Who could resist a new book about the celebrated, notorious “arch-conjuror of England,” Dr. John Dee (1527-1609)? A contemporary of Queen Elizabeth I, Dee possessed what was probably the finest private library in the country. He lived near the Thames in a house with a name that any Gothic novelist would steal in a minute: Mortlake. As a young man, he was a pupil of Gerard Mercator (whose maps are still famous) and studied the works of all the most notable alchemists and natural philosophers of Europe, including Paracelsus, Raymond Lull, Johannes Trithemius and Henry Cornelius Agrippa. Dee might even have met Giordano Bruno, who, during a visit to England, joined the circle of their mutual friend, the occult-minded poet Sir Philip Sidney. (In 1600, Bruno was burned at the stake, ostensibly for his heretical beliefs about the nature of the universe.) In 1584, this English wizard even made a laborious journey to Rudolf II’s Prague, the center for astrological and hermetic research in the 16th century — in essence, the capital of magic.
Not only did Dee seek the philosopher’s stone — for turning base metals into gold — and manufacture various mysterious elixirs, he also communicated with “angels” through special crystals, aided by a sinister factotum named Edward Kelley. This polymath speculated about everything from the inhabitants of North America to the kabbalistic meaning of the alphabet, from the existence of the Northwest Passage to the ecological destruction of the Thames through overfishing and the dumping of raw sewage. On the one hand, Dee was unquestionably among the foremost mathematicians and astronomers of the day; on the other, he was also a magus who probed the secrets of the universe, which he found embodied in a mystic symbol he called the “Monas hieroglyphica.”It’s hardly surprising that throughout his career, the former Catholic priest was periodically suspected of being a necromancer, a trafficker with evil spirits. When he fled England for the continent, his library was ransacked and his laboratory destroyed.