Inside the lost library of John Dee, a Tudor wizard
14:54 16 January 2016
Bridget Galton visits an exhibition about the scholar and magician who inspired Shakespeare’s Prospero.
He once owned the largest private library in Tudor England and was the likely inspiration for Shakespeare’s Prospero Marlowe’s Alchemist and Marlowe’s Dr Faustus.
But by the time of his death in 1609, mathematician, astrologer, cryptographer and occultist John Dee had seen his precious manuscripts scattered.
Now an exhibition at the Royal College of Physicians in Regent’s Park showcases some of the 100 surviving books once owned by this intriguing polymath who has continued to inspire artists as diverse as Derek Jarman, Damon Albarn and is the iconic prototype for wizards from Gandalf to Dumbledore.
The tomes, some never seen before, include Greek and Roman histories, mathematical treatises, an introduction to alchemy, astrological textbooks and Dee’s accounts of his conversations with angels.
But what offers a fascinating insight into the mind of this Renaissance man are his extensive annotations, drawings, comments and jottings.
“He was a polymath whose library included books on maths, astronomy astrology and alchemy,’” says exhibition curator Kate Birkwood.
“What makes them so exceptional as historical sources are the annotations, that give us a real insight into the mind of a remarkable, intriguing and somewhat enigmatic character. It’s a way of getting close to a a man who was one of the major intellectuals of the Tudor period but has become more a myth than a historic figure.”
Dee found favour at the court of Edward VI but fell foul of his sister Bloody Mary when he was dragged before the Star Chamber and imprisoned for casting unauthorized horoscopes of the Queen.
Later at the court of Elizabeth I he advised, ran an errand to seek medical advice when she was unwell and was accused by a 17th Century scientist Robert Hooke of being one of her spies.One of his books has a revolving wheel for deciphering encrypted messages, a kind of Tudor Enigma machine.
But although Dee advised explorers such as Frobisher on more accurate navigation and drew up a prototype meteorology key for the weather, in the last 30 years of his life he believed himself in contact with divine spirits via mediums known as scryers.
In the 1580s he travelled widely through Europe with his medium entrusting his house and library to his brother in law who either sold or allowed people to steal his precious books and precious objects.
The exhibition also brings together some of Dee’s occult artefacts, from the British Museum a crystal ball for conversing with spirits, a ‘magic disc’ for contacting angels and a ‘magical mirror’ for conjuring visions. The Science Museum has loaned a ‘scrying mirror’ for predicting the future and a crystal Dee claimed was given to him personally by the angel Uriel who also instructed him how to make the philosopher’s stone.
“He is the Renaissance wizard interested in occult and alchemy who believed he could talk to angels using a spirit language,” says Birkwood the RCP’s rare books and special collections librarian.
“This has coloured our view of him because it doesn’t fit with our modern conception of a Renaissance scholar. But you have to remember that his interest in mathematics probably seemed more bizarre in Tudor times than his belief in spirits talking to him. He exemplifies the diverse and apparently contradictory intellectual and social preoccupations of his age. Both deeply religious and fastidiously superstitious. A scholar of mathematics and magic.”
When the RCP lost their original library in the Great fire of London the 1st Marquis of Dorchester bequeathed them his book collection in 1680 which included the largest surviving fragment of John Dee’s extraordinary library.
Birkwood adds: “We are incredibly privileged to be guardians of the 100 works that were once part of one of the greatest collections of books and manuscripts in Europe. The opportunity to put them on public display is truly amazing.
“What is even more amazing is the portrait they paint of John Dee: a figure for whom the words polymath, paradox and puzzle seem to have been coined. I hope our exhibition reveals something of the man behind the myths and stories that have grown up across the centuries.”
With biographies, films such as Jarman’s Jubilee which features Dee, and even a Damon Albarn opera – Dr Dee – those myths and stories are set to continue for the foreseeable future.
Scholar, courtier, magician: The lost library of John Dee runs January 18 until July 29 at the RCP in Regetn’s Park. Admission free. Rcplondon.ac.uk