WOULD Truth dispense, we could be content, with Plato, that knowledg were but remembrance; that intellectual acquisition were but reminiscential evocation, and new Impressions but the colouring of old stamps which stood pale in the soul before. For what is worse, knowledge is made by oblivion, and to purchase a clear and warrantable body of Truth, we must forget and part with much we know. Our tender Enquiries taking up Learning at large, and together with true and assured notions, receiving many, wherein our reviewing judgments do find no satisfaction. And therefore in this Encyclopædie and round of Knowledge, like the great and exemplary Wheels of Heaven, we must observe two Circles: that while we are daily carried about, and whirled on by the swindge and rapt of the one, we may maintain a natural and proper course, in the slow and sober wheel of the other. And this we shall more readily perform, if we timely survey our knowledge; impartially singling out those encroachments, which junior compliance and popular credulity hath admitted. Whereof at present we have endeavoured a long and serious Adviso; proposing not only a large and copious List, but from experience and reason attempting their decisions.

And first we crave exceeding pardon in the audacity of the Attempt, humbly acknowledging a work of such concernment unto truth, and difficulty in it self, did well deserve the conjunction of many heads. And surely more advantageous had it been unto Truth, to have fallen into the endeavors of some co-operating advancers, that might have performed it to the life, and added authority thereto; which the privacy of our condition, and unequal abilities cannot expect. Whereby notwithstanding we have not been diverted; nor have our solitary attempts been so discouraged, as to dispair the favourable look of Learning upon our single and unsupported endeavours.

Nor have we let fall our Pen, upon discouragement of Contradiction, Unbelief and Difficulty of disswasion from radicated beliefs, and points of high prescription, although we are very sensible, how hardly teaching years do learn, what roots old age contracteth unto errors, and how such as are but acorns in our younger brows, grow Oaks in our elder heads, and become inflexible unto the powerfullest arm of reason. Although we have also beheld, what cold requitals others have found in their several redemptions of Truth; and how their ingenuous Enquiries have been dismissed with censure, and obloquie of singularities.

Some consideration we hope from the course of our Profession, which though it leadeth us into many truths that pass undiscerned by others, yet doth it disturb their Communications, and much interrupt the office of our Pens in their well intended Transmissions. And therefore surely in this work attempts will exceed performances; it being composed by snatches of time, as medical vacations, and the fruitless importunity of Uroscopy1 would permit us. And therefore also, perhaps it hath not found that regular and constant stile, those infallible experiments and those assured determinations, which the subject sometime requireth, and might be expected from others, whose quiet doors and unmolested hours afford no such distractions. Although whoever shall indifferently perpend the exceeding difficulty, which either the obscurity of the subject, or unavoidable paradoxology must often put upon the Attemptor, he will easily discern, a work of this nature is not to be performed upon one legg; and should smel of oyl, if duly and deservedly handled.

Our first intentions considering the common interest of Truth, resolved to propose it unto the Latine republique and equal Judges of Europe, but owing in the first place this service unto our Country, and therein especially unto its ingenuous Gentry, we have declared our self in a language best conceived. Although I confess the quality of the Subject will sometimes carry us into expressions beyond meer English apprehensions.[2] And indeed, if elegancy still proceedeth, and English Pens maintain that stream, we have of late observed to flow from many; we shall within few years be fain to learn Latine to understand English, and a work will prove of equal facility in either. Nor have we addressed our Pen or Stile unto the people, (whom Books do not redress, and are this way incapable of reduction) but unto the knowing and leading part of Learning. As well understanding (at least probably hoping) except they be watered from higher regions, and fructifying meteors of Knowledge, these weeds must lose their alimental sap, and wither of themselves. Whose conserving influence, could our endeavours prevent, we should trust the rest unto the sythe of Time, and hopefull dominion of Truth.

We hope it would not be unconsidered, that we find no open tract, or constant manuduction in this Labyrinth; but are oft-times fain to wander in the America and untravelled parts of Truth. For though not many years past, Dr. Primrose hath made a learned Discourse of vulgar Errors in Physick,[3] yet have we discussed but two or three thereof. Scipio Mercurii[4] hath also left an excellent tract in Italian, concerning popular Errors; but confining himself only unto those in Physick, he hath little conduced unto the generality of our doctrine. Laurentius Joubertus, by the same Title[5] led our expectation into thoughts of great relief; whereby notwithstanding we reaped no advantage; it answering scarce at all the promise of the inscription. Nor perhaps (if it were yet extant) should we find any farther Assistance from that ancient piece of Andreas,6 pretending the same Title. And therefore we are often constrained to stand alone against the strength of opinion, and to meet the Goliah and Giant of Authority, with contemptible pibbles, and feeble arguments, drawn from the scrip and slender stock of our selves. Nor have we indeed scarce named any Author whose name we do not honour; and if detraction could invite us, discretion surely would contain us from any derogatory intention, where highest Pens and friendliest eloquence must fail in commendation.

