Tag Archives: John Dee

Much Ado About Doodles

One of the best things about being an independent scholar (whatever that term means) is that my enthusiasms are no longer policed by the academy.

Note: Which is not to say that academics are unenthusiastic about their topics. It’s a truism that academics have a proprietary relationship–well, really, they fall in love with–the subjects of their research. One need only go to an academic conference and watch people unabashedly nerding out about Chaucer or planetary rovers or chaos theory to know that’s true.

No, this is all a very long way of talking about how I saw some of John Dee’s books—and the doodles, notes, and marginalia within—and am unconstrained in saying that it was pretty freaking magical.

Portrait of John Dee. Sixteenth Century, artist unknown. Original in Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, UK.

Portrait of John Dee. Sixteenth Century, artist unknown. Original in Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, UK.

***

The circumstances that led up to my sitting in the reading room of the Royal College of Physicians, quietly waiting to pay my respects to Dee’s books, were a perfect example of the kind of generosity of spirit and collegiality among many academics on Twitter. I had heard that the Royal College of Physicians would be doing an exhibit on John Dee, the 16th-century magus and mathematician who is widely thought to be the inspiration for Shakespeare’s Prospero (Scholar, courtier, magician: The lost library of John Dee). Unfortunately for me, the exhibit was ending in late July, and I wouldn’t be in England until late August. I was sure I would miss this chance of a lifetime. I bemoaned my luck on Twitter, tweeting out “Oh, to be in England, while John Dee is there…”

Within a day I was thrilled to have a response from R. Satterley (@rsatterley), tagging the curator of the exhibit, Katie Birkwood. Katie generously offered to show me some of the highlights of the exhibit when I was in London, a month after the official end of the show. Katie spent almost an hour with me, and we talked about a wide and fascinating array of topics: how the books were stolen from Dee’s library and found their way to the Royal College of Physicians; Dee’s wife, Jane Dee, and what her life might have been like (in a word–odd); and Dee’s mathematical interests and drive to codify and record everything from the weather to his wife’s menstrual periods. Katie was so very kind and immensely knowledgeable. Thanks, Katie! <waves>

The first thing Katie showed me was, she said, one of her favorite parts of the exhibition: a doodle Dee had drawn (probably in 1545 when he was a student at Cambridge, as Katie notes in the video below starting around 2:40). It was found in a compendium of Cicero’s work’s, tucked in a corner by a poem about the “foaming, frothing seas.” The drawing is of a ship that seems almost to glide off the page, the perspective foreshortened in such a way that it floats toward the viewer. I had viewed the digitized image before my trip, but seeing it in person had a much more visceral effect. I was embarrassed to say this to Katie, fearing it would be too fanciful, but it reminded me very much of the scene in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, by C. S. Lewis, in which Eustace, Lucy, and Edmund stare at a painting of a ship rolling on the sea, staring gape-mouthed as it materializes in front of them until they are drawn into the cold, salty ocean.

That idea—of a picture, a doodle, a painting that manifests itself in person, that jumps the dimension between concept and object, the materiality of that idea—captured my imagination. I started thinking about the differences in seeing a picture of an object and the object itself. Why did it seem different, somehow, to experience these books in person rather than to view them on my computer, 7,000 miles away? Do we know, at some deep, molecular level, that we are in the presence of the thing itself? Does that materiality connect us more intimately than an image separated by distance and time? Is it all in our imagination, and if so, is that any less real?

I’m reminded of one of the best stories I’ll ever be able to tell in my life.

Five years ago, the magnificent Ursula K. Le Guin came to my local library with photographer Roger Dorband to talk about their book Out Here: Poems and Images from Steens Mountain Country. At dinner after the presentation, the table talk drifted to how, let’s be honest, there’s something a little weird about wanting an author’s signature on a book. As Le Guin put it (paraphrasing here), “I’m happy to do it, of course, but I do think sometimes, ‘I’ve just given you my words—thousands of them!’” We talked about how the signature seemed like a material proof of connection, of experience. My husband nodded sagely and said, “Hmmm, maybe you could just lick the book instead?” (For the record: Le Guin laughed and laughed, and when it came time to leave, she gave my husband a little pretend air lick.)

