Thursday, June 25, 2015

Hugh Aldersey-Williams's "In Search of Sir Thomas Browne"

Hugh Aldersey-Williams is a writer and curator based in Norfolk, England. An art exhibition based on his best-selling Periodic Tales: The Cultural History of the Chemical Elements opens at Compton Verney, Warwickshire, in October 2015.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, In Search of Sir Thomas Browne: The Life and Afterlife of the Seventeenth Century's Most Inquiring Mind, and reported the following:
It may seem odd, though really it is not odd at all for this book, but my page 99 is about unicorns. My hero and subject, Sir Thomas Browne, is preoccupied with the existence or not of these fabled creatures. As well he might be. Looking at the cover of my own British passport, I find they are still among us. The beast was incorporated into the royal coat of arms during the 17th century in which Browne lived.

Browne was a physician, philosopher, writer and myth buster. He rounded up dozens of urban myths and old wives’ tales of his age, and debunked them one by one in a vast tome which he called Vulgar Errors.

People believed that unicorns might truly exist because they had seen them in pictures. Pictures in the 17th century were things to be trusted, as photographs were during the 20th century, perhaps. They were trusted because of the places where people saw them, chiefly in church, in biblical illustrations in stained-glass windows for example, and in the heraldic emblems of powerful families, including of course the royal one.

Browne is a leading rationalist of his time. He debunks ‘vulgar errors’ by citing learned authorities and occasionally by doing his own scientific experiment, which he reports. He appeals to sense and reason – he wants his readers to use their eyes and brains when they consider whether, for example, a badger has its legs shorter on one side than the other, or whether a dead kingfisher would make a good weathervane. But he is also extraordinarily forgiving of his credulous readers. Throughout, he treats them with wit, kindness and tolerance. In this I believe he has lessons for today’s popularizers of science, who often seem to have lost this lightness of touch.

Anyway, back to the unicorn. You are expecting of course that Browne will say there is no such thing. Far from it. ‘We are so far from denying there is any Unicorn at all, that we affirm there are many kinds thereof,’ he writes. What can he mean? He uses his vast knowledge to explain to his untravelled readers that there is indeed more than one species with a unique horn – a unicorn. There is the rhinoceros. There is the narwhal, new to science thanks to Arctic explorers. There is even, perhaps, the oryx, glimpsed from side on and then unreliably reported as having a single horn rather than two. After itemizing so many unicorns, Browne then does cast doubt on the familiar creature from myth and fable. After all, he points out, such a horse-like animal with a long horn pointing straight out from its forehead would have the greatest difficulty in simply grazing.

Browne is perhaps not an entirely reliable opinion on the subject, though. In Vulgar Errors, he dismisses various other fabulous creatures – the griffin, the sphinx, the chimera – on the grounds that their body parts don’t really hang together properly. The griffin has the head and wings of an eagle but the body and tail of a lion, for example. But he defends certain other fanciful creatures, such as the basilisk and the satyr, simply because they offer such good story value.

I myself would begin to doubt Browne’s analysis, but for the fact that I myself have seen a living unicorn. For among the deer that from time to time wander up under cover of the barley growing in the neighboring fields to help themselves to the contents of my garden, I occasionally see a young stag that has lost one of its antlers.
Learn more about the book and author at Hugh Aldersey-Williams's website.

The Page 99 Test: Anatomies.

--Marshal Zeringue