Thomas Browne’s Pursuit of KnowledgePosted: April 6, 2013
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.
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.