Scholar, Courtier, Magician: The Lost Library of 17th century scientific genius John Dee

By Sophie Beckwith | 18 January 2016

Dozens of books owned and personally annotated by Tudor polymath Dee have gone on display in an exhibition summoning alchemy at London's Royal College of Physicians

A picture of an illustration of a man on an ancient book
Lost Library of John Dee, Arnaldus de Villanova - Opera (1527)© RCP / Mike Fear
Tudor England’s renowned academic, bibliophile and conjurer John Dee once held dear more than 3,000 books. He amassed titles on world history, astrology, alchemy and love and the Royal College of Physicians' extensive range contains many that have been personally annotated by the man himself.

A photo of a drawing of a 19th century man, John Dee
R Cooper, John Dee Engraving Close Up (circa 1800)© RCP
Culminating two years’ work by the exhibition curator and rare books and special collections librarian, Katie Birkwood, 47 specially selected books, from a collection of more than 150, allow visitors to journey not only through Dee’s curious annotations and sketches, but also his mind.

Birkwood has created a captivating insight into a man who she says was “complicated, difficult to understand, very single-minded and determined." She describes him as “honest, probably gullible and not willing to do all the finery and fancying of the time.”

A photo of a shelf full of ancient books relating to John Dee
Some of the books on display© RCP / John Chase
Dee’s annotations offer an opportunity to take a look at his thinking amid a muddled life of academia and angels. He was famous for his study of mathematics and a close advisor to Queen Elizabeth I. "At Dee’s time, if you got too involved with maths, people thought you must be a conjurer,” says Birkwood.

This preoccupation with the paranormal seems to have been his downfall. Séances and sorcery, Birkwood says, "were an extension of his scientific practices that may have meant an otherwise scholarly reputation was tarnished by the magic.”

A photo of a page of a book showing John Dee's signature
Taisnier, Astrologiae iudiciariae ysagogica (1559)© Mike Fear / RCP
Dee’s thirst for knowledge and the role books played in that is evident; he approached Queen Mary with an impressive plan for a national library and travelled across Europe with 800 of his books. His remaining collection was left in the care of his brother-in-law, Nicholas Fromond, but Dee reported he “unduly sold it presently upon my departure, or caused it to be carried away.”

The books then passed to a possible former student of Dee’s – Nicholas Saunder, who tried to disguise the fact that they had once belonged to the famous polymath. Saunder bleached out Dee’s name and wrote over it, but the exhibition exposes his deception. Acquired from Saunder by the Marquis of Dorchester, the college gained the collection when it was presented with it after Dorchester’s death.

Along with Dee’s signature are the private annotations: impeccably neat handwriting, brackets shaped as human faces, pointing hands (called manicules) and sketches, including the elaborate sailing ship in Cicero’s Opera.

Page of a book showing elaborate ship sketch by John Dee
Cicero - Opera omnia, vol. 2, ship drawing© RCP / John Chase
The exhibition uncovers Dee’s thoughts on science, the spirits, maths and the occult. Petrus Bonus’ treatise on the art of alchemy is annotated multiple times by Dee, along with many other alchemy titles, demonstrating its continual allure to him.

"His wizardry was an extension of his religiosity, not opposed to his religion,” says Birkwood. “His theology and philosophy underpinned his belief that he could conjure.”

She speaks empathetically of his misfortune at crossing paths with fraudster Edward Kelley, saying their meeting and what she calls Dee’s resulting “obsession” with spirits during his then fifties saw his book buying drop off and his good character diminish.

John Dee conjuring in front of Queen Elizabeth I
John Dee Performing an Experiment Before Elizabeth I by Henry Gillard Glindoni 1852-1913© Wellcome Library / Wellcome Collection
One of his first books, Annotatiunculae, by Emilio Ferretti, was probably purchased when he was 17 or 18; it bears Dee’s signature and notes which say he bought it from Cambridge bookseller Nicholas Spierinck in 1544.

The books also reveal how Dee was accused of conspiring against Queen Mary I; a Latin inscription in Alexander’s Mathemalogui(m) prime p(ar)tis reads “the house of my singular friend,” and documents his time under house arrest with Edmund Bonner the bishop of London.

Picture of a manicule
Lost Library of John Dee Quintillian - Institutionum oratoriarum, 1540, manicule © RCP / Mike Fear
The real highlight, however, for Birkwood was stumbling across a new book not originally documented in the collection. She had the small title on astronomy sent away, and it was returned with a resounding "yes" - thanks in part to a short inscription which was "very likely" Dee’s handwriting.

Also on display is a crystal ball thought to have belonged to Dee, and his magical disc, both from the British Museum. Modern exhibits include Quentin Blake’s watercolour mural of Dee, produced for the 800th anniversary of The University of Cambridge.

A photo of a crystal against a blue background
John Dee's crystal© Science Museum, London, Wellcome Images
But the real success of this exhibition lies in the way the mystery and complexity that were Dee’s complicated thoughts emerge from the annotations of this rare collection whilst adding to the intrigue which surrounds him.

"Dee’s inspiration partly comes from the fact that at a time when so many wrestled for fame, his thirst was always for knowledge and never celebrity," says Birkwood.

Image of pop-out pages in a geometry book
Euclid - Elements of geometry, 1570, folding diagrams© RCP / John Chase
Dee may have been misguided in his search for angels and demons, but he never faltered from his scholarly desire to learn through books.

More than 400 years after his death, the personally annotated collection resting safely with the college, can help unravel his complexity for generations to come.


More on John Dee

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