It was all great fun, but really, I think there’s something there.

At the risk of sounding as esoteric as Dee, I think books and writing retain some residue of the people they’ve encountered. “Books speak to us,” we say, and sometimes I wonder if we’re being strictly metaphorical. Why else do we run our fingers over their spines, trace the lettering on their backs and covers, flip through pages as though visiting an old friend? There’s something profound about the physical manifestation of our most cherished ideas, thoughts, experiments, and emotions made solid and shared, a way for people to connect across time and space through the simple touch of a pen to paper.

Or you know what? Maybe this is just a flight of fancy of my own. Maybe this deep sense of connection we feel when seeing somebody’s actual writing, or doodling, or jotting of notes, the joy and connection people find when an author has signed their book, is all in our imaginations. But I ask you: If so, does that make it any less magical?

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Welcome to Rivendell, Frodo Baggins

I recently returned from a trip to the UK, and between cathedrals and castles and museums, I worried my jaw would freeze from all of the gawping.

And I wondered: do most Americans feel a bit “Hee-Haw” when traveling?

Exacerbating this feeling is that I’m a dyed-in-the-wool American West Coaster.  I grew up in the wilds of Northern California (think redwood trees and Bigfoot, not San Francisco and cabernet) and now live in the wilds of Southern Oregon (think Crater Lake and blue collar, not Portland and Blue Moon beer).

My husband and I lived in Philadelphia for five years, and even though I had been to Europe before, I still remember the reverence with which I trod the cobblestone streets, stood at the epicenter of William Penn’s “greene country towne,” and threw a penny on Benjamin Franklin’s grave (sidestepping the three singing Benjamin Franklin impersonators to do so). When my husband and I accidentally stumbled on the building housing the Liberty Bell (much easier to do in the 90s before its new digs were built), we stared at each other in awe. “Do you suppose that’s the LIBERTY BELL bell? Like, the real one?” I whispered.

One year when my parents were visiting, we took them on a tour of Independence Hall. The eager young tour guide (think Kenneth from 30 Rock about ten years younger) marveled at the cumulative history of the place. “This building is over TWO HUNDRED years old! How many of you have been in a building that’s over TWO HUNDRED years old?”

A good three-quarters of the room raised their hands. The tour guide blushed

I remembered this episode while walking through Westminster Abbey, the Tower of London, Christ Church College, the Bodleian, Cardiff Castle, and Trinity College Dublin.

It came back with special force when visiting the Bodleian’s exhibit “Magical Books.” I knew I was going to see a First Folio Macbeth. John Dee’s Holy Table. C.S. Lewis’s map of Narnia. I was prepared for all these, but even so there was an element of unreality to it all. “Is that the FIRST FOLIO MACBETH Macbeth? Like, the real one?” I whispered in my best Beverly Hillbillies drawl.

Then there were the surprises.  I had no idea that the exhibition would prominently display one of the Ripley Scrolls. I walked into the smallish room housing these treasures and one of the first things I saw was the splashy toad of the Ripley Scroll prominently splayed out, the reds and greens and golds of the scroll still brilliant after all these centuries.

Then I saw the frontispiece to Mathew Hopkins’s Discovery of Witches.

Then I marveled at the 12th-century herbal instructions on how to harvest a screeching mandrake.

We walked out quietly. My daughter looked at me and said, sotto voce, “Mom, was that a page from HARRY POTTER Harry Potter?”

I put my arm around her shoulder. For that day, we weren’t the Clampetts in Beverley Hills, we were hobbits who’d left the Shire for Rivendell.

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Vile-Hearted Renaissance Peckerhead of the Month–October

EdwKelley

“EdwKelley”. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:EdwKelley.jpg#mediaviewer/File:EdwKelley.jpg

Happy Hallowe’en!  During this time of unwitting mimicry of ancient ceremony and conjuration of forgotten powers, it seems only appropriate to venture into the world of Renaissance magic for this month’s “Peckie” (short for “Peckerhead,” of course).

