John Dee, Scholar and Magician

John Dee, Scholar and Magician

Dee had many books on astronomy. In the notes he wrote in the margins of this one, he discussed the two lunar eclipses he saw in 1556 and 1566. When a comet appeared in 1577, Queen Elizabeth asked him if it was an ill omen but Dee reassured her that it wasn't.
Dee owned many books on astronomy. In the notes he wrote in the margins of this one, he discussed the two lunar eclipses he saw in 1556 and 1566. When a comet appeared in 1577, Queen Elizabeth asked him if it was an ill omen but Dee reassured her that it wasn’t. I apologize for the quality of some of this photos. There were bright lights over the glass cases. Good for viewing, not so good for photography!

 

The name John Dee conjures up images of a Tudor-era mage plumbing the mysteries of the occult and speaking with angels through his system of Enochian magic. This is how most people know Dr. Dee, and it is all I knew about him until I visited an excellent exhibition at the Royal College of Physicians in London.

Scholar, Courtier, Magician: The Lost Library of John Dee sets the record straight on a misunderstood and often maligned Renaissance man. Far more than a mere occultist, Dee was a geographer, mathematician, astronomer, world traveler, and cryptographer. He was influential in two royal courts and was an early advocate for the colonization of the Americas.

John Dee signed many of the books in his collection, although many later collectors rubbed the signatures out and replaced them with their own.
John Dee signed many of the books in his collection, although some collectors who stole his books rubbed the signatures out and replaced them with their own.

The Royal College of Physicians holds more than a hundred volumes of Dee’s library, the largest collection of his books in the world. Dee was an avid book collector, amassing more than 3,000 books and 1,000 manuscripts before his library was ransacked while he was traveling in Europe. He had entrusted its care to his brother-in-law Nicholas Fromond who, “unduely sold it presently upon my departure, or caused it to be carried away.” A word of warning to bibliophiles–only lend books to those you trust!

Little is known about Dee’s early life. He was born in London in 1527 and graduated from Cambridge in 1546, becoming a founding fellow of Trinity College, where he became an under-reader (a sort of assistant professor) of Greek. During his student days he created a prop for a university play, a flying dung beetle that carried an actor up to the ceiling. Many in the audience were so shocked by this stage trick that they thought it had been done by magic.

Much of the next twenty years was spent traveling in Europe, visiting several countries and making it as far as Russia. Dee avidly bought books and met with scholars in all fields of study. He did have time to mingle with the highest social circles back home, however, and in 1551 was made a courtier, with a pension, by King Edward VI.

With the death of his royal patron and the accession of Queen Mary in 1553, Dee fell into disfavor. He had been making much of his income by casting horoscopes, astronomy and astrology being intermingled in those days, and was brought on trial for witchcraft. Luckily he was found not guilty, but nevertheless spent some time under house arrest in the home of the bishop of London before he could convince the bishop of his religious orthodoxy.

A 1550 edition of Guido Bonatti's 13th century Ten Treatises on Astronomy, with some lovely depictions of the zodiac.
A 1550 edition of Guido Bonatti’s 13th century Ten Treatises on Astronomy, with some lovely depictions of the zodiac.

When Queen Elizabeth came onto the throne in 1558, Dee found himself once again in the good graces of the court. He astounded the queen by showing her his magical mirror and regaling her with his encyclopedic knowledge of the natural and occult worlds. When she fell ill in 1578, Dee traveled to Hamburg, Berlin, and Frankfurt on a “very painfull and dangerous winter journey” to consult with the leading physicians of the day. Despite the “Doctor” before his name, Dee was not a physician and the title refers to his status as a scholar. There is some speculation that this was also a spy mission, since it was arranged by the Queen’s chief spymaster, Robert Dudley. It may be significant that Dee was well versed in cryptography.

Dee was also interested in cryptography. This treatise on polygraphy (writing in code) includes cipher discs for coding and decoding text. The book is by Johan Trithemius, who included a coded work on cryptography within a treatise on summoning and communing with angels.
This treatise on polygraphy (writing in code) includes cipher discs for coding and decoding text. The book is by Johan Trithemius, who included a coded work on cryptography within a treatise on summoning and communing with angels.

