Hydriotaphia: The Failed Case

rykwert - urn

Etruscan urn-burial from Rykwert, The Idea of a Town (1976)

Hydriotaphia (1658), Sir Thomas Browne’s meditation on the discovery of a group of Bronze Age burial urns in an English field, elaborates a theory of the body, and it is this elaboration that distinguishes it from Browne’s other writings. It is the most systematic of his texts; where Religio Medici (1643) is a confessional document following a loosely segmented train of thought, and Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646) proceeds according to no discernable plan, Hydriotaphia anchors itself to specific material artefacts, which it places in context and interrogates. It is not, however, simply the documentation of a discovery.  Although Browne’s analytical and descriptive technique raises some of the concerns which have become central to modern archaeological practice, his text is not a report, but an inquiry in which, I argue, the nature of the body is pivotal.

Browne’s immediate concern is for the body as raw material, mere matter. He notes that “the body completed proves a combustible lump,” and discusses the body as fuel in the frank manner of a doctor: “How the bulk of a man should sink into so few pounds of bones and ashes, may seem strange to any who considers not its constitution, and how slender a mass will remain upon an open and urging fire of the carnal composition.” Human remains are of the earth, and burning returns them to their elemental state: “That devouring agent [fire] leaves almost always a morsel for the earth, whereof all things are but a colony; and which, if time permits, the mother element will have in their primitive mass again.” In Chapter II, while discussing the way various materials decay, ashes, teeth and bones are simply enumerated alongside ivory, leaves, wood, metal, coal, eggshells, brass. The body, as it appears in Hydriotaphia is primarily a ‘lump’ of raw material.

hydriotaphia urn burial engraving browne

Frontispiece engraving from Hydriotaphia (1658)

Browne focusses on decay as a temporal index. In a similar manner, Ruskin later develops the theme of decay in his Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849), arguing strongly against the repair of historical structures on the grounds that it is precisely their state of decay that constitutes their historicity: if worn materials are replaced with new ones, then the structure has lost its authenticity, and remains only as a parody of the original. Ruskin considers the perception of age to be a crucial dimension of architectural experience; he is concerned with the scarring and eventual vanishing of the object. In Ruskin’s account, the architectural body ages by analogy with the human body: it bears increasingly evident marks of its age, and eventually collapses. It is important to note that Ruskin is concerned primarily with the maintenance of authenticity. His prohibition against intervention on historical buildings and his acceptance of decay are grounded in his requirement that building be authentic; that the truth of the building remain.  In Browne’s account of the body, the truth has departed with the soul and passed into the spiritual domain. His inquiry is into what remains. Where Ruskin’s project is to elevate the spiritual on the back of the material, Browne muses on the value of the remainder.

The recurrent figure of Hydriotaphia is that of the body enclosed or encased. Browne addresses the various framings and encasings the human body is subjected to, or shown to depend on. This is also an architectural theory (as theories of the relationship between the physical body and the world necessarily are). The initial example, and the one which establishes the type of all others is of course the burial urn, which is repeatedly opposed by Browne to the mausoleum or monumental tomb.  The central passage regarding this enclosure is concerned with the general and extreme cases of enclosure: “Circles and right lines limit and close all bodies, and the mortal right-lined circle [the character of death] must conclude and shut up all.” This statement (epitaph, perhaps) follows closely upon Browne’s conclusion that “To extend our memories by monuments, whose death we daily pray for, and whose duration we cannot hope, without injury to our expectations in the advent of the last day, were a contradiction to our beliefs” and his idea that the modern condition is that of a latecomer, and modern minds are naturally disposed to an awareness of the rapidity of time’s passage and its impending conclusion. According to Browne, all bodies exhibit closure, and this closure is a geometric figure. A body’s closure is its property of exclusion: its ability to be distinct and separate from other things; that is, as Browne says, the body is a state of ‘limit’.

Browne here is evidently evoking Vitruvius with the image of the body framed by circle and square (that Browne’s erudition extended to Vitruvius’ Deci Libri is shown by his citing of it in The Garden of Cyrus, 1658). The Vitruvian figure of the body, centrally pinned and stretched on a graphic rack, illustrates the body receiving passively or achieving strenuously geometrical closure, and is familiar to the point of being an architectural trope. But where for Vitruvius, this figure was a demonstration of the body’s innate proportionality as a basis for architecture, Browne sees this figure for what it is: a marking of limit, the body’s enclosure. Architecture is a case which encloses with lines.

Browne also draws an explicit association between this figure of embodiment and the use of the quartered circle (the ‘right-lined circle’ – either a circle enclosed by a square, or a circle squared) as a symbol of death. Metaphorically, the figure of death is a case, because it brings finality and limit. It would perhaps not be out of place to suggest that Browne considers architecture to be a deathly case. It would certainly seem to be in keeping with Browne’s explicit pronouncements against architecture.

As he writes of ‘circles and right lines’, Browne appears too, to be evoking writing: words themselves being constructions of lines and circles, particularly in their monumental, inscribed format as they are used to provide epitaphs, accounts of deeds, and records of names.  This form of funerary writing, too, could be considered as offering closure. Oblivion is the enemy of memory. Memory is a kind of afterlife (albeit one that Browne remains somewhat dubious about), and is best served by the leaving of records. It is “cold consolation to students of perpetuity” to persist in physical remains, but to be nameless and without record of deeds. In this way, the physical body could be said to depend on writing for its proper closure; and therefore writing be seen to be function similarly to physical construction. Indeed, it is the writing of the grave: inscription, epitaph, with which Browne is specifically concerned.

For Browne, all bodies depend on some kind of a case to ensure their limits and finality. This case operates against, while remaining subject to, the natural forces which tend to dissipate the body.

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2 thoughts on “Hydriotaphia: The Failed Case

  1. Just the usual misinformed nonsense here. Religio Medici is structured in 3 parts on Faith, Hope and Charity. Pseudodoxia Epidemica follows the time-honoured structure of the Renaissance scale of creation, and IS systematic – Book 1 deals with error , there follows books on the mineral and vegetable worlds onto man, history and the cosmos. Why do people make these ignorant, misinformed statements, having never reading Browne themselves, merely regurgitating other misinformed statements ?

  2. Thanks for your view. The contrast I was trying to draw was between what I see as a more tightly-woven prose structure in Hydriotaphia and a looser one in Pseudodoxia Epidemica and Religio Medici. In my view, this is a result of Hydriotaphia‘s anchoring to a specific set of artefacts. Obviously the other two essays aren’t completely unstructured (I certainly overstepped when I said that Pseudodoxia Epidemica has no discernible plan); but I do think there is a discernible difference.

    I’ve read all the texts in question so if it’s nonsense it’s first-hand nonsense, not regurgitation. I’d be interested to know who else has made similar suggestions, though.

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