Museum of Marco Polo

Celebrating Museums And Imagination 2020

Mythical Libraries. Or what were the books on John Dee’s shelves?/The Librarian

15th May 2013

15th May 2013   You will have noticed that at the Museum of Marco Polo we are intrigued by the power that museums and libraries have over our imaginations.  If you look at the ways that film-makers and novelists use museums and libraries, you can see that they are metaphors for the subconscious, treasure stores where inanimate objects come to life, and places where the secrets of the universe are hidden.  It doesn’t matter if we are talking about high-minded Italo Calvino or not so highminded J. K. Rowling, author of Harry Potter, the effect is still the same:  libraries and museums exert a power over all of us.  If you go to the Harry Potter experience in London you’ll see that Dumbledore’s study looks remarkably like a Cabinet of Curiosities.

So the theme that touches me – and maybe you as well? – is the theme of Lost Museums and Lost Libraries, probably because it contradicts what feels to be a universal truth, that museums and libraries are meant to last for ever.

All of which was going through my mind when we were driving last week through Mortlake in West London where – improbably enough – the Renaissance magus and alchemist John Dee once had the finest library in Europe.

Dee was a navigational expert who advised Queen Elizabeth on the search for the North West passage but he was also an alchemist who talked to angels and who pursued the age-old ambition of turning base metals into gold.  He was interested in astronomy, astrology, alchemy, geometry, Arabic learning, optics and the first language spoken at the creation. He believed in sacred, white magic through which he could harness the power of the sun and moon.

Dee spent his life at Mortlake in a rambling house beside the Thames.  Outside there were gardens and orchards and a boat moored on the water.  Inside was his library, which was probably rooms lined with shelves concealed behind painted, wooden doors.  As well as books he would have owned globes, maps, astrolabes, shew stones (stone mirrors) in which he hoped to see reflections of the angels, and distilling equipment to brew up his alchemical potions.   The books would have come by boat upriver, some from the bookshops that had sprung up around St Paul’s Cathedral, others direct from abroad – the so-called Latin trade.  Some would have come from Christoph Plaintin’s printing house in Antwerp, which still stands and is now a museum (but that’s another story). It was a dangerous business, loving books in the 16th century. Many books were forbidden, and England’s ports were full of waiters, or searchers, whose job it was to find them.

Dee only left England a couple of times, one of which was in the 1580’s when, in order to avoid his creditors, he fled to Prague and tried to persuade the Emperor Rudolph to fund his search for ways of talking to the angels.

After many adventures he returned home to England to find that his library in Mortlake – the finest library in England – had been pilfered by his friends.  His grief at their treachery and the loss of his books is so vivid that it echoes down the century – and so got me wondering, one mildly insomniac night, what exactly were the books on John Dee’s shelves?

I thought it would take months of detective work even to take a guess at them but I underestimated the curiosity of all historians everywhere.  A gaggle of historians had got here already, and from their work we can tell the actual books, as well as the kinds of books, on John Dee’s shelves.

We know he had account of the journeys of Christopher Columbus, written by his son;  92 editions of the work of Paracelsus, a famous alchemist; and the Book of Soyga, a treatise on magic in Latin, full of spells, incantations and mirror-writing. It was thought to be lost until 1994 when two copies were rediscovered in the British Library.

And we know he would also have had dictionaries of Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Syriac and Aramaic; the writings of Plato and Aristotle and Euclid’s works on mathematics;  histories of England, beginning – as histories did then – with the life of the great wizard Merlin;  and herbaria, with exquisite hand-drawn paintings of herbs and plants, the knowledge of which was essential for the mixing up of medicines.

He would also probably have owned books by the medieval philosophers Roger Bacon and Albertus Magnus, many of which were on the Vatican’s Forbidden List;  ‘De Secretis naturae,’ by Ramon Lull, another forbidden writer (he came from Spain); and the works of Avicenna, ‘the Aristotle of the Arabs’, the Arabic alchemist Geber, and al-Kindi’s treatise ‘On Optics’, because Dee believed that God’s wisdom reaches us through invisible celestial rays.

What I love about this story is how connected the world was then.  Books travelled – as did ideas – crossing cultural boundaries between Islam and Christianity.

So now I know what were the books on John Dee’s shelves but I still find myself wondering – on other, mildly insomniac nights – how it was that he arranged them and whether he did so alphabetically?      By Rachel Morris