The Lost Library of John Dee



I finally managed to see “Scholar, courtier, magician: the lost library of John Dee” the exhibition at the Royal College of Physicians in London dedicated to what remains of Dee’s library. While I must say that the overall presentation left a bit to be desired, basically some glass display cases in an upper hallway and a couple of paintings on a wall, the contents held a few gems.

On the whole this show seems to be part of a long term strategy to rehabilitate John Dee and bring him into a more socially acceptable realm of “historic scientist” and away from his legendary status as a necromancer and alchemist. The show’s scant text, as accompanying boards to each item, never mentions Edward Kelley nor he and Dee’s book hunting travels throughout Europe. For as any book collecting wizard knows, what Dee was really up to was traveling about stealing first editions and replacing them with inferior, and sometimes forged, copies. All under the pretense of teaching alchemy and spying.

Regardless of the shows shortcomings in presentation they did have a very nice first edition personal author’s copy of Dee’s “Monas Hieroglyphica” , 1571. Most of the manuscripts and books featured in the cases seem to be selected to show Dee’s marginalia.

Of course they borrowed the obsidian scrying mirror and crystal ball from the British Museum (curiously the BM didn’t let them have the wax discs as well) but I had never seen this necklace amulet mirror before.

An interesting note about this Victorian era oil painting of John Dee conjuring before Queen Elizabeth by artist H.G. Glindoni is that it originally contained a ring of human skulls. Even the titillated 19th century occult revivalists/spiritualist found Dee’s penchant for necromancy a bit too edgy.

Xray reveals skulls

Skull closeup

Animal skull, possibly bear, in the final painting to the rear of Dee’s left foot.

A bit of wandering around the college lead to the real meat of the collection. A library containing some 13k volumes, including it seems the remainder of Dee’s Library collection from Mortlake. While most of the volumes pertained directly to medical studies there was a very nice collection of herbals, a first edition 3 volume Culpeper, and some early Dioscorides that were remarkable. But I did happen to find a handful of particularly interesting volumes stashed among the shelves.

All behind a barrier so it’s look don’t touch. Shame.

Geomantia – Pietro d’Abano, 1550

[Della geomantia di Pietro d’Abano]

The author of the Heptameron – often cited as the author of Agrippa’s The Fourth Book of Occult Philosophy. Would have liked to have taken this out of the case for a better look at the volume. This may have been an item in the Dee library at Mortlake. The marginalia and annotations in this may be extensive.

De Strigimagarum Daemonum – Silvestro Mazzolini, 1521

[De Strigimagarum, daemonumque mirandis libri tres: una cum praxi exactissima, et ratione formendi processus cintra ipsas, a mendis innumeris quibusscantebant, in hac ultima impressione purgati, & indice locupletissimo illustrati. Rome : In aedibus populi Romani, 1575]

Mazzolini’s De Strigimagarum Daemonum is the first theological study detailing the mechanism by which possession occurs. As a book of demonology written by an Inquisitor it holds a strong understanding of what is now called psychology, and the nature of human thought on the perceptual state of the mind. In particular it explores ideas surrounding the role that language and its interpretation plays in forming our thoughts and experiences, positing demons as a kind of mind language hacker.

“Mazzolini, a Catholic theologian, was born at Priero, Piedmont around 1460; he died, at Rome, in 1523. At the age of fifteen he entered the Order of St. Dominic. Passing brilliantly through a course of studies he taught theology at Bologna, Pavia (by invitation of the senate of Venice), and in Rome. In 1515 he was appointed Master of the Sacred Palace, filling that office until his death. His writings cover a vast range, including treatises on the planets, the power of the demons, history, homiletics, the works of St. Thomas Aquinas, the primacy of the popes.” – (some encyclopedia site)

Morienus (aka The Book of the Composition of Alchemy)

Written in Arabic and translated into Latin in 1144 “Liber de compositione alchimiae” is a narrative that tells the story of the 7th century Morienus, and how he came to discover the secrets of alchemy through meeting an old adept called Adfar. It then tells how Morienus travelled to the court of King Khalid, a real Umayyad king, (died 704) who is said to be the person who introduced alchemy into Islam. A later section records a dialogue between Morienus and Khalid in which the secrets of the Magistery or work of alchemy are revealed. It was translated to Latin by the 12th century scholar Robert of Chester and into English in 1925 by EJ Holmyard. I would really have liked to see this inside and see if its a bound manuscript or a printed volume. Hard to say from the binding.

Some other interesting volumes I spotted:

The Real History of the Rosicrucians; founded on their own manifestoes, and on facts and documents collected from the writings of initiated brethren. Arthur Edward Waite, 1887

“Metaphysica, et liber singularis de motu, nec non ejusdem oeconomia animalis” by Cornelis Bontekoe 1688

“The Seven Spirits of God” Johannes Trithemius, 1576

“An introduction to the Fine Art of Alchemy”, Petrus Bonus, 1572

Scholar, courtier, magician: the lost library of John Dee

18 January – 29 July 2016, Monday-Friday only, 9am-5pm. FREE ENTRY
The Royal College of Physicians, 11 St Andrews Place, Regent’s Park, London, NW1 4LE

So, who is up for a heist?