Religio Medici or The Religion of a Doctor is a book by Sir Thomas Browne, which sets out his spiritual testament as well as being an early psychological self-portrait. In its day, the book was a European best-seller and brought its author fame and respect throughout the continent. It was published in 1643 by the newly-qualified physician after an unauthorized version of his writings on the Christian virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity had been distributed and reproduced with added text.
Samuel Pepys in his diaries complained that the Religio was “cried up to the whole world for its wit and learning”, and its unorthodox views placed it swiftly upon the Papal Index Librorum Prohibitorum in 1645. Although predominantly concerned with the Christian faith, the Religio also meanders into digressions upon alchemy, hermetic philosophy, astrology, and physiognomy. Whilst discussing Biblical scripture the learned doctor reveals a penchant for esoteric learning, and confesses, for example, that “I have often admired the mystical way of Pythagoras and the secret magick of numbers.”
Browne’s latitudinarian Anglicanism equally allowed him to declare: “the severe schools shall never laugh me out of the philosophy of Hermes.” A rare surviving contemporary review by a distinguished member of the Parisian medical faculty, Gui De Patin (1601/2–72) indicates the considerable impact Religio Medici had upon the intelligentsia abroad:
‘A new little volume has arrived from Holland entitled Religio Medici written by an Englishman and translated into Latin by some Dutchman. It is a strange and pleasant book, but very delicate and wholly mystical; the author is not lacking in wit and you will see in him quaint and delightful thoughts. There are hardly any books of this sort. If scholars were permitted to write freely we would learn many novel things, never has there been a newspaper to this; in this way, the subtlety of the human spirit could be revealed’.
A translation into German of the Religio was made in 1746. In the early 19th century, Religio Medici was “re-discovered” by the English Romantics, firstly by Charles Lamb who introduced it to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who after reading it exclaimed, “O to write a character of this man!” Thomas de Quincey in his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater also praised it, stating:
‘I do not recollect more than one thing said adequately on the subject of music in all literature. It is a passage in Religio Medici of Sir Browne, and though chiefly remarkable for its sublimity, has also a philosophical value, since it points to the true theory of musical effects’.
In the 20th century, the Swiss psychologist C.G.Jung used the term Religio Medici several times in his writings. Though little read nowadays, in Virginia Woolf’s opinion Religio Medici paved the way for all future confessionals, private memoirs and personal writings. In the 17th century, it spawned numerous imitative titles, including John Dryden’s great poem, Religio Laici, but none matched the frank, intimate tone of the original in which the learned doctor invites the reader to share with him in the labyrinthine mysteries and idiosyncratic views of his personality.
It is far from clear that Thomas Browne ever considered publishing Religio Medici, his first and most influential work. Written during his medical apprenticeship in the mid-1630s, this essay on the religion of a doctor was (in typical fashion) circulated in multiple manuscripts among friends for seven years until 1642, when Andrew Crooke, an enterprising publisher of controversialist writing, obtained it and printed it anonymously, without the author’s permission or knowledge. What Browne would later describe as “a private exercise directed to me” was an immediate commercial success, and Crooke quickly brought out a second edition. Browne, meanwhile, had wind of work about to be published by the colourful savant Sir Kenelm Digby, apparently responding to Browne’s essay. He immediately set about revising the pirated text for authorised publication in 1643. Together with Digby’s Observations upon Religio Medici, the 1643 edition, now with Browne’s name on it, established his reputation in English and Continental writing.
Religio Medici has been described as a spiritual autobiography, but it has an only occasional resemblance to the true 17th century exponents of the form like Lucy Hutchinson and John Aubrey. Although Browne’s subject is his own beliefs, the essay is better understood as a manifesto, a proclamation of tolerant Anglicanism in a period of repressive Laudian intervention and rising sectarian dissent. He uses his history of theological discovery and devotional meditation to propose a generous conception of religious practice and belief. This generosity was received with mixed enthusiasm in some quarters: the book was placed on the Vatican’s Index Expurgatorius in 1645 where it remained until the mid-20th century, while the most vocal English critics suspected Browne of Papistry and atheism; the Quakers, on the other hand, invited him to become a member of their church.