Banned Books Week: Thomas Browne

September 25 – October 1 is Banned Books week. Hopefully you saw Susan Fowler’s earlier Becker Brief about Banned Medical Books (if not, check it out here!), but we also wanted to take the time to post about historical banned books.

One of the works in our special collections that was once censored by the Catholic Church is Thomas Browne’s Religio medici (Religion of a Physician). Thomas Browne was born in 1605 in Cheapside, London. After his father died in 1613 his mother married Sir Thomas Dutton, a courtier who had been appointed scoutmaster-general in Ireland by King James I in 1610. Neither his mother nor his stepfather was particularly adept at financial management, and when Thomas was still young the court of alderman compelled his mother to relinquish control of her dead husband’s estate to Edward Browne. This allowed Thomas to begin his schooling at Winchester College in 1616. He matriculated at Broadgates Hall in Oxford in 1623, and when the Hall was incorporated as Pembroke College in 1624 he gave the undergraduate oration. He received his BA from Pembroke in 1627 and his MA 1629. After this he went to the continent to study medicine, first at Montpellier, then at Padua, and finally at Leiden, where he received his MD in 1633. He was a firm believer in the importance of anatomy and autopsy for medical knowledge, and was also an admirer of William Harvey.

He wrote the Religio Medici after he returned to England. It is essentially a meditation on his Christian faith and the relationship between religion and science. It circulated among his friends in manuscript form before falling into the hands of the London bookseller and publisher Andrew Crooke, who published an unauthorized edition in 1642. This first incarnation of the Religio Medici was a very small octavo volume (small enough to fit on one hand!) with an engraved title page by Will Marshall. Browne’s authorized version of the text – which was somewhat more orthodox – appeared in 1643. This was followed by a Latin edition in 1644.

In 1645 the Catholic Church put Browne’s work on the Vatican’s Index Expurgatorius, a list of published works that were forbidden to be read unless sections of unacceptable content were removed. This index was a part of the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, the Catholic Church’s list of texts that were deemed dangerous due to their heretical, anti-clerical, or lascivious content. Given Browne’s belief that the Anglican strand of Christianity was the most fulfilling, it’s not surprising that his work was censored by the Catholic authorities. A place on the Index did not, however, hamper the Religio Medici’s popularity, and it went on to be translated into several European languages.

Thomas Browne died in 1682 at his home in Norwich. His work continued to be appreciated by many notable figures including the writers Samuel Johnson and Samuel Coleridge. Sir William Osler, who was one of the founding physicians of Johns Hopkins, admired Browne so much that a 19th century edition of the Religio Medici was placed on the bier at his funeral. Although the Church once objected to Browne’s words it was unable to prevent them from inspiring others, and we are glad to have copies of the Religio Medici here at the Becker Library.


Sources: R. H. Robbins, ‘Browne, Sir Thomas (1605–1682)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2008 [, accessed 29 Sept 2016]