The question you’re probably asking yourself right now is ‘what do badger legs, kingfishers and fighting toads have in common?’.
But the question you should be asking yourself is ‘what do badger legs, kingfishers and fighting toads have to do with an enormous marble brain situated on Hay Hill in the centre of Norwich?’.
Well, let me enlighten you...
This week, I have been on a journey of discovery about Sir Thomas Browne: one of the most fascinating minds ever to have come out of this city. Thomas Browne lived and worked in Norwich from 1636 until his death in 1682. He was a physician, philosopher, botanist, writer and was very important in England at the time. He was well-liked in Norfolk, well-travelled and educated, religious and respected. He also coined many words in the English language, which we now think of as ageless: Medical, Migrant, Exhaustion and Electricity, to name a few. Surprisingly, he’s not such a well-known figure today, but in his lifetime Thomas Browne helped shape the way we think and communicate even now. He is honoured in bronze in a statue at the top of Hay Hill, and overlooks an art installation (and well-used street furniture) that was commissioned as a homage to Thomas Browne’s life and work eleven years ago. Each year, on the 19th of October (the date of his birth and death), Norwich holds l ‘Sir Thomas Browne Day’, where visitors (and locals) can discover more about the famous polymath.
Which brings me to the badger legs.
Thomas Browne was a curious man, and one of his works was to explore the validity of Old Wives' Tales, or ‘Vulgar Errors’ in his book Pseudodoxia Epidemica, which first appeared in 1646. In it, he explored unanswered questions and long-held superstitions: Do badgers have legs shorter on one side for running across ploughed fields? Can Kingfishers predict the weather? Who would win in a fight, a toad or a spider? By means of keen observation and meticulous experimenting, Browne sought to prove or disprove these commonly-held myths. For example, in his quest to prove the Kingfisher’s capabilities as a weatherman, he hung a couple of dead birds on a washing line and observed what they did (not a lot, funnily enough). In the process, he amassed an enormous collection of weird and wonderful objects, which he kept in his house on Hay Hill, where Pret-a-Manger now stands.
Events for 2018 - Friday 19th October
There are a whole range of events going on around the city, to celebrate Thomas Browne and all of his great work.
10.30am : Tour of St Peter Mancroft Church by Barbara Miller
Free entry, meet in the church
As the burial place of Sir Thomas Browne and his family, there are several artefacts in the parish church of St Peter Mancroft, including a replica of Browne’s skull as well as various pictures and records. Long-term parishioner and font of all knowledge about Browne in the church, Barbara Miller, will explain elements of his life in Norwich as well as the items in the church, including a new object in the collection, a maquette of the Pegram sculpture which is outside the church on Hay Hill.
12.30-1.30pm : Performance on Hay Hill by Kevin Faulkner
Free, donations welcome - stay for the whole recital or drop in
A reading of ‘Letter to a Friend’ written by Browne to a friend who had suffered a bereavement of a close friend. Kevin Faulkner has been performing in costume as Browne on Hay Hill for over 20 years and this is his most ambitious recital to date. The work ‘Letter to a Friend’ demonstrates Browne’s compassion as a physician but also his philosophy of life and death. Kevin will be around to talk to afterwards.
All day on Hay Hill : Talking Statues
Try out the new Talking Statue - scan the blue plaque beneath the statue of Browne with your smartphone to receive a call-back with a monologue by George Szirtes read by Adam Buxton.
7pm-8.30pm : The Annual Sir Thomas Browne Day Talk by poet George Szirtes - ‘The literary style of Sir Thomas Browne’, National Centre for Writing, Dragon Hall, King Street, Norwich NR1 1QE
Pay what you can on the door £3-5
This year, poet George Szirtes - who also wrote the words for the Talking Statue of Browne on Hay Hill, Norwich - will initiate a discussion about Browne’s style of writing, what he chose to write about, his ideas and the way he communicated with the people around him. George does not profess to be an expert on Browne but as a writer and poet, he is fascinated by his literary style and choice of subject matter - Browne was curious about many things that were happening around him in the 17th century. In the fabulous surroundings of the National Centre for Writing in Dragon Hall there will be a panel-led discussion with Lucy Ward (write2screen) and Anna Wyatt (UEA) after George’s talk which will be around 40 minutes. The talk is aimed at anyone with an interest in literature, Browne, philosophy, curiosity, history or indeed of many of Browne’s polymath traits. There will be a pay bar until 8.30pm
For more information visit sirthomasbrowne.org.uk
So next time you see Thomas Browne sat on Hay Hill, bepigeoned and watching people eat sandwiches, think about him always inquisitive, never settling to accept the status-quo, and bringing our conversation to life with glittering new words for us to use. Think about him in his house surrounded by weird and wonderful things, asking himself whether elephants had knees, and ‘Beauty – what it is’. Go and sit on his massive marble brain, and watch the world go by in the city of stories, which was written in part by this little-known and curious man.
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