Writers of Italic: Dr. John Dee: Elizabethan Magus: 1527-1608

By John Fricker
Date Added: 21/07/2009


John Dee, of St. John's College, Cambridge, the Elizabethan Court Circle and Mortlake, Surrey, is a character of whom we have all heard and probably dismissed as a crazy deluded figure given to strange beliefs of magic and necromancy.

Historians have tended only to confirm this view by rejecting him as a sciolistic charlatan confined in medieval ignorance, credulity and superstition and until quite recently his established position in Elizabethan intellectual society has been very largely ignored.

It is easy from the viewpoint of modern knowledge to discount Dee as a sort of would be Renaissance Merlin entangled in sorcery, alchemy, astrology, demonology and all occult arts, largely unaware of the real world around him. This nevertheless is a partial, superficial though not wholly incorrect concept of a highly talented man albeit dupable, over trusting and humanly prone to error. In a period when knowledge of the laws of nature was largely false and interpretations tended towards simplistic half-truths, or now patent falsities, Dee can be presented as a most serious seeker of knowledge and an outstanding and professional practised mathematician.

Frances Yates has described Dee (in The art of Ramon Lull) as 'one of the most influential figures in the thought of Elizabethan England' and it seems certainly true that in the time of the Queen he was held in very high regard by members of the distinguished coterie of the Court and other intellectual circles. His influence upon the poets Sidney and Spenser in respect to hermitic philosophic ideas and imagery was probably profound as was his imparted knowledge of, cosmology, geography and navigation upon seamen and adventurers.

It is also true to say that Dee rapidly became a figure of European importance and both knew and corresponded with such eminent persons as Gerard Mercator (another Italic master), Abraham Ortelius, Giordino Bruno, Tycho Brahe, Conrad Gesner and others. He was also the familiar friend of Sir Francis Walsingham, Sir Walter Ralegh, Sir Humphrey Gilbert and Thomas Hariot.

With the death of the Queen and the accession of King James I, however, his influence immediately declined, for the King both abhorred sorcery and scorned Dee's more respect-able skills.

There has lately been a movement to re-evaluate Dee as a significant and eminent figure of his time, not to conceal the warts of ignorance and superstition - an inescapable part of his heritage and culture - but to discover and emphasise the positive factors.

As a mathematician, cosmologist and geographer, Dee determined in part the world of Drake, Frobisher, Gilbert, Ralegh and Hariot and amongst other services he designed a most effective 'New Sea Compass', which was appreciated by mariners for some years to come.

At Cambridge in 1546, having been nominated as one of the original Fellows of the newly established Trinity College; his clever stage effects in a performance of The Peace of Aristophanes began the legend of the Magus, which he was to retain to his death.

His life was by no means an entire success. He was much friendship of Edward Kelley, his skryer or medium, who, for his own purposes, imposed on Dee's credulity by leading him into unprofitable avenues and so distracted him from his real studies and wasted valuable time. This dupability was perhaps Dee's greatest weakness, deriving from his wishing to believe certain things. It rather detracts from his credibility as a scientist, but was a fault shared by a high proportion of his contemporaries and is in no way singular to him.

Another misfortune happened, whilst he was abroad studying in Poland and Bohemia, soon after he left England. He was in Europe from 1583 to 1589. His house was broken into and its contents pillaged, most particularly his large and valuable library. The thieves were said to be a mob, incited by his reputed practise of the black arts, but more possibly his sometime friends and students who had probably used the library and in his absence felt the lack of it. It was not irretrievably damaged, but some portions of it remained missing.

His later life was rather obscure, unhappy and impoverished. Most of his real friends were dead or discountenanced, but his enemies continued to flourish and his reputation as a wizard fostered more.

The Library

One construct of a lasting importance as a record and contemporarily as a resource, was the substantial library which he collected at his house by the Thames at Mortlake, Surrey. Thought to be the largest library in the country, exceeding by far the meagre collections of universities and colleges, at its peak of 3000 printed books and 1000 MSS, it was actually smaller than the lesser known Lumley Library at Nonsuch Palace.

The catalogue of Dee's Library, written swiftly and carelessly in his own highly cursive italic hand, has recently been edited for the Bibliographical Society by Julian Roberts and Andrew Watson.

One wonders at the resources at Dee's disposal to enable him to assemble such a library in 16th Century England, when even rich literati might collect only a hundred or two volumes.

As regards the manuscripts, an impossibly large number for any private person to gather today without the wealth of a Getty, they are less of a problem. In middle to late Tudor times many parts of the country were probably stocked with considerable quantities of MSS removed from suppressed monastic houses, whose new owners had little use for them. In the following century John Aubrey, the antiquary, spoke of valuable monastic MSS being used to wrap groceries by those either ignorant or contemptuous of the evil that they did. Such treasures may have cost little more than the trouble and expense of travelling to find them.

For the printed books Dee probably visited the shops and stalls of Little Britain and St. Paul's Churchyard, where, for new books at least, prices would probably have been high.

A point to raise is that Dee's stance on his library and the generosity he showed in allowing its use to many others, made it virtually a privately owned public library and from this came a not inconsiderable part of his fame. The detail of its use remains unknown, but readers and borrowers must have included such people as Sir Philip Sidney, the Earl of Leicester, Edward Dyer, Sir John Cheke, Gabriel Harvey, the Raleghs and many more noblemen, gentry and illuminati, including visitors from the continent.