And therefore also we cannot but hope the equitable considerations, and candour of reasonable minds. We cannot expect the frown of Theology herein; nor can they which behold the present state of things, and controversie of points so long received in Divinity, condemn our sober Enquiries in the doubtfull appertinancies of Arts, and Receptaries of Philosophy. Surely Philologers and Critical Discoursers, who look beyond the shell and obvious exteriours of things, will not be angry with our narrower explorations. And we cannot doubt, our Brothers in Physick (whose knowledge in Naturals will lead them into a nearer apprehension of many things delivered) will friendly accept, if not countenance our endeavours. Nor can we conceive it may be unwelcome unto those honoured Worthies, who endeavour the advancement of Learning: as being likely to find a clearer progression, when so many rubs are levelled, and many untruths taken off, which passing as principles with common beliefs, disturb the tranquility of Axioms, which otherwise might be raised. And wise men cannot but know, that arts and learning want this expurgation: and if the course of truth be permitted unto its self, like that of time and uncorrected computations,[7] it cannot escape many errors, which duration still enlargeth.

Lastly, we are not Magisterial in opinions, nor have we Dictator-like[8] obtruded our conceptions; but in the humility of Enquiries or disquisitions, have only proposed them unto more ocular discerners. And therefore opinions are free, and open it is for any to think or declare the contrary. And we shall so far encourage contradiction, as to promise no disturbance, or re-oppose any Pen, that shall Fallaciously or captiously[9] refute us; that shall only lay hold of our lapses, single out Digressions, Corollaries, or Ornamental conceptions, to evidence his own in as indifferent truths. And shall only take notice of such, whose experimental and judicious knowledge shall solemnly look upon it; not only to destroy of ours, but to establish of his own; not to traduce or extenuate, but to explain and dilucidate, to add and ampliate, according to the laudable custom of the Ancients in their sober promotions of Learning. Unto whom notwithstanding, we shall not contentiously rejoin, or only to justifie our own, but to applaud or confirm his maturer assertions; and shall confer what is in us unto his name and honour; Ready to be swallowed in any worthy enlarger: as having acquired our end, if any way, or under any name we may obtain a work, so much desired, and yet desiderated[10] of Truth.

Thomas Browne.

The Postscript


To enform you of the Advantages of the present Impreßion, and disabuse your expectations of any future Enlargements; these are to advertise thee, that this Edition comes forth with very many Explanations, Additions, and Alterations throughout, besides that of one entire Chapter: But that now this Work is compleat and perfect, expect no further Additions.[11]


* [My or others’) notes are in [square brackets]; additional material by Browne from manuscripts or previous editions is in {braces}; Browne's original marginalia are not specially marked. The running title is “To the Reader.”]

1 Inspection of Urines.

2 [Wren: “That our naturall English consists for the moste parte of monosyllables, as appeares by the names of all creatures in our tongue and all our actions, and in all the parts of our bodye, exept such things as wee have borrowed from other nations. Scarce one word of ten, in our common talke, is of more then one syllable. In this very short note which conteynes 60 words there bee not above eleven (and those of Latin derivation) which are not (all of them) monosyllables.” I count 59 (different) words, of which 20 are multisyllabic, of which six are of English origin. The word “common”, though of Latin derivation, may perhaps owe its continuance in English, if not part of its derivation, to the cognate (to its present meaning) Anglo-Saxon “gemæne”.]

3 [De Vulgi Erroribus in Medicinâ, translated into French by Rostagny and into English by Dr. Wittie. James Prim(e)rose (1592-1659) was the son of Gilbert Prim(e)rose, minister of the French church in London and chaplain to James I. His writings sometimes have an alchemical tone that verges on the crackpot. Some of his work is refuted by Harvey.]

4 [Degli errori popolari d'Italia : libri sette, divisi in due parti / Dell’ eccellentiss. Scipione Mercurii, by Girolamo (or Girolino) Mercurii, an ex-Dominican. “A verbose but amusing performance,” says Brayley in Wilkin, “containing much curious information relative to the opinions ... of the period ... and usefully correcting many errors, though it inculcates others of equal magnitude.”]

5 [Erreurs populaires, touchant la medecine et le regime de sante, (Bordeaux: S. Millanges,1579), by Laurent Joubert (1529-1583), an extremely popular work, reprinted ten times in its first six months. “The levity of its style, and the nature of some of the subjects discussed in it, appear to have contributed in a great degree to its popularity.” (Brayley in Wilkin)]

6 περὶ τῶν ψεθδῶς πεπιστεθμένων, Athenæi lib. 7. [The work of Andreas is otherwise unknown.]

7 [This was before calendar reform in England.]

8 [Wren: Ut Julius Cæsar Scaliger in literis dictaturam arripuit.]

9 [1646: "Elenchially"]

10 [1646: “desired, at least desiderated”. Wren asks “What’s the difference?” Wilkin explains: “By collectors, every thing which they do not posses is classed among desiderata, whether desirable for its rarity or not: Browne evidently meant to say, that his work was at least among the desiderata of literature, if not desired or desirable”.]

11 [The Postscript is to the sixth edition, the last published during Browne’s life. In fact, Browne continued to collect material for future editions, but he never published another. The 1672 edition is partly noteworthy for the large number of typographical errors. It is fairly clear that the “Postscript” is by the printer, not by Browne.]

This page is dedicated to the memory of Boo the Cat.

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