No Joyful Voices: The Silence of the Urns in Browne’s Hydriotaphia and Contemporary Archaeology

  • Philip Schwyzer
Part of the Palgrave Handbooks of Literature and Science book series (PAHALISC)


Thomas Browne’s Hydriotaphia: Urne-Burial, or a Brief Discourse of the Sepulchrall Urnes Lately Found in Norfolk is, amongst other things, a report on the excavation and analysis of several dozen early Anglo-Saxon crematory urns. This point is worth emphasizing at the outset, as those ‘other things’ have traditionally claimed the lion’s share of critical attention. Charmed by the sonorities of Chapter Five in particular, literary critics have found it easy—and perhaps comforting—to conclude that Hydriotaphia is only ostensibly concerned with early medieval grave ware. Like the conventional anecdote at the start of a New Historicist essay, the urns are understood to serve as the inessential springboard for an inquiry into deeper and more humane questions of mortality, remembrance, and forgetting. In spite of the fact that a significant proportion of the short treatise is devoted to direct description and discussion of the ceramic vessels and their contents, critics have often preferred to regard them as a mere prompt for an inquiry into the limits of knowledge.1 Browne emerges looking less like the contemporary and collaborator of William Dugdale than like an earthy East Anglian Montaigne.


Literary Critic Barley Grain Critical Attention Ceramic Vessel Passive Voice 
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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • Philip Schwyzer
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of EnglishUniversity of ExeterExeterUK

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