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2005-2006 Visiting Fellows

Brooke Conti
Graduate student in English Literature
Yale University

Thanks to the Friends of the Princeton University Library, this past summer I received a one-month grant to conduct research on Sir Thomas Browne's Religio Medici, a unique annotated copy of which is held inPrinceton's rare book collection. The Religio, a leisurely and apparently autobiographical meditation upon the relationship between faith and reason, is Browne's most well-known work. Less well-known is the fact that the work exists in three quite different versions written over some seven years: the original is believed to have been written around 1635 and to have circulated widely in manuscript copies; at some point Browne revised the work, and this revised version also circulated in manuscript before appearing in a pirated (and anonymous) printed edition in 1642. Finally, in 1643, Browne revised the work yet again, this time for an authorized printed edition that would bear his name. While the Browne who published the work during the English Civil War is certainly not the same man who composed it seven years earlier, modern critical editions of the Religio have collapsed these distinct periods of Browne's life by providing either a composite text or a lightly edited version of the 1643 text (under the assumption that the final version best reflects Browne's "real" intentions). Because my work on Browne focuses on his autobiographical self-representations and their relationship to his religious beliefs, I have been making a careful study of these three distinct versions of the work, including those that exist only in manuscript. Therefore, I was delighted by the opportunity to make a careful examination ofPrinceton's copy of the 1642 unauthorized edition, which contains extensive comments, corrections, and changes in Browne's handwriting.

Although this copy appears to have served as the base text for Browne's 1643 authorized edition, to my knowledge it has never previously been studied by scholars. Its existence certainly confirms the long-standing belief that, in preparing his authorized edition, Browne did not return to an earlier and less corrupted manuscript copy (as he claims in his authorial preface); however, in examining this item I was hoping to determine yet more: were there any annotations that Browne made to his copy that for some reason did not get made in preparing the authorized version? Does the authorized version show any additional changes not present in Browne's annotations? What stage in Browne's revision process does this copy represent? Could I ascertain anything about Browne's attitude toward the 1642 edition? And, finally, was there any evidence to support or disprove the speculation, first made by Samuel Johnson, that Browne might have had some hand in the publication of the earlier and ostensibly pirated edition?

The results of my investigation, although they did not turn up any smoking guns, did succeed in filling in some important gaps in the scholarship on the Religio. All of the annotations inPrinceton's copy are indeed reflected in the authorized version of 1643, but not quite all of the new material that appears in the 1643 version is represented by Browne's annotations to the earlier edition. Eight lengthy additions are indicated only by marginal slash marks at the point of their eventual insertion, suggesting that Browne either already had composed, or intended soon to compose, these sections on separate sheets of paper. Fewer in number are a handful of small but telling alterations (usually of no more than a few words) that seem to be authorial, but that are not indicated in any way in thePrinceton copy. These missing changes and additions, combined with the extraordinary neatness of Browne's existing corrections, lead me to conjecture that the Princeton copy represents the penultimate stage in Browne's revision process, and that it was probably the copy Browne intended for the typesetter; additional changes may have been made while the book was in press. Such multiple stages of revision would be consistent with what we know of Browne's writing habits: his next work, Pseudodoxia Epidemica, went through six different printed editions, and there are dozens of extant copies of these editions that show Browne's various stages of marginal changes and corrections.

Although what the Princeton copy of the Religio tells us about Browne's habits of revision and composition is certainly valuable, its real significance emerges only alongside the early manuscript editions of the work. Taken together, the three successive editions of the Religio show Browne nervously revising his self-presentation and trying to cover his tracks on a number of controversial issues. Although the Religio has long been read as the expression of a tolerant and playful personality, the earliest edition indicates that Browne was actually preoccupied with a number of heresies and heterodoxies and trying hard to reassure himself of his own orthodoxy. With each set of revisions Browne seems to be working to smooth out the edges of his self-portrait, and though the Princeton copy is nearly the last stage in this process, the same anxieties are legible in his deletions of passages such as those that deal with the Trinity in what he may have felt was too uncertain or fanciful a manner.

My revisionist reading of the Religio forms one chapter of my dissertation (which I hope soon to revise for publication), but the research that I have done along the way and the textual difficulties that I have encountered have also inspired a new project: a parallel-text edition of the Religio that would allow scholars to compare the various versions of the work at the same time and in the same location. My grant through the Friends of the Princeton University Library has proven vital to both projects, and I am grateful to the Friends, and especially to the unfailingly helpful Meg Rich, for making Princeton's resources so accessible and for making me so welcome among the library's collections, readers, and staff.

27 September2005


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