John_Dee_AshmoleanOne of the most mysterious figures of the Elizabethan era, the scholar and alchemist John Dee (1527–1609) had a voluminous library of alchemical and occult texts. One of the largest in Elizabethan England, this library was dispersed after his death. However, over 100 surviving volumes were gifted to the Royal College of Physicians in London, and will now form the centerpiece of an exhibition, “Scholar, courtier, magician: the lost library of John Dee,” opening there in January 2016.

In his lifetime, according to his alma mater, St John’s College, Cambridge, Dee “amassed a huge library of at least 3,000 printed volumes, as well as a large number of manuscripts, which he initially housed in his residence at Mortlake. Almost as soon as he departed for Poland to embark on that period of his life which caused most controversy, his communications with spirits, his house was raided and many books were stolen. The perpetrators probably included former pupils such as Nicholas Saunders.” The Marquess of Dorchester later acquired Saunders’ haul and donated it to the Royal College. According to the exhibition blurb, this will be “the first time the books of Elizabethan England’s most famous ‘conjurer’ will have been displayed in public.”

The Dee archive in the RCP Library includes such works as La cosmographie universelle by André Thevet, and Polygraphie et Vniverselle escriture cabalistique, by Johannes Trithemius. Dee left his own notes and annotations on many of the volumes. Dee’s legend has grown far enough to inspire books about him in his turn, such as Peter Ackroyd’s excellent mystery, The House of Doctor Dee. He’s even been the subject of an opera, Dr Dee: An English Opera. The RCP exhibition already looks set to be one of the most fascinating of 2016.


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