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Long, long ago, in 1991, I was researching the medieval textbook Liber de arte astronomice iudicandi by the late twelfth-century English astrologer Roger of Hereford, which survives only in a dozen or so manuscripts. Various indications led me to try and compare his text with the earlier twelfth-century translation by Hermann of Carinthia of the ninth-century Introduction to Astrology by the ninth-century scholar Abu Ma'shar, written when Baghdad was the centre of learning of the medieval world. Fortunately, the University Library in Cambridge had two copies of the Hermann translation. It has been out of print for some time; the earlier one dated from 1488 and the later one from 1506.

As I did my research - in the course of which I found that Roger of Hereford had cribbed pretty substantially from Hermann's text (and also cast a horoscope for Eleanor of Aquitaine, using a birthdate of 14 December 1123) - I chose to work from the 1506 edition rather than the 1488 edition of Hermann's book. This wasn't a choice based on which was more legible or accessible; it was purely because the 1506 book had the name of a previous owner firmly inscribed on the flyleaf, and a number of his scribbles and notes in the margins. It was, quite simply, a thrill to work with a book that had been owned and loved by the great Elizabethan wizard John Dee, the man who probably inspired Prospero in The Tempest and a key figure in the murky relationship between early modern science and magic.

That was more than half my lifetime ago. But when I saw that the Royal College of Physicians was hosting an exhibition of books stolen from Dee's library during his lifetime, I knew that I had to go and relive the summer of 1991. And I was right. The books are wonderful artefacts in themselves, but Dee's marginal doodlings make them even more fascinating. I was fortunate to have the company of owlfish and bohemiancoast as I explored the exhibition on Tuesday morning. Before going to my own photographs, which unfortunately are not particularly good, I commend you to those in this Culture24 article and these by Jason Atomic.


This is a nineteenth-century picture of Dee at Queen Elizabeth's court. A ring of skulls around him was painted out by the artist.

The picture hangs beside a display cabinet including several objects on loan from the British Museum and the Science Museum. These include:

Yes, that is the magical mirror through which Dee and his assistant Kelly held conversations with angelic beings. It is in fact polished obsidian glass from Mexico. The case has a note by its subsequent owner Horace Walpole, author of The Castle of Otranto, quoting these lines from Samuel Butler's epic poem Hudibras:

KELLY did all his feats upon
The Devil's looking-glass, a stone

And yes, that's Dee's own crystal ball in the right of the picture. A golden magical disc is out of shot.

On the shelf below is a smaller mirror, and also this item:

This crystal, according to Dee, was given to him by the angel Uriel in 1582.

I hope that the Royal College of Physicians has installed adequate thaumic safeguards on that display case. Those are some pretty impressive magical items.

Here's the exhibition curator Katie Birkwood (@girlinthe) explaining how the exhibition was put together:


And here is none other than Jeanette Winterson, at the opening ceremony, explaining why Dee mattered:


A couple of warnings. The first two display cases, giving the historical context for the whole story, are right at the well-lit entrance to the first floor display and are covered with protective cloth, whereas the rest are uncovered because they are in the relative dimness of the walls - we missed the first cases and had to go back and look at them. There are two last display cases isolated on the second floor, along with dissected human veins and arteries. It also must be said that the RCP building is a truly horrible example of 1960s architecture.

On the flip side, we found that in the morning at least the buttery in the lower ground floor was open in the mornings, contrary to advertisement, and that that lower ground floor also has a couple of other historical medical exhibits which were worth a few minutes strolling around.


Do go and see it.

Comments

( 5 comments )
white_hart
Feb. 13th, 2016 05:47 pm (UTC)
That sounds amazing! I'll have to see whether I can manage a weekday trip to London sometime.
qatsi
Feb. 13th, 2016 09:11 pm (UTC)
The exhibition is on my to-do list, but as it's generally Mon-Fri only I am going to aim for one of the evening openings.
nwhyte
Feb. 13th, 2016 09:13 pm (UTC)
I reckoned it was worth a half-morning off. I was right!
(no subject) - gummitch - Feb. 15th, 2016 08:14 am (UTC) - Expand
Rodger Cunningham
Feb. 15th, 2016 01:09 pm (UTC)
Those were the days, all right. It was 1995 when I went there to read Dee's copies of Postel's books. Are they on exhibit?
( 5 comments )

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