Thursday, July 13, 2017

Did cut her owne throte

John Dee, a mathematician, philosopher, alchemist and original fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, was born all of 490 years ago today. He left behind a diary - one of the very earliest English diaries - covering most of the second half of the 16th century. It was first found in the Ashmolean Museum and published in the mid-19th century, but has since been re-edited and re-published several times. Much of what modern historians know about this extraordinary’s man life - including the gruesome fact that his nurse committed suicide - comes from the diary.

Dee was born in London on 13 July 1527. His father was a mercer, and a courtier to Henry VIII, supplying the king with clothes and fabrics. Young Dee attended the Chelmsford Chantry School (now King Edward VI Grammar School) until 1542, and then entered St John’s College, Cambridge. In his last year, 1546, he began to make astronomical observations, that same year he became an original fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, on its founding by Henry VIII. From 1548 to 1551, he travelled to the Continent, staying in Louvain (where he wrote texts on astronomy, and became friends with the geographer Gerardus Mercator), and well as Brussels and Paris (where he gave very popular lectures).

Dee returned to England with a collection of mathematical and astronomical instruments, and soon joined the service of the Earl of