Researching John Dee

In advance of my talks on that Elizabethan man of mystery, Doctor John Dee, I’ve been on a real adventure of discovery. The surprising thing about retracing his distant life is how accessible he is to us today, how easy it is to walk where he walked and to see and even to touch his belongings. For a start we know exactly where he lived. The site of his house is now a modern block of flats called “John Dee House” in Mortlake, West London. But the tower of his parish church still stands, as does a section of his garden wall. At the British Museum, in the “Enlightenment” gallery is a recreation of the very first museum collection from the 1830s. This includes items attributed to John Dee, allegedly used in the summoning of angelic messengers. At the Royal College of Physicians, over 100 of John Dee’s books are available to view in their museum. The core of Dee’s own library from his days as a student onwards, containing his annotated guides to astrology, philosophy and other sciences. Many of these were stolen from his house when he fled England, in some ignominy, in 1583. Many thanks to librarian Katie Birkwood for showing us some of the most interesting books, which give us a clue into the character of their owner. There are playful doodles, detailed calculations and even scraps of autobiography written in a tiny, yet precise script. One book – as seen here – has written over the top of Dee’s signature, the name of the man, a disreputable Mr Saunders, who stole it from Dee’s house, presumably thinking (wrongly as it turned out) the astrologer would never return to his homeland.

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