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The 16th-century John Dee was a magician in the court of Elizabeth I, a man who had conversations with angels, an astrologer once imprisoned for predicting Queen Mary Tudor’s death through her horoscope, and a spy. He signed his coded name as 007, a sign-off which later inspired Ian Fleming’s character James Bond. Despite this litany of lore, much of the real life of John Dee remains a mystery, one which researchers are helping to unravel with the reassembly of his library.
Scholar, Courtier, Magician: The Lost Library of John Dee opens today at the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) in London. It features 47 volumes chosen from the 100 books that survive from his massive library on the esoteric, and for the first time since his death in 1609, reunites them with some of his curious possessions. These include a crystal ball used for spirit conversations and his “magic disc” for messaging the angels, both in the British Museum’s collection, and his “scrying mirror,” from London’s Science Museum, used to see into the future. Along with his books, that focus on math, philosophy, and history, as well as more mystical texts on astrology, cryptography, and alchemy, Dee’s objects represent his fervent search for knowledge both scientific and occult.
“Today we tend to think of magic as being something quite separate from, indeed the exact opposite of, science,” Katie Birkwood, rare books and special collections librarian at the Royal College of Physicians and The Lost Library of John Dee curator, told Hyperallergic. “In Tudor England, the distinctions between magic and natural philosophy — as the subject we now think of science would have been termed then — were not nearly so clear cut. A keen interest in subjects such as mathematics could sometimes be seen as threatening and magical to Tudor eyes.”
According to Birkwood, by “the early 1580s, John Dee had amassed one of the largest and richest libraries in England, said to number some 4,000 volumes.” When he left England in 1583 to travel to Europe to seek patronage, he left most of the books with his brother-in-law, Nicholas Fromond. “Unfortunately, shortly after Dee left England, his library was raided by various people; Fromond was most probably complicit in the thefts,” Birkwood explained.
One of these raiders was Nicholas Saunder, who scribbled his own name over Dee’s, or tried to bleach it away in some books. Birkwood stated that it’s here that “the story gets a little murky,” as it’s known around 160 of Dee’s books became part of the library of Henry Pierrepont, Marquis of Dorchester, although it’s not clear how they arrived from Saunder — just that it’s “for certain that Dorchester had the books by 1664, when a catalogue of his library was completed.” As Dorchester was the first honorary fellow of RCP, after he died in 1680, his library became part of the institution, where the books have stayed ever since.
So while the books on view were never “lost,” Dee’s connection, and especially the inclusion of his occult objects, is something being emphasized in this exhibition for the first time. Much of the research for The Lost Library of John Dee focuses on annotations in his books, where he marked important passages, scratched out horoscopes, mused on alchemy, and even chronicled some biographical information.
The books also represent the complications of practicing magic in Tudor England, where it was both sometimes accepted, but often dangerous. Dee had a copy of a treatise by the Italian astrologer and physician Cardano, with horoscopes alongside biographical information about himself, his family, and a patron, yet it was the 1555 horoscope calculation for Mary I that got him arrested.
“Astrology, an arguably magical practice, was widely used at the time by people of all social status,” Birkwood stated. “However, it did not occupy a stable position in society. An astrologer — someone adept at measuring, plotting and interpreting the positions of the stars and planets — could be viewed with suspicion, hostility and fear because it could be felt that their knowledge and skills gave them access to too much information about people and events.”
Later, he did become the conjuror to Queen Elizabeth I, and his legacy is now a magician who fused scientific knowledge with a curiosity about the supernatural, a delicate balance of two sides of the Tudor age.
Scholar, Courtier, Magician: The Lost Library of John Dee continues at the Royal College of Physicians (11 St Andrews Place, Regents Park, London) through July 29 .