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John Dee: The Politics of Reading and Writing in the English Renaissance.

William H. Sherman has written a spirited and learned book that challenges the Yatesian tradition of Dee as "the reincarnation of Merlin at the Tudor court" (xii). Against the scholarly and popular image of Dee as the solitary Hermetic philosopher, Sherman presents Dee as an activist scholar bristling with projects and ideas intended to advance the commercial and imperial interests of the English commonwealth. In making this argument, Sherman displays a zeal for scholarship and a range of interests worthy of the subject of his book.

Sherman develops his thesis in three stages. Part one of the book takes on the "myth of the magus," which, Sherman argues, ignores a substantial body of Dee materials unrelated to or even incompatible with this representation. Furthermore, Sherman criticizes Yatesinn intellectual history for misunderstanding the relationships between Hermeticism on the one hand and Humanism and Science on the other: Hermeticism, he suggests, should not be seen in absolute opposition to Humanism; neither should Science be dichotomized into "Humanist" and "Hermetic" varieties. By situating Dee in his social, economic, and political contexts, Sherman aims to depict Dee as an intellectual conversant with a variety of knowledge-producing and knowledge-using communities of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.

The major portion of the book, however, is devoted to assessing Dee's position as Renaissance intellectual in terms of his "Readings" (part one) and "Writings" (part three). Representing Dee's great library at Mortlake as an early modern "think tank," Sherman argues that the library was not the private retreat of a Renaissance magus but, rather, "a space where independent scholarship could be carried out and circulated among the academic, commercial, and political communities" (45). The library, and Dee, occupied a space on the margins of the public and private spheres, a space where knowledge was produced, stored, exchanged, and applied.

The topos of the margin returns in Sherman's report on Renaissance reading practices, which are reconstructed from the marginalia of Dee and a few of his contemporaries. Sherman proposes an activist Renaissance reader interested in appropriating texts for particular purposes. Drawing on marginalia in texts from the Cambridge University Library's collection of "adversaria," he offers three models of reader response based on the reader's subject position vis-a-vis the author/text: Teachers and students, scholars, and practitioners. These models provide a context for interpreting Dee's extensive marginal interactions with texts. Sherman enumerates linguistic, numerical, and visual devices that he believes demonstrate Dee's desire "to actively participate in the creation of a new, and ever-changing text" (89), particularly in the fields of alchemy, history, mathematics, astronomy, and medicine.

It is Dee's interest in history that dominates the final part of the book, on "Dee's Political Science." Sherman introduces this section with an argument for the importance of manuscript circulation in general, and Dee's historiographical manuscripts in particular, to an understanding of Tudor political culture. Political debate and historical scholarship, like much of the literary activity of the period, often took place in the context of a coterie. Sherman devotes two chapters to manuscript works that display Dee's participation in Elizabethan debates on the commonwealth and in the project of creating a British maritime empire. Dee's Brytannicae Reipublicae Synopsis (1570) was solicited by Edward Dyer and presented to key governmental officers. Sherman discusses the content, method, and circulation of the work in order to dispute the view of Dee as a mystical "Cosmopolite." The more interesting chapter, on a series of manuscripts from the 1550s to the 1590s, aims to correct recent descriptions of Dee's imperialism as "a full-blown political, religious, and even mystical mission" (149). Sherman instead uses Dee's phrase, "this Brytish discovery and recovery enterprise," to emphasize both the retrospective and prospective aspects of a program that depended upon historical and textual reconstruction as well as geographical exploration.

Sherman has aimed his study at both Dee scholars and a wider audience of Renaissance scholars. At times, the Dee specialist takes over, as in the case of an extended argument with a dissertation on Dee in chapter six. On the other hand, Sherman's broader interests can occasionally lead him into a cul-de-sac such as the brief essay on modern reading theory which proves to be of little use in explaining early modern practice as exemplified by Dee; after emphasizing the need for historically-specific accounts of reading practices, Sherman too easily, I think, characterizes Dee's marginalia as part of a post-structuralist, open text-in-process. But these are quibbles with an engaging study of the politics of early modern scholarship and manuscript culture by a gifted postmodern scholar of the archives.

RONALD CORTHELL Kent State University
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Author:Corthell, Ronald
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1997
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