***

Adopting an alias.  Speaking with angels.  Wife-swapping.  If October’s “Renaissance Peckerhead of the Month” nominee Edward Kelley were alive today, he’d have his own show on TLC.

Edward Kelley is most famous for his partnership with John Dee, the great Renaissance magus and scholar.  Dee served as an advisor to Queen Elizabeth, counted among his acquaintances Renaissance power mongers Frances Walsingham and William Cecil, and served as tutor to the poet Sir Philip Sidney.

In 1582, Kelley introduced himself to Dee.  Dee had been increasingly obsessed with occult communication—specifically “angelic conversations” enabled by a scryer, one who could interpret the messages of a crystal ball. Kelley found Dee and gave him the happy news that his scryer-hunting days were over: Edward Kelley himself was just the man Dee was looking for.

Scrying was not, however, Kelley’s first career, nor was “Edward Kelley” his first name. Though Kelley proclaimed to have matriculated at Oxford, seventeenth-century historian of Oxford Anthony á Wood could find no student of that name during that time in any of the colleges of the university. He did, however, find a young man–same age, from the same place in Ireland–going by the name “Edward Talbot.” “Talbot” left Oxford abruptly–given that he was pilloried and had his ears clipped in Lancaster after that, as punishment for forgery, chances are he did not leave Oxford willingly.

Kelley managed to convince Dee of his ability to speak with the angels.  He described to Dee the process by which he received these angelic communications: He would see the celestial beings in crystal ball, and they would indicate letters on a tablet in their own language, a tongue Dee and Kelley called “Enochian.”  English translations of the Enochian communications would unfurl from the angels’ mouths in paper ribbons. Dee seems to have been sincerely thrilled and amazed with Kelley’s astonishing ability to communicate with the angels.

Yup.  Really.

Shortly after Kelley and Dee began working together, Kelley met and married the widow Jane Cooper, and, to his credit, seems to have treated her well, even arranging for her to have a Latin tutor.

In 1583, Dee, Kelley, and their families moved from England to Europe, trying to win the patronage of Emperor Rudolf II of Bohemia, himself highly interested in magic and alchemy.  Having failed to secure his sponsorship, they traveled a bit before connecting with another patron, Vilem Rožmberk.  They settled in the Bohemian town of Třeboň and began building a reputation for themselves.

Kelley was very, very good at building a reputation—in this particular iteration, it was as an alchemist, a much more lucrative trade than scrying.  It was so much more lucrative, in fact, that Kelley began trying to get out of his partnership with John Dee.  But how to do it?

Here’s where the movie of Edward Kelley’s life gets an “R” rating: scholars think that in order to convince Dee to sever their partnership, Kelley reported that an angel named Madimi ordered them to share everything they had—including Dee’s wife of nine years, Jane (Jane was 23 when she married the 51-year-old John Dee) and Kelley’s wife, conveniently also named Jane.

Dee wasn’t happy about the angel Madimi’s command, but on May 22, 1587, what Dee termed “the cross-matching”  occurred.  Nine months later, Jane Dee gave birth to a son, Theodorus Trebonius Dee.

After the “cross-matching,” Kelley left Dee in Třeboň.  Dee went back to his home in Mortlake to find his library decimated and his collections ravaged.  He died in poverty, forced to sell off various of his prized possessions.

Unlike Dee, Kelley went on to find fame, riches, and the patronage of Rožmberg; Emperor Rudolf II even had him knighted.  Eventually, however, Kelley got caught in his web of deception.  Rudolf had him imprisoned on a false charge of murder, hoping to keep him from leaving Bohemia with his “secret” for turning base metals into gold.  Kelley died in prison in 1597.

Edward Kelley is considered the progenitor of the con-man-alchemist trope, the magician who fleeces his followers, as in Ben Jonson’s play The Alchemist. I imagine that in Disney movies and such he’d be the wheedling dealer in tricks, the man who betrays the good guy but really has a heart of gold.

Though something tells me if Edward Kelley had a heart of gold, he’d hock it.

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