The Arch-Conjurer of England: John Dee

Occultist, polymath, courtier and supposed inspiration for both Dr. Faustus and Shakespeare’s Prospero, in the 1580’s John Dee built – and subsequently lost - the largest private collection of books and manuscripts in the country, whilst away travelling in eastern and central Europe. Never entirely clear about what happened to the 3,000 strong-collection in his absence, according to Dee, his brother in-law Nicholas Fromound ‘unduly sold it presently upon my departure, or caused it to be carried away.’ An early expert in the hidden wisdom of the created world, with a keen interest in all forms of education, Dee’s writing and research spanned emergent technologies in science and cartography (his collection of scientific instruments were a central aid to English navigation groups), his long term courtly duties for Elisabeth I, and his ongoing ‘conversations with angels’ – the last of which were documented in a paper written on him by Méric Casaubon. Though popular and celebrated at the time of its publishing, the paper’s inclusion of allegations that he was unwittingly ‘channelling evil spirits’ eventually contributed to an enduring perception of him as a fanatic, and his gradual descent into obscurity, which began upon returning home to his ‘lost library’ and frayed reputation. Dee’s beguiling collection of books and curiosa including paintings and objects (among them his renowned Obsidian Mirror, now held in the collection of the British Library), formed the basis of an exhibition at The Royal College of Physicians in 2016, aiming to reinvigorate the legacy of this otherwise misunderstood cornerstone figure of Tudor history.

Glyn Parry
Yale University Press

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