were made when metaphors were treated as being literal truths, where the interpreter failed to reach ‘the deuteroscopy and second intentions of the words’.  More acutely, Killeen shows that Browne wrote his answers in the same spirit of multi-disciplinary cherry-picking that he used when mining information. He could read like a scientist, like an exegete, or like an essayist, and the reader is expected to keep up with the cues that Browne offers when he moves between genres. The excellent discussion in chapter 5 of Browne’s knowing use of emblem literature when dealing with accounts of fabulous birds and animals explains much of what has perplexed this reader about Browne’s choice of ‘errors’.

In chapter 4, Killeen demonstrates how habits of mind born of a tradition of Bible-reading and explication allowed writers like Browne to treat the study of the Bible as a source, and an impetus, for investigating the principles governing the growth, animation and reproduction of the ‘created world’. The six-day Creation might be explained through ‘seminar principles’ (the mechanism by which the potential for growth in plants, animals and even crystals was thought to operate). ‘Effluvia’ (the invisible, or sub-visible causes of magnetic attraction) could explain ‘action at a distance’, and show how the incorporeal world might impinge on the material world: Browne’s thinking about effluvia implied that it was ‘quasi-animate’ in a way that blurred the dividing line between the material and ‘spiritual’ causes of things (p. 142). The reality of ‘spirit’ acting on matter was vital, of course, to Browne’s rejection of Hobbesian materialism. A corollary of it was the belief in witchcraft, and Killeen’s account of Browne’s notorious role in the Ipswich witchcraft trial goes a long way to explaining Browne’s position.

The disciplinary co-existence of natural philosophy and scriptural exegesis that Browne attempted would not outlast the century: Killeen is surely right in saying that Browne had not simply ‘failed to portion up his disciplines as later centuries would’; these were ‘soon-to-be-separated spheres’ (p. 112), and Browne was by no means the only writer thinking within these categories. Browne is a pivotal figure, and Killeen’s book shows where Browne’s writings reveal some of the fault-lines in the intellectual culture of seventeenth-century England. Browne was also a very subtle writer, and the critic must delve below the smooth surface of his prose to see where he papers over the cracks in his philosophy. Kevin Killeen is a careful reader of Browne’s prose, and he offers us an instructive lead in this task.

Mary Morrissey, University of Reading