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"How Thomas Browne did battle with fake news in ..." Topic

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Tango01 Supporting Member of TMP25 Jan 2017 12:53 p.m. PST

…the 17th century.

"After Lear has announced the division of his kingdom between his daughters, there is much jockeying for position by their respective retainers in Shakespeare's play. The Earl of Kent, the king's most loyal adviser and Cordelia's defender, squabbles with Oswald, steward to the treacherous Goneril, as they both seek to deliver letters to Regan. He launches a string of brilliant invective at Oswald, calling him varlet, knave, Bleeped textson and much else besides: ‘smiling rogues' such as he are not to be trusted, he snaps; they ‘turn their halcyon beaks / With every gale and vary of their masters'.

Halcyon was the name for the kingfisher, and in early modern England it was believed that the body of a kingfisher suspended on a thread could be used to tell the direction of the wind. The belief seems to have been widespread. ‘How stands the wind? Into what corner peers the halcyon's bill?' asks a character in Marlowe's The Jew of Malta, written a few years before Shakespeare's tragedy. (Halcyon days, incidentally, got their start in Pliny the Elder's Natural History. They are the days around the winter solstice when the weather is supposed to be exceptionally calm and when kingfishers were thought – wrongly – to lay their eggs.)

It seems silly enough to us now, but how were such beliefs actually to be refuted? Step forward, Sir Thomas Browne. Browne (1605–82) was a physician, antiquary and writer who lived in Norwich, then England's second city. He is best known now for two literary works, the youthful Religio Medici, a confession of his Anglican Christian faith made to mollify those who feared that as a modern doctor he might be an atheist, and the mature masterpiece Urn Burial, a gorgeously ornate disquisition on customs of death and burial…."
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