Mathematics was one of his greatest interests, and in the 1550s and 60s he wrote numerous treatises on mathematics as it pertained to navigation, perspective, and geometry. He urged his fellow Englishmen to learn mathematics as the most useful subject of study for a modernizing world. In 1577, Dee published the influential work General and rare memorials pertayning to the perfect arte of navigation. The explorer Martin Frobisher sought out his advice before trying to make the Northwest Passage.

Dee liked to doodle in the margins as well.
Dee liked to doodle in the margins.

Later in life, Dee became increasingly interested in the occult. With the assistance of various mediums, he tried to communicate with angels, and claims he was finally successful in 1581. This got him a bad reputation, as did his works on the angelic language and what would become known as Enochian magic. He was called a “Conjuror of wicked and damned Spirites” and complained to the Archbishop of Canterbury about the many “rash, lewde, fond, and most untrue fables and reports of me, and my studies.” Other than its usual meaning, “fond” can also mean “foolishly credulous”. I never thought I’d learn new vocabulary from Doctor Dee!

John Dee's famous magic mirror is usually on display in the British Museum and was loaned especially for this exhibition. Originally an Aztec obsidian mirror of the 14th century used by priests to obtain visions and for divination, and later used by Dee for much the same thing. It was purchased by antiquarian and author Horace Walpole in 1771, who attributed it to Dee although there is no certain provenance.
John Dee’s famous magic mirror is usually on display in the British Museum and was loaned especially for this exhibition. Originally an Aztec obsidian mirror of the 14th century used by priests to obtain visions and for divination, and later used by Dee for much the same thing. It was purchased by antiquarian and author Horace Walpole in 1771, who attributed it to Dee although there is no certain provenance.

Dee died in 1609, leaving a rich legacy of learning. To Tudor scholars he was best known for his writings on Euclid and his mathematical works, but it was his study of magic and the occult that captured the public imagination. That’s a bit of a shame, because as this exhibition makes clear, John Dee was a leading and influential scholar of his day and should be remembered for his contributions to many branches of human knowledge.

Scholar, Courtier, Magician: The Lost Library of John Dee runs until July 29.

Photos copyright Sean McLachlan. More below!


Sean McLachlan is the author of the historical fantasy novel A Fine Likeness, set in Civil War Missouri, and several other titles, including his WWI action series Trench Raiders. His historical fantasy novella The Quintessence of Absence, was published by Black Gate. Find out more about him on his blog and Amazon author’s page.

 

Dee's copy of Euclid's Elements of Geometry, in a 1570 edition that was the first English translation. Dee wrote the preface to this edition, which featured templates for making geometric cutouts that could be pasted into the pages.
Dee’s copy of Euclid’s Elements of Geometry, in a 1570 edition that was the first English translation. Dee wrote the preface to this edition, which featured templates for making geometric cutouts that could be pasted into the pages.
An important part of Dee's Enochian magic system was this gold disc, inscribed with the "Vision of the Four Castles", and used for communicating with angels. The vision was seen by Edward Kelley, Dee's medium.
An important part of Dee’s Enochian magic system was this gold disc, inscribed with the “Vision of the Four Castles”, and used for communicating with angels. The vision was seen by Edward Kelley, Dee’s medium.
Dee used this crystal ball to communicate with angels, although his journal records only one sighting, on May 25, 1581.
Dee used this crystal ball to communicate with angels, although his journal records only one sighting, on May 25, 1581.
Dee claimed that the angle Uriel gave him this crystal, which he used to predict the future by looking for symbols or the "ghosts" of people within the stone.
Dee claimed that the angel Uriel gave him this crystal, which he used to predict the future by looking for symbols or the “ghosts” of people within the stone.
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Wild Ape

Is there a spell to get that Puppy-Monkey-Baby commercial out of my head. I’m willing to pay.

deuce

Great post, Sean. Don’t forget Dee also translated the Necronomicon into English. 😉

Oh, and his codename to Elizabeth I was “007”.

Interesting chap.

Wild Ape

Seriously, I had no idea that there were books like this. I thought they were all fictional imaginings.

Sarah Avery

I just saw that puppy-monkey-baby commercial for the first time. It’s like something out of the Necronomicon, a Thing Man Was Not Meant to Know.

The only spell I know for removing unwelcome items from one’s head is countering it with another, less-unwelcome earworm. “Copacabana” is most effective, but only you can decide if it’s worth the side effect of, well, being stuck with “Copacabana.”

Wild Ape

@Sarah—I am so sorry that you saw that. May Cthulu devour the creators of that aweful commerical.

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