Scholar, Courtier, Sorcerer: the Magical World of John Dee

Elizabethan England’s foremost dabbler in the dark arts is one of the most mysterious characters in the court of Elizabeth I. Nowadays, he’s remembered as a conjuror, as a student of alchemy and the arcane but a new exhibition: Scholar, courtier, magician: the lost library of John Dee at the Royal College of Physicians looks to the books of this remarkable polymath to shine a light on this sometimes shady character.

I’ve always thought that what a person reads tells you a heck of a lot about them, and Dee was a voracious reader. The Elizabethan scholar had amassed, and then lost, one of the most impressive library of the Tudor period. Dee’s books are as full of doodles, scribbles and notes as they are printed text.

Doodler Supreme

John Dee is revealed to be so much more than the fantastical magician he’s often portrayed as. What has been found of his library shows him to be an historian, a mathematician, a navigator and a doodler supreme. Not a single volume in his collection was without a marking or a note, and the marginalia itself is so much more revealing than the books he collected to fill the shelves of his library.

Especially what he chooses to “NOTA, NOTA BENE” or “Note and note well!”

An old book with the latin "nota, nota bene" inscribed on it
“Nota, Nota Bene”

It’s clear from looking at the books that there was a lively mind making the marks, however, the bibliophile in me couldn’t help but shudder to see how he had scribbled all over the texts. I suppose notepaper wasn’t really a thing back in then but still…

Classical Scholar

I shouldn’t complain though, as Dee’s doodles often turned into mini masterpieces like this illustration from his copy of Cicero’s complete works.

A ship, complete with passengers, as doodled by John Dee in his copy of Cicero's works
A ship, complete with passengers, as doodled by John Dee in his copy of Cicero’s works


Dee’s interest in the ancient world went beyond the writings of Cicero. His collection showed an interest in the stories of heroes and the art of love.

Discovering Dee’s love of the classics made this mysterious figure someone I could relate to. He was drawn to stories of Troy, and turned his mathematical mind to that most dull of passages: the catalogue of ships from the Iliad. His working out the strength of the Greek fleet shows us just how meticulous he was.

Dare's account of the Trojan War, from John Dee's library
Dare’s account of the Trojan War, from John Dee’s library


Given Dee’s attention to detail, it makes sense that he would want to discover as many details as possible about any event so the revelation that he was fascinated with Dictys’ claim to have witnessed the events of the Trojan War fits perfectly with this keen mind, always searching for knowledge and proof.

The human side of the courtier came through in his choice of poetry, as a heavily annotated copy of Ovid’s Ars Amatoria was on display.

De Remedio Amoris, from John Dee's Ars Amatoria
De Remedio Amoris, from John Dee’s Ars Amatoria

Turned to a passage from De Remedio Amoris (The Cures for Love), the exhibition suggested that there might have been a particular heartache that affected Dee profoundly. I wonder who had broken his heart?

Comic Book connection

Despite Dee’s modern reputation for the occult, it is the scientist that is made most apparent in this exhibition. In fact, Dee’s thinking on magic more-or-less follows that of various Marvel characters: that magic is just a science we don’t fully comprehend yet. The comic connection goes a bit deeper too, as Dee has been known to pop up in a graphic novel or two, just take Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, for example, which is included in the exhibition.

From Sandman: preludes and nocturnes
From Sandman: preludes and nocturnes

Given the supernatural elements of Sandman, it’s unsurprising to see Dee presented as a supernatural character, what is surprising is his supervillian status. Dee seems to have had quite the impact on Gaiman, who draws on him again as inspiration for an Elizabethan take on Doctor Strange in Marvel’s 1602

Arcane Objects

As I mentioned above, John Dee is mostly remembered for his interest in the occult. He claimed to have communicated with Angels and Demons and to have dabbled in alchemy. In his occult activities he used an obsidian mirror (which you can usually see at the British Museum) to speak to spirits.

John Dee's crystal, from 1584.
John Dee’s crystal, from 1584.

There is also a crystal, which is usually found at the Science Museum, that Dee claims was gifted to him by the Angel Uriel in the November of 1582. It is claimed that this crystal can be used for divining the future…

It was pleasing to know that Dee had recorded his divine conversations, and these accounts were bound and published.  This was the final piece displayed before the exhibition turned towards modern perceptions of the enigmatic man.

An account of John dee's divine/demonic conversation
An account of John dee’s divine/demonic conversation

As expected, modern interpretations focussed very much on the magic. In a Quentin Blake postcard he was depicted as a wizard, and in all of the objects on show in this section, this supernatural connection was apparent.

As I was sitting down, jotting my notes down in my notebook and reflecting on what I had just seen, I heard the dulcet tones of someone talking eloquently about John Dee and the exhibition. I looked up and I saw a women, who I took to be the curator, talking enthusiastically into a recording device. Hearing her thoughts and insights was fascinating.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. simonjkyte says:

    Superb – thanks for post

    1. Thank you Simon, I’m glad you liked it – have you had a chance to see the exhibition?

      1. simonjkyte says:

        I know quite a bit about him so it will be interesting

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