Scholar Courtier Magician: The Lost Library of John Dee

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John Dee Engraving, Close Up I by R Cooper c1800 courtesy and copyright Royal College of Physicians

All will be revealed in January 2016 at the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) Museum nearby to Regent’s Park at London when a magical glimpse into the Tudor imagination will be provided as books from the lost library of a noted sixteenth century polymath go on show.

Around 30 works treasured by the very controversial mathematician, natural philosopher, student of astronomy and the occult, John Dee (1527-1609), a man of grand design, will be displayed in the exhibition Scholar, Courtier, Magician: The Lost Library of John Dee.

It is reported the scholarly Dee once had over 4,000 books in his personal collection, which is quite remarkable for his day and age. The museum itself has just over 100.

Founded in 1656 the Musaeum Harveianum named for William Harvey (1578-1657) who discovered the circulation of blood, is England’s oldest medical college with collections of portraits, silver and medical instruments providing a visual record of fellows and physicians from 1518 to the present day.

It has an impressive library, based on Harvey’s original collection donated when he died, which has since been added to. Rare medical treatises, domestic medical recipes and medical reports on public figures and royalty are a feature.

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Lost Library of John Dee, Cicero – Opera omnia, vol. 2, ship drawing, courtesy and copyright RCP and John Chase

John Dee’s library is believed to not only have been the largest philosophical and scientific library collection amassed in Elizabethan England, but also arguably, the greatest throughout all Renaissance Europe.

Currently the ‘John Dee Society’ at London has a project running that will see all the texts he once read published Online, a huge undertaking but one that is sure to please students of his exciting period in history.

The selection on show at this special exhibition will also reveal that ‘enthusiastically and extensively’ John Dee was involved in many interests. They included medicine and cryptography as well as the science of codes.

John Dee's crystal, used for clairvoyance and for curing disease courtesy Science Museum, London

John Dee’s crystal, used for clairvoyance and for curing disease courtesy Science Museum, London

Whether inspired, influenced or intimidated by the man and his reputation, it is exceedingly hard not to admire John Dee. The more you delve into knowing about him, the more you want to know.

His astrology books will be there, alongside a selection of his personal possessions, dispersed after his death in 1609.

The British Museum will lend his ‘crystal ball’ and the Science Museum his ‘scrying mirror’, which he used to predict the future.

Emma Shepley, Senior Curator, at the RCP Museum said “that for all that has been written and said about John Dee, during his lifetime and since his death, there is no better way to get close to this mysterious man, to break the code of his enigma, than to see the books he read, read the notes he made and get a feel for the astonishing objects he used” she said.

Straddling the worlds of early science and the realm of magic, John Dee reputedly coined the name ‘Britannia’ as he set about diverse and passionate pursuits. He could be regarded as the ultimate Renaissance man, one whose knowledge is only exceeded by his desire for more.

“Dee was a figure for whom the words polymath, paradox and puzzle seem to have been coined,” Shepley continued. It also appears he was Tudor England’s greatest doodler, making annotations on the pages of his books that prove his belief in a single ‘language of God’ as spoken by the biblical Adam.

Emma Shepley added. “I only hope our exhibition reveals something of the man behind the myths and stories that have grown up across the centuries” she commented.

Once gaoled for casting horoscopes of Queen Mary (1516-1558), there was a rumour he was perhaps the best ‘secret agent’ to the crown, long before James Bond came along.

John Dee performing an experiment before Queen Elizabeth I courtesy Wellcome Library, London.

John Dee performing an experiment before Queen Elizabeth I courtesy Wellcome Library, London.

An adviser to Queen Elizabeth 1 (1558 – 1603) John Dee completed her horoscope and determined her coronation date astrologically. Happily for him, during the Elizabethan age a higher value would be placed on political freedom, public spiritedness and free enquiry.

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Lost Library of John Dee Quintillian – Institutionum oratoriarum, 1540, manicule courtesy and copyright Royal College Physicians and Mike Fear

The Tudor age embraced life and history together, and saw creation as the unity between man and beast. It could not be described as “classical’ in the confining terms we understand those to be in this day and age.

Lost Library of John Dee -  Arnaldus de Villanova - Opera, 1527, p335 - courtesy and copyright RCP and Mike Fear

Wil Lost Library of John Dee – Arnaldus de Villanova – Opera, 1527, p335 – courtesy and copyright RCP and Mike Fear

When King Henry VII (1457-1509) founder of the Tudor dynasty had come to the throne three books were more likely to be the norm for nobility, including The Courtier,  The Bible and Nicolo Machiavelli’s book, The Prince.

These three were circulated widely in England among noble families and would have a profound effect on Englishmen, who accepted many of their values and theories of government and conduct.

Henry’s mother Margaret Beaufort was a patron of learning and admirer of the Dutch humanist scholar Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536) one of the most influential Renaissance figures.

She was interested in printing, lending her support to the first English printers Caxton and Wynkyn de Worde. She also used her great wealth to endow Christ’s College with large estates and founded St John’s College, Cambridge.

She was very close to her grandson Henry VIII (1491-1547) and it is suggested the powerful, academic intelligence of the Tudor dynasty may have stemmed from her.

Elizabeth 1 came along at a time when scholarly study was becoming integral to life at the top as the world of printing expanded.

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Lost Library of John Dee – Ptolemy – Quadriparti, 1519 whole book open – copyright RCP and John Chase

The Queen herself read widely, embracing many Italian Renaissance ideals; life was no longer viewed through a vale of tears, but as a quest for enlarging human powers and expanding an awareness of God.

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Magical disc courtesy © Trustees of the British Museum

Hers was not an age for the fastidious or feint hearted.

Indeed, a sensuous vulgarity and hearty aesthetic appetite is required to appreciate its bold visual and often challenging performance art forms.

Shakespeare in his play The Tempest, is believed to have lionised Dee as ‘Prospero’ who also learned sorcery from books.

Opinions seem to be divided still over John Dee’s many attributes. They included training the first great world navigators, studied astronomy and developing the maps that charted the Northeast and Northwest passages.

A scholar of mathematics and magic, a keen historian on the one hand and courtier on the other, England’s most famous ‘conjurer’ John Dee is also said to have put a hex on the ambitions of Spain and its Armada, which was foiled because of bad weather!

…Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardon’d be,
Let your indulgence set me free*

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Lost Library of John Dee – Euclid – Elements of geometry, 1570, fol.313v-314r, folding diagrams – courtesy and copyright Royal College Physicians and John Chase

Should be a great show, and entry is free, a bonus for both locals and tourists alike.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2015

Scholar, Courtier, Magician; the Lost Library of John Dee

18 January – 29 July 2016

Royal College of Physicians Museum
11 St Andrew’s Place, Regent’s Park,
London, NW1 4LE

* William Shakespeare: final soliloquy and epilogue – The Tempest





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