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.
Ever since Frances Yates’s exhilarating studies of the Renaissance occult (“Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition,” “The Art of Memory,” “The Rosicrucian Enlightenment,” “The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age”), Dee has exercised an abiding fascination on the modern imagination. E.M. Butler devotes a chapter to him in her historical survey “The Myth of the Magus.” Novelist John Crowley’s epic “Aegypt” cycle brilliantly turns on the history-altering experiments of the arch-conjuror and the psychologically disturbed Kelley, his “scryer” (one who peers into crystals or showstones). There is even an excellent general biography by Peter J. French titled “John Dee: The World of an Elizabethan Magus.”
I had hoped that New Zealand historian Glyn Parry’s “The Arch-Conjuror of England” would offer an even fuller, more up-to-date look at Dee’s career. Such is not the case. While the book is deeply researched, its focus is primarily on Dee’s relationship to the court and government of England. Parry argues, rather tendentiously, that Queen Elizabeth and her counselors (William Cecil, Robert Dudley, Francis Walsingham) incorporated what one might call magical thinking into their policy decisions. Not so long ago, first lady Nancy Reagan consulted her astrologer regularly; but Parry shows that the queen and her advisers repeatedly drew on Dee’s expertise in casting horoscopes, predicting the future and thwarting occult attacks on Her Majesty.
Like Charles Nicholl’s thrilling “The Reckoning” (about the murder of poet and government agent Christopher Marlowe) and John Bossy’s controversial “Giordano Bruno and the Embassy Affair” (which contends that during his stay in England the visionary philosopher spied for the French), this book presents still another facet of the dark underworld of the Renaissance. It really was, as Parry titles his first chapter, “a world full of magic.” Catholics genuinely believed that “the ashes distributed on Ash Wednesday, like the ‘palms’ blessed on Palm Sunday” would protect a house from evil spirits. Learned professors probed the esoteric meaning of Aristotle’s resonantly titled treatise “On Coming-to-be and Passing Away.” Dee’s friend, the courtier-explorer Humphrey Gilbert, planned to establish an academy where alchemy would be one of the courses taught. There was rampant speculation that Elizabeth’s reign might usher in the apocalypse. Beyond all this, Protestant England jockeyed for worldly power with the Catholic kingdoms of the continent. In this battle, magic could be a weapon.
In 1578, “in mid-August the commissioners charged with London’s security uncovered three wax images under a dunghill, one inscribed ‘Elizabeth’ and two, according to Mendoza the Spanish ambassador, dressed like Privy Councillors. All three were ‘transfixed with a quantity of pig’s bristles,’ apparently witchcraft meant to kill, as the dunghill’s gentle heat melted the images. On 15 August the commissioners sent them to Norwich, Dee arriving just afterwards. . . . The panicking Privy Council demanded that Dee speedily ‘prevent the mischief’ they ‘suspected to be intended against her Majesty’s person.’ That morning Dee, ‘in godly and artificial [technical] manner,’ did something he never defined.”
Such exciting passages are all too few, as Parry carefully maps the intricacies of political
hurly-burly surrounding Dee, Elizabeth and their supporters and enemies. Still, he doesn’t neglect the shocking episode when Kelley transmits an angelic injunction that he and Dee should trade wives. They were finally persuaded to do so by an appearance of the Archangel Michael and the consequent assurance that the apocalypse would soon begin and they were to be among “the chosen of this last days.”
Eventually, Dee, back with his own wife, returned to England and spent his last years in Manchester, relatively ignored, politically impotent and still frequently reviled as a sorcerer. The frail, white-haired mage died at 85, surrounded by alchemical books and mathematical instruments, victim of that “conservative counter-attack on magic as the engine of subversion, which drove it to the margins of the early modern political world.”
These days, Dee and his occult practices are part of ongoing research into “the early modern networks of knowledge.” Who would argue against any new insights and fresh discoveries that result? There is, unquestionably, much to learn from the fact-and-
speculation-rich pages of “The Arch-Conjuror of England.” But Parry’s relentless concentration on the shadowy politics of the Elizabethan world will tire all but the most resolute and scholarly.
Dirda reviews each Thursday in Style and conducts a book discussion for The Post at wapo.st/reading-room.