It is this non-proprietorial attitude to a valuable asset that makes one wonder if he may not have had help in its construction, conditional perhaps upon its availability to others, which might also go far to explain his resources in acquiring it.

It was not, as M. R. James may have suggested, a purely scientific collection, but an eclectic one embracing all aspects of the culture. It was especially rich in Greek and Roman classics, Hebrew and Arab works, early Christian texts, chronicles and imaginative literature. Naturally all aspects of sorcery, magic, necromancy and alchemy were covered, with some elements of history and antiquities including some charters. In addition there were the technical works on astronomy/astrology (the two were confused then), geography, cosmology, navigation and allied arts.

After Dee's death in 1608-9 the, library remained largely intact for some years in the hands of his heirs and assigns. Some depredations took place, but the main dispersal of the collection occurred in 1625-6, when the contents were sold or otherwise scattered.

Amongst early beneficiaries of the scattering, before the actual sale, were Henry Savile of Banke and Sir Robert Cotton. Later recipients of Dee Library material included Sir Simonds D'Ewes, Sir Kenelm Digby and possibly John Selden, the jurist and numerous others, known and unknown. Much of the material eventually came in course of time to institutional libraries, including The Bodleian, British Museum (later British Library), Corpus Christi College, Oxford, The New York Society, The Royal College of Physicians and Trinity College, Cambridge, besides many smaller holdings elsewhere. The recognition of ex-libris Dee items is rarely easy, unless they are annotated in his idiosyncratic hand, for he seldom used ownership marks, which was rather short-sighted in view of the frequency of others' use.

Dee's Handwriting

The handwriting of John Dee is important and interesting. It is also sufficiently characteristic to be often identifiable. When writing with utmost care he produced an exceedingly fine Italic hand, as in the example of his letter to Queen Elizabeth, written from Trebona, Bohemia, 10 November 1588. It is perhaps almost a little too elaborate for perfection but admirably demonstrates his calligraphic skill. He also employed a plainer italic, which he used for annotations in books and probably also for general correspondence.

In his 1583 catalogue, possibly compiled hurriedly before his departure for Europe, he used an ultra cursive fast italic which is often difficult to read. Like most of his contemporaries he also used the traditional semi-gothic 'English secretary' hand. This was most probably his natural hand learned at his first school and later used at Chelmsford Grammar School, c.1535-40.

His Italic hand would almost certainly have been acquired at Cambridge and his mentor may well have been Sir John Cheke, who is credited by Strype, in his life of Cheke, with introducing Italic writing into Cambridge University. Cheke also taught Greek and encouraged the study of mathematics, subjects which vitally interested Dee. It was Cheke who later brought Dee to the notice of William Cecil in 1551 and thus to the favour of King Edward VI.

Dee was an eccentric and unusually gifted man, but his handwriting, though idiosyncratic, was of a kind not uncommon amongst Cambridge students of that time, as illustrated in Fairbank and Dickins The Italic hand in Tudor Cambridge. There was doubtless a certain peer pressure to conform in this way and it would run in parallel with study of the works of classical authors, then in process of re-discovery.

The Cambridge hand is particularly various in the many different examples given in Fairbank and Dickins, but it may not be too fanciful to suggest that (in spite of certain mannerisms taken from some of the writing books, which may be decorative but do not increase flow - such as ligatures to ct and st) it is generally quite distinctly English, in spite of its most recent Italian origin.

This may most readily be seen in the occasional gothicisms, derived from the Secretary hand, such as the backward sloping ascender to d (when the terminal letter of a word), the occasional open squiggle-tailed g (not the figure 8 look-alike, which is a variant) and the h with its forefoot above the line and its hindfoot curved backwards below it.

The scripts generally favour the cursive forward-sloping curved ascender, even in formal examples, rather than the vertical straight ascender generally used in humanistic script. This may derive from diplomatic chancery models rather than the scriptorial styles used for humanistic texts.

These differences are fairly subtle and by no means uniform, but might tentatively be suggested as perhaps indicative of an incipient, but sadly transient, national handwriting school, which had powerful temporary influence, but lasted a mere generation. In these letters it survives as a monument of beauty and artistry.

By the early 17th Century the great majority of English writers of the more sophisticated kind had begun to abandon the semi-gothic secretary hand, though it survives in rural records. The Italic hand had never gained general popularity, but had made its effect. Its influence, together perhaps with continental variants, quickly led to a curious mixed hand, combining secretary and italic in a fairly cursive and sometimes looped and flourished fashion.

This led imperceptibly, by the intervention of the later writing masters, to the otiose elaborately joined 18th and 19th Century examples often called 'copper-plate', from the engravings made in an attempt to teach this impossible writing hand, which may only be mastered by the few at the useless expenditure of great time and effort. The formless scribble of the great majority today and the utter confusion as to how we may improve our handwriting, is a long remove from John Dee. As we have seen he could scribble too upon occasion, but he could also write uncommonly well when he put his mind and hand to it, as could the writers and scholars of the Cambridge school, from which he sprang.