“The Arch-Conjuror of England: John Dee, By Glyn Parry” is a book review by Ronald Hutton of a new biography of John Dee, due to release in the states in April, from Yale University Press. (HT @t3dy)
“One of the most colourful and least respectable figures of the European Renaissance was the magus, a scholar, expert in the hidden wisdom of the created world, who sought the power to manipulate it to the advantage of (depending on his degree of probity) himself, his employers or humanity.
The most familiar such character in fiction is of course Dr Faustus, but the best known in real life is John Dee, a Londoner of Welsh blood who haunted the English and other royal courts throughout the late 16th century.
Much has been written about him in modern times, though little has been produced by experts in his period. To most historians he represents a tragic waste of talent; a brilliant scientist who was diverted into a fruitless attempt to converse with angels, thereby ruining his career and reputation and falling prey to the demented or unscrupulous adventurers who posed as his mediums: above all Edward Kelley, who combined both characteristics and, at one point, even persuaded Dee to swap wives with him under angelic instruction. Modern ritual magicians, by contrast, have seen Dee as a hero who discovered an occult system of genuine validity.
But in Glyn Parry, he has at last attracted a biographer with a talent for uncovering fresh archival material, who has conducted thorough research both into his life and the circles in which he moved.
The basic argument of the resulting book is that Dee was not an anomalous figure at the court of Queen Elizabeth, because that monarch and her leading courtiers – like their counterparts on the Continent – were deeply interested in the occult arts and sciences and were prepared to invest large sums in practitioners who promised material gains from them. As a result, they tapped into an underworld of alchemists and ritual magicians who became tangled up in turn with royal policy-making, political rivalry, and conspiracy.” [via]