One of the most fascinating characters in the history of books is the sixteenth century polymath and occultist John Dee (1527 – c.1609). Dee’s studies, from his student years in Cambridge and Leuven to his later life as advisor to Elizabeth I and Rudolf II of Bohemia, ranged across astronomy, mathematics, cartography, antiquarianism, cabala, astrology, necromancy and alchemy.
In the heart of the English renaissance Dee’s work straddled magic and science at a time when the two were only just beginning to be regarded as distinct fields of endeavour. Dee’s association with the history of the book in England is beyond doubt, but his identification as a burier of books is more contested, based on rumour and misunderstanding.
At the core of Dee’s scholarship was his extraordinary library of books and manuscripts, the largest private collection that had ever existed in England at the time (Sherman 1995). The scholarly value of Dee’s library was amplified by his willingness to welcome scholars from across Europe to study his collection, and his enthusiastic annotations shed light on his perceptions and understandings of the texts themselves. Frances Yates opined that “The whole Renaissance is in this library” (quoted in Roberts 2001: 15).
In 1556 Dee appealed to Queen Mary for the established of a national library, aimed in part at repairing the damage done to English scholarship by the dissolution of the monasteries. Together with Bishop Bonner he proposed that this library would seek to rescue old books as well as acquire new ones either by purchase or by commissioning copies of books and manuscripts held in the better-equipped libraries across Europe. This proposal was rejected, and Dee focused his attention on his own collection.
In 1583 Dee and his collaborator Edward Kelley left England for Poland, beginning a six year period of peripatetic wanderings around central Europe including time in the court of Rudolf II, the Holy Roman Emperor. He returned to England in 1589 to find his library and laboratories ransacked and many hundreds of his books stolen. Ironically the stolen books – many of them identifiable due to their heavy annotation – form the largest part of Dee’s library to have survived into the present (Sherman 1995).
Dee’s reputation as a burier of books, aside from doubtful references in magical texts to his having buried chests of books in his garden, rests on the volume published by Meric Casaubon in 1659 entitled A True and Faithful Relation of What Passed for Many Yeers Between Dr John Dee and Some Spirits […]. In his introduction to the book, largely made up of Dee’s records of his conversations with angels, Casaubon sought to explain the survival of the manuscript and, conversely, the loss of other parts of Dee’s papers:
How this hath happened, I cannot tell certainly; what I guess, is this, some years after Dr Dee’s death ( ) Sir Robert Cotton bought his library (what then remained of it) with his Magical Table, (of which afterwards) and the Original Manuscript, written with his own hand, whereof this is a Copy: The Book had been buried in the Earth, how long, years or months, I know not; but so long, though it was carefully kept since, yet it retained so much of the Earth, that it began to moulder and perish some years ago, which when Sir Thomas C. (before mentioned) observed, he was at the charges to have it written out, before it should be too late […] it may be, that since his death, the rest (the place where they lay being unknown) might rot in the earth (Casaubon 1659: 47)
Sir Robert Cotton, alleged digger-up of Dee’s books
John Aubrey’s Brief Lives, a collection of biographical snippets written between 1669 and 1693, includes an account of Dee, and includes the following rather cryptic line:
Meredith Lloyd sayes that John Dee’s printed booke of Spirits, is not above the third part of what was writt, which were in Sir Robert Cotton’s Library; many whereof were much perished by being buryed, and Sir Robert Cotton bought the field to digge after it. (Aubrey 1898: 212)
Donald Tyson in his Enochian Magic for Beginners (1998) expresses doubt about the rather romantic idea of Dee’s books being buried and dug up, suggesting that the mould on the manuscript was the result of poor storage at some point in its long life. However he admits that the contents of the papers were so potentially controversial that it is not impossible that either Dee or his son buried them for secrecy.
Aubrey, J. 1898. “Brief Lives”, chiefly of contemporaries, set down by John Aubrey, between the years 1669 and 1696. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Casaubon, M. 1659. A true & faithful relation of what passed for many yeers between Dr. John Dee (a mathematician of great fame in Q. Eliz. and King James their reignes) and some spirits: tending (had it succeeded) to a general alteration of most states and kingdomes in the world: his private conferences with Rodolphe Emperor of Germany, Stephen K. of Poland, and divers other princes about it: the particulars of his cause, as it was agitated in the Emperors court, by the Pope’s intervention: his banishment and restoration in part: as also the letters of sundry great men and princes (some whereof were present at some of these conferences and apparitions of spirits) to the said D. Dee: out of the original copy, written with Dr. Dees own hand, kept in the library of Sir Tho. Cotton, Kt. Baronet: with a preface confirming the reality (as to the point of spirits) of this relation, and shewing the several good uses that a sober Christian may make of all. London.
Roberts, J. 1992. Editorial preface. In Renaissance Man: The Reconstructed Libraries of European Scholars, 1450-1700. Series One: The Books and Manuscripts of John Dee, 1527-1608. Part 3: John Dee’s Manuscripts and Annotated Books from Cambridge University Library. A Listing and Guide to the Microfilm Collection. Marlborough: Adam Matthew Publications, 7-9.
Sherman, W.H. 1995. John Dee: the politics of reading and writing in the English renaissance. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.
Tyson, D. 1998. Enochian Magic for Beginners: the Original System of Angel Magic. St Paul, MN: Llewellyn Publications.