Professor Jessica Wolfe Studies Pseudodoxia Epidemica on NEH Fellowship

Professor Jessica Wolfe has just returned to the UNC classroom after a eight-month fellowship funded by the National Endowment of the Humanities. Wolfe, who teaches both classical and Renaissance literature in the Department of English and Comparative Literature, spent six months at the Newberry Library in Chicago, followed by two months in Germany at the Herzog Augusta Bibliothek in Wolfenbüttel, Germany, working in both archives on a new scholarly edition of Thomas Browne's Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646; 1672) for Oxford University Press. This edition also features the work of her UNC colleague and husband Reid Barbour, who is editing Browne's Religio Medici.

Browne, a 17th c. English physician and essayist best known for lyrical prose works such as Religio and Urn-Buriall, composed the Pseudodoxia as a kind of Renaissance 'Mythbusters' -- an encyclopedia of legends, myths, and "vulgar errors" about subjects ranging from unicorns, curative stones, and mandrakes to pygmies, gypsies, and whether the participants of the Last Supper should be depicted sitting up or reclining at that meal. At the Newberry Library, Wolfe benefited from that archive's world-class holdings of early modern maps and atlases to research topics including the colour of the Red Sea, the mysterious source of the Nile, and the fantastical sea monsters of Renaissance cartography, which Browne dismisses as non-existent 'crotescoes' used to fill up empty space in maps.

Olaus Magnus, Carta Marina, 1539

Both there and at the Herzog Augusta Bibliothek (see below), a collection first assembled by the 16th and 17th c. dukes of Braunschweig-Lüneberg, Wolfe studied early modern medical texts, works on magnetism, electricity, and lunar observation, commentaries on classical philosophers such as Aristotle, Galen, and Dioscorides, and -- her favorite new genres of early modern scholarship -- works on calendrical matters and biblical chronology, which grapple with questions such as whether the creation took place in spring or autumn (Browne refuses to decide conclusively) and what effects, if any, are associated with the so-called dies caniculares, or 'dog days' of summer.

Herzog Augusta Bibliothek, Main Library

While in Wolfenbüttel, the picturesque town in Lower Saxony that houses the Herzog Augusta Bibliothek, Prof. Wolfe had the opportunity to enjoy the pleasures of a German summer and to travel widely throughout the country, including brief trips to Hamburg, Goslar, and Regensburg. Despite its appearance of a tranquil market town (see below), Wolfenbüttel has long been a center of scholarly and cultural activity: Leibniz and Lessing both served turns as librarians of the H.A.B., and the town's many half-timbered houses boast signs marking illustrious inhabitants of centuries past, including the organist Michael Praetorius and (in the 1620s) an entire troupe of English travelling players.  Wolfe was delighted to discover that Thomas Browne's own son, Edward, reports in his travel journal about hearing local legends about a "spirit" that supposedly inhabits silver mines a few miles from Wolfenbüttel -- the 1,000-year-old Rammelsburg mines that tourists (Wolfe included) still visit, just as Edward may have done in the 1660s.

Wolfenbüttel, Cornmarket square