Dr. John Dee's Spiritual Diary (1583-1608), being a completely new and reset edition of A True and Faithful Relation of what passed for many yeers between Dr. John Dee and some Spirits ...
As is well known, John Dee was one of the most peculiar English intellectuals of the Elizabethan Renaissance. He started his career as a mathematician, collected England's largest private library, consulted a think tank of English discoverers and colonisers, and authored curious magical works that made him a name all over Europe. He travelled all across the continent and tried his fortune at the Prague court of Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor as well as in Cracow, before Stephen Batory, king of Poland. His notoriety emerged from his becoming disappointed in science and turning toward various forms of magic. For Dee, the most attractive magic was scrying, that is, contacting spirits by means of calling them up from a crystal ball. For these sessions he needed a helper, a scryer, whom he found in the person of Edward Kelley, a strange and exalted alchemist and possibly a parasite. The two conducted these angelic conversations with various purposes, ranging from the aspiration to gain information about the upcoming course of events to the desire to see apocalyptic visions. But Dr. Dee's ultimate goal was to learn the language of Adam from the angels, and thus be able to converse with God and learn the secrets of creation. What makes these angelic conversations an invaluable document of intellectual history is that Dee meticulously noted down all these supernatural encounters, leaving behind hundreds of manuscript pages and thus documenting early modern spirit lore and magical practice.
There is no space here to tell about the fascinating fate of these manuscripts, so we shall only mention that they have luckily survived and are in the British Library and in the Bodleian, Oxford. Long after Dee's death, a considerable portion of the manuscripts got into the hands of the seventeenth-century antiquarian and early freemason, Elias Ashmole, and ultimately of Meric Casaubon, a humanist and theoretician of psychological enthusiasm. As a religious man, he interpreted Dee's efforts as a result of the trap of the devil, and as an early psychologist, he considered the angelic conversations to be a symptom of mental delusion. In order to warn against such dangers, he published Dee's spiritual diaries, containing the years 1583-1608. However, the Doctor had already started his angelic conversations in 1581; these early volumes with invaluable information about the genesis of this occult practice and the first results of the sessions were unknown to Casaubon. Similarly, Casaubon did not possess everything pertaining to the mentioned years, and later on (mostly in the twentieth century), other manuscripts popped up with additional material.
Until recently, the infamous Casaubon publication of 1659, A True and Faithful Relation of what passed for many yeers between Dr. John Dee and some Spirits ... was the main source material to study John Dee's ceremonial magic, since the remaining manuscripts were difficult to access and even more difficult to decipher. Unfortunately, Casaubon's edition is often faulty, since he left out certain parts and often failed to transcribe the original text correctly. Since the 1960s, numerous efforts have been made to publish Dee's spiritual diaries and magical handbooks and in this respect one could mention the names of C. H. Josten, Christopher Whitby, Geoffrey James, Clay Holden, and Edward Fenton. In spite of this, no unified and comprehensive scholarly edition was available until recently, with the useful work of Joseph H. Peterson and Stephen Skinner, who both have been known for some time as publishers and translators of a wide range of late medieval and early modern magical texts. In 2003 Peterson published Dee's first Five Books of Mystery (York Beach: Weiser), those volumes of the angelic conversations which were unknown to Casaubon. This is a careful edition, with translations of the original Latin, Greek and Hebrew insertions, and contains useful appendices to facilitate a complete picture about the genesis of Dee's ceremonial magic.
Recently Stephen Skinner took on an equally tantalising editorial task: to correct, complete, and republish Casaubon's edition and thus replace the incorrect facsimiles of the originally incorrect 1659 publication. The present edition is a beautiful and very impressive book. It includes Casaubon's original forty folio pages' preface, the text known in 1659, and the latterly discovered missing parts. This edition resolves the places that were incomprehensible for/misunderstood by the original editor. A number of important appendices contain contemporary opinions of Meric Casaubon, a vocabulary of frequent Latin phrases and locations, Elias Ashmole's seventeenth-century catalogue of Dee's works, a chronological summary of Dee's 1583-88 itinerary in Europe, and Joseph H. Peterson's table of contents to the first five manuscript volumes of the spiritual diaries. The majestic folio book is rich with illustrations, too.
It is not difficult to demonstrate the importance of this publication for the scholars of the English Renaissance as well as for those who study early modern Western esotericism. John Dee has also become a favourite character for today's novelists, playwrights, and even opera composers. It is good to have some solid historical-documentary material when exploring literary and artistic imaginings.
Gyorgy E. Szonyi
University of Szeged & Central European University, Hungary
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|Author:||Szonyi, Gyorgy E.|
|Publication:||European English Messenger|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2015|
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