John Dee, Renaissance Man

The first ten or so years of my teaching career I would bring up John Dee (1527-1609) in one of my classes–he’s relevant to most of them really, whether it’s English history, or Atlantic history, or my courses on the early modern witch trials or the Scientific Revolution–and my students would look perplexed:  who? Once I told them a bit about the “Arch-Conjurer of England” they definitely wanted to know more, but they had no prior knowledge. That all changed about a decade ago when the first book in Michael Scott’s adolescent novel series The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel was published, which features John Dee as a central character (Joan of Arc, Machiavelli and Shakespeare also show up as the series unfolds): now I’ve got a generation of students who know all about John Dee, or at least they think they do: in any case, the stage has been set.

(c) Wellcome Library; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Anonymous English Artist, John Dee, c. 1594. Wellcome Library; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

For me, Dee represents one of the last generations of men who could pursue “magic” and “science” at the same time: his life’s work represents just how blurry the line was between these two endeavors in the sixteenth century. He’s also a great example of the multi-faceted Renaissance Man, or at least an English example thereof. It’s really difficult to confine Dee’s interests and activities to a short blog post, but I’ll try: he was first and foremost a mathematician, but this foundational field drew him into so many others: astrology, astronomy, alchemy, geography, cartography, linguistics, cryptography, optics. He started out his professional life, while still in his teens, as an academic, but clearly sought to be a courtier, and enjoyed a close relationship with Elizabeth I, who at one point called him “hyr philosopher”. This connection gave him security, prestige, and influence, which he used to advocate for a stronger imperial policy for England; indeed he is generally credited with coining the term “British Empire”. It must have enriched him too, as he spent considerable money (and time) amassing a huge library which he installed at his primary residence at Mortlake, just outside London. He was an avid manuscript-hunter, pursuing and collecting all written knowledge on “high” (learned) magic, predominately alchemy and cabalism. But written, human knowledge was never enough for Dee: he came to believe that all of his questions could be answered only by beings of a higher order: angels. His pursuit of communion with the angels ultimately drove him down a path that threatened both his livelihood and his reputation, as a Renaissance magus practicing learned, “white” magic had to be very careful not to cross the line into the “black” arts of divination and necromancy in this age of intensive witch-hunting. Dee died a natural death, but lost his fortune, and his complex character was reduced to that of Prospero and Dr. Faustus by his contemporaries Shakespeare and Marlow.

(c) Wellcome Library; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

The Victorian View of Dee as Conjurer: Henry Gillard Glindoni (1852-1913), John Dee Performing an Experiment before Queen Elizabeth, c. 1880,Wellcome Library; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation. Apparently the skulls in the original painting were painted over at some point!

Modern scholars (as well as authors of adolescent fiction) love Dee and have restored much of his complexity, but it is a difficult task to reconcile the scientist and the spirtualist. And now there is a new exhibition of materials (and instruments) from his own library at the Royal College of Physicians Museum in London: Scholar, courtier, magician: the lost library of John Dee. Perhaps this is an opportunity for Dee to “speak for himself”: the RCP website states that: “Our exhibition explores Dee through his personal library. On display for the first time are Dee’s mathematical, astronomical and alchemical texts, many elaborately annotated and illustrated by Dee’s own hand. Now held in the collections of the Royal College of Physicians, they reveal tantalising glimpses into the ‘conjuror’s mind’.” I’m bringing students in my Tudor-Stuart class over to London during spring break this year, and this is on my itinerary–I think we can build on Nicholas Flamel a bit.

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John Dee’s own illustration of a page of the complete works of Cicero. (‘Opera,’ published Paris, 1539–1540) (© Royal College of Physicians / John Chase);  A horoscope chart scribbled in the lower margin of Claudius Ptolemy’s Quadriparti, Venice, 1519 (© Royal College of Physicians / John Chase); another great Dee doodle of three bearded faces in the margin of a treatise on alchemy (Arnaldus de Villanova, ‘Opera,’ published Venice, 1527) (© Royal College of Physicians / Mike Fear). You can see more items from the exhibition here.


4 responses to “John Dee, Renaissance Man

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