Sir Thomas Browne (1605–82) followed up the publishing success of his Religio medici of 1642 with a work devoted to disproving a number of ‘vulgar errors’ and commonly believed misconceptions. Pseudodoxia epidemica discussed erroneous beliefs about the natural world (minerals, vegetables, animals, and the human body) and those which arose from human society and culture (pictures, geography, and history, including scriptural history).
One of the errors treated by Browne was the belief that ‘the Tower of Babel was erected against a second Deluge’ (pp.348–9). Browne set out the evidence for this opinion, which was drawn principally from Josephus (and which was accepted by Kircher, see catalogue no.46 ). Although he was willing to credit Berossos’ accounts of the towers of Babylon, Browne denied that the Tower of Babel could ever have been built tall enough to provide a defence against supernatural flooding. He also suggested that it was implausible that people who were afraid of a second deluge should ever have descended from the safety of the mountains to live in an area as prone to natural inundation as Mesopotamia. In any case, Browne pointed out, a correct, historical reading of scripture precluded the interpretation that the Tower was built to avoid a second Flood. God had promised Noah (Genesis 9: 11–17) that he would never destroy the world again in that way, and had made the rainbow a sign of his renewed covenant with mankind, of which that promise was a part. Browne thought it unlikely that, within a few generations, Noah’s descendants would have forgotten this promise. Instead, he argued that the building of the Tower had been part of Nimrod’s secret plan to establish his own dominon over people, and a symbol of the tyranny with which he ruled his subjects. Nimrod had promised the builders of the Tower that they would be famous, in order to dupe them into constructing a terrible city from which he could rule. Through the confusion of tongues, God had frustrated Nimrod’s plot to dominate mankind.
Not all of Browne’s readers were convinced by this argument. This copy of Pseudodoxia epidemica belonged to Dr Christopher Wren (1591–1658), Dean of Windsor and father of the scientific prodigy and future architect, Christopher Wren (see catalogue nos. 60 and 65 ). The elder Wren annotated this book extensively, mentioning ideas for a universal language at one point, and picking up on Browne’s discussion of events at Babel. In his note, Wren points out that Nimrod and his people were descended from Ham, the son whom Noah had cursed. He argued that they were likely to have forgotten God’s promise never to repeat the Flood, which was only preserved in the families of Shem and Japhet, Noah’s other sons. This was especially likely since Ham’s descendants had ‘now forgot God himself as appeares by this bold attemp[t]’.
To Wren, the building of the Tower of Babel was a sign of human pride and folly, which had been ordered by Nimrod, who had also abandoned true religion for idolatry. This was a different reading of the Bible from that which Browne advanced, and it was perhaps prompted by a greater deference to other ancient sources (such as Josephus) than was shown by Browne. Yet, although they gave different weight to the various parts of the narrative of the Tower of Babel, both Browne’s and Wren’s interpretations derived from a literal reading of the biblical story and an attempt to interpret it as history.