Renaissance scholar John Dee’s book collection exhibited in London

John Dee: Scholar Courtier Magician,” reads NewScientist headline. Some books from his collection, some even annotated are on exhibit at Royal College of Physicians in London.

Editorial piece by Philip Ball tells the story of Renaissance scholar and perhaps scientist, but certainly first rate mathematician John Dee. After all, calculating planetary positions by hand was no small feat. Ball writes:

One person who would have welcomed Galileo’s statement, had he not lived half a century too early to witness it, was the English scholar John Dee (1527-1608 or 1609). Yet Dee doesn’t appear in most histories of science, and some of Galileo’s champions might regard him with a degree of horror. Dee is more or less uncategorisable by today’s standards. Some of his Tudor contemporaries might have considered him a philosopher, an astrologer, perhaps even a magician – but they would have agreed that he was, above all, a mathematician.

John Dee had one of the largest libraries of his time in the 1550s, according to a video taken with curators from this exhibit. This multi talented Renaissance man even served as a Courtier to Queen Elizabeth. Although, most of his books were lost in the great fire of London, the ones on exhibit are mostly books that had been stolen from Dee’s library. A man Nicolas Saunder stole Dee’s books while he was away on travels. 800 books were taken, according to one curator. Saunders blotted out Dee’s name. (who inscribed his name in books he owned) And overtop, he scribbled his own.

During his college years, Dee read many of ‘the Classics’, as seen from his stunning collection remains. Many of them he adorned with excellent penmanship in Latin. Here’s a photo of a page of this collection from the Royal College of Physicians’ site.

John Dee annotation

Another curator contends that Dee involved himself in governmental affairs of the day, partly because this 16th Century scholar invented the term, “British Empire’. Ball concludes:

That’s why Dee is a noteworthy figure in the history of science. And his example stands as a warning: that if we cherry-pick from the time when Renaissance magic was morphing into modern science, we will never understand what that extraordinary time was really all about.

For more on RCP exhibit, visit their website:

https://www.rcplondon.ac.uk/events/scholar-courtier-magician-lost-library-john-dee

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