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?’.
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 ten years ago. This year, on the 19th of October (the date of his birth and death), Norwich has initiated an annual ‘Sir Thomas Browne Day’, where visitors (and locals) can discover more about the famous polymath, and get involved in a very special project…
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.
Now, in a project run by the Thomas Browne Project, you are invited to submit your own weird and wonderful superstitions and unanswered questions, which – if they are selected – will be sent to actual scientists at the Norwich Research Park for experimenting, poking, prodding, proving or disproving, with a plan of demonstrating them on Sir Thomas Browne day next year.
So I did a quick poll in the office, and here is an insight into what we’ve all been wondering:
“Can you tell the size of a room by swinging a cat in it”
“Why do different coloured shower products all go white when they’re used”
“Where does all the lost eyebrow hair go”
“Why do diagonal sandwiches taste better”
And my personal favourite:
“Where are all my odd socks”
To submit your own burning question, get involved one of two ways: Firstly, the Thomas Browne team will be setting up stall on Hay Hill on Thursday the 19th of October, to take your entries, and answer any questions you have about the great man himself. Head on down! Alternatively, fill in the online form here!
There are a whole range of events going on around the city, to celebrate Thomas Browne and all of his great work. All events are FREE - here are our highlights (for a full programme of events and to book please visit the website):
Sir Thomas Browne - a talk by Dr Claire Preston 7pm-8.30pm, Norwich and Norfolk Millennium Library
Dr Claire Preston is Professor of Renaissance Literature, Queen Mary University of London and General Editor, The Complete Works of Sir Thomas Browne (OUP), supported by the AHRC.
Claire Preston is leading a team which is editing a new complete works of Sir Thomas Browne. She is a prominent expert on his life and works, and will give us an entertaining insight into some of the stories that surround this interesting man and in particular the invention of new words. Perhaps his most vivid contribution to our culture is his incessant and imaginative invention of words in a period when new discoveries required new vocabulary, something that we continue to experience today.
12.30pm/1pm/3pm Performances in the Forum and on Hay Hill – keep a look out for him!
Norwich-born Browne expert Kevin Faulkner has been performing in costume as Sir Thomas Browne for twenty years so this is his 21st anniversary performance. He will be performing excerpts from Browne’s works - a rare opportunity to hear ‘the man himself’.
Concert with Sistema Norwich - 1pm, St Peter Mancroft church
Sistema musical directors Juan Gabriel Rojas and Firdevs Eke will perform alongside tutors and children from the Sistema project. The programme will be eclectic but carefully chosen to represent elements of Browne’s life.
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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