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John Dee, Tudor Polymath


M0010334 Portrait of John Dee Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Portrait of John Dee Stipple Engraving Published:  -  Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

Portrait of John Dee
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

To complement the popular exhibition of Scholar, courtier, magician: the lost library of John Dee at the Royal College of Physicians, it seems an opportune moment to showcase the resources listed in the BBIH. John Dee was a man of many interests, and his expertise in subjects such as navigation, astronomy and mathematics is demonstrated in the wide variety of resources available.

Dee’s early interest in mathematics is established in the article On the Origins of Dee’s Mathematical Programme: The John Dee–Pedro Nunes Connection, which explores the connections between Dee and Pedro Nunes, a Portuguese cosmographer and mathematician. Although little is known of their relationship, Nunes had a great influence on Dee, who become interested in his work in the early 1550s, and may have inspired Dee to pursue his interest in the nautical sciences of navigation and cartography.

Monas hieroglyphica Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

Monas hieroglyphica
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

Dee is renowned for his spiritual interests and they had clearly developed by 1564, when he published a work titled Monas hieroglyphica, a treatise on a glyph he invented made up of esoteric and astrological symbols, incorporating the sun, moon, Aries and the cross. This work is widely regarded as perplexing and obscure, yet The Reception of John Dee’s Monas Hieroglyphica in Early Modern Italy: The Case of Paolo Antonio Foscarini (c. 1562-1616) demonstrates the influence that Dee’s work had on Italian scholars in 1592. Foscarini’s Scientiarum et artium omnium ferme anacephalaeosis theoretica is a booklet comprising 344 theses, some heavily drawn from the Monas hieroglyphica and placing extreme importance on Dee’s monad, citing it as a symbol of the ‘word of God’, although he does not elaborate on the extensive allusions to alchemy present in the original work.

However, the following chapter in Supernatural and Secular Power in Early Modern England titled John Dee, Alchemy and Authority in Elizabethan England provides an in-depth account of the alchemic interests of prominent Tudors, including William Cecil, Thomas Smith and even Elizabeth I. The machinations of courtly life are outlined, with Dee’s fall from grace after the reception of the Monas hieroglyphica; as a Catholic priest he was a prime target for the evangelic Protestants who surrounded Elizabeth and they orchestrated rumours that Dee consorted with the Devil. Elizabeth’s interest in alchemy inhibited Protestant reformers such as John Whitgift and Christopher Hatton from outright denunciation, but they certainly discredited Dee by using whispering campaigns to sabotage his royal patronage.

John Dee performing an experiment before Queen Elizabeth I. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

John Dee performing an experiment before Queen Elizabeth I
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

Fortunately, Dee was a man of many talents and in Cartography as a Tool of Colonization:Sir Humphrey Gilbert’s 1583 Voyage to North America, he plays an important role in the burgeoning discipline of cartography during Elizabeth’s reign. Maps began to move from objects of symbolism to objects of function, providing important visual details to guide colonists’ ships across to North America. Dee created two nautical charts for the expedition in the early 1580s, drawing on the wide resources he had amassed in his personal library, and from gathering information from European travellers, and even pirates. It is clear from this article that Dee strongly supported the idea of colonization, as he listed over twelve British claims to the territory of North America on the back of the map, ranging from King Arthur to Frobisher’s recent voyage in 1577. The political intentions of the maps are clear, ‘fantasy’ islands were omitted and meticulous detail paid to the coastline, yet the interior of North America is left blank, to signify to Elizabeth the potential for colonization. The academic merit of Dee is certainly something to be admired; he produced these resources purely from his own research, as he was not a seaman, and never travelled to the Americas. Interestingly, Dee signed one of these charts with his personal glyph mentioned above.

Münster's map of America 1561

Münster’s map of America 1561 (Image from Wikipedia)


Magic in the Cloister: Pious Motives, Illicit Interests, and Occult Approaches to the Medieval Universe is a fascinating account of magical texts that were owned by the monks at St Augustine’s of Canterbury during the thirteenth and fourteenth century, that came into Dee’s possession after its dissolution. It explores the use of these manuscripts, and the monks attitudes towards them; they were not hidden away as dangerous objects, but shelved in the main collection of the library. The monks had a positive attitude towards magic, combining it with other intellectual interests, although perhaps the somewhat sheltered environment of monastic life allowed a more liberal approach to these texts. It is apparent from Dee’s annotations in the margins that he made use of these texts after he acquired them, and even practiced some of the rituals to seek spiritual advancement, although it is emphasized that he did this for philosophical reasons. For a more thorough review, see Reviews in History.

The final article John Dee’s Ideas and Plans for a National Research Institute provides another aspect to Dee’s life. Concerning his desire to established academic institutions at his home in Mortlake and St Cross, the plans are analyzed and explore Dee’s ideas on shaping the social and intellectual role of natural philosophers. The article surmises that Dee’s plans differed from other projects of the time, and compares his proposal to Francis Bacon’s.

The exhibition Scholar, courtier, magician: the lost library of John Dee portrays Dee as a man of many talents, with a wide-ranging intellect and interests in many fields. From examining the recent resources featured in the Bibliography, John Dee’s far-reaching accomplishments are represented and provide yet more fascinating aspects to a much misunderstood man. Visit the Bibliography of British and Irish History to explore more:

Advanced search screen shot for John Dee

Figure 1: Advanced search screen shot for John Dee

Screen Shot 2016-05-22 at 16.30.04

Figure 2: Screen shot of resources for John Dee

For a review of the exhibition, see Reviews in History 1925

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