Thomas Browne’s Pursuit of Knowledge

Recently, I’ve been reading W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, a novel that traces the meandering recollections of the narrator through history and autobiography, mixing fact and fiction, and set against the backdrop of the flats of East Anglia.  If that sounds confusing, then I’ve described it aptly.  It stands quite apart from any genre I’ve read before and I’d recommend it very highly to anyone who wishes their own internal monologue could be as profound as the narrator of The Rings of Saturn.

The book begins with a discussion of Thomas Browne, a 17th-century polymath whose writings included subjects as diverse as medical anatomy, linguistics, archaeology, and much more besides.  Specifically, Sebald dwells on Hydriotaphia, Browne’s 1658 account of the excavation of Roman urn burials near Walsingham in Norfolk.  We now know that Browne was, in fact, mistaken: the urns were Anglo-Saxon (the Heritage Environment Record is here).  Hydriotaphia is, therefore, the very first account of an early Anglo-Saxon cremation cemetery excavation.  The description of the excavated material leads into a meditation on mortality, expressing an acute disappointment in the fleeting physicality of the body.  Ironically, Thomas Browne himself was to become an artefact, when his bones were accidentally disinterred in 1840 and later became part of the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital Museum’s anatomy collection until 1921, when they were once again returned to the soil.

Thomas Browne’s skull, now re-interred, pinched from here (the image that is, not the skull)

The part of Sebald’s account that really interested me was his description of Browne’s musing that “all knowledge is enveloped in darkness. What we perceive are no more than isolated lights in the abyss of ignorance, in the shadow-filled edifice of the world”.  I thought this was a rather fitting quotation from a man who might be considered among the first archaeologists, who was called by the same desire as we all are to spend our energies uncovering and scrutinising those pinpoints of light, reconstructing what we can about the darkness that surrounds them.  It’s a particularly fitting metaphor for the study of early medieval jewellery.  My attraction to these items has always stemmed from the way they stand out as relatively untouched by the ravages of time, unlike the bones of those people that wore them, and most of the other objects with which they were buried.  Despite the patina that transforms gleaming, warm bronze to an attractive, emerald green, I often see these brooches, pins, clasps and other accountrements as virtually pristine items to which we can still directly relate, and from which we can shed a little light on darker ages.


6 Comments on “Thomas Browne’s Pursuit of Knowledge”

  1. loubie79 says:

    Thanks for the introduction to The Rings of Saturn. I’m interested in the ways that we are moving away from Modernist divisions of separate subjects into what some people are describing as neomedieval. I was trying to stay away from fiction so as to narrow my focus a bit, but this seems too interesting not to read. I like the idea of mixing fact and fiction too.

    • T. F. Martin says:

      The Rings of Saturn is probably the only novel I’ve read that has really helped me think about my subject. I’ve never heard of neomedievalism before and I’d never really thought of it in that way, but it’s an interesting way of thinking about it. Thanks, I like it!

  2. Great stuff! I definitely want to read that now.

    Have you read Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels? It’s very very different in scope and execution to The Rings of Saturn (it sounds like), but, the idea of the overlap between archaeology and personal experience of moments of historical upheaval is something that definitely crops up in there. You probably don’t have time to read every novel that might be tangentially related to what you are doing though.

    I’m really sorry, apparently I’m a massively pedantic dick so I feel compelled to point this out: when you say “I’d recommend it very highly to anyone who wishes their own internal monologue could be as profound as the narrator of The Rings of Saturn”, how would they know whether they wanted to be as profound as that narrator if they hadn’t already read the book? That sentence made my mind hurt a bit. Maybe actually I’m not so much a pedant as a bit dense! .

    • Toby Martin says:

      Thanks for the recommendation, I’ll definitely follow it up! I would, however, recommend that sentence to anyone who wishes their own logic could be as circuitous as the writer of this blog.

  3. […] or verbal knowledge outranks visual, material or experiential knowledge.¹  A few months ago, in my debut post,  I wrote about W. G. Sebald and alternative means of reflecting on the past.  I believe this […]

  4. […] society, and partly because it’s a reminder of our own mortality.  I wrote about this in my very first blog, and returned to the theme in a later […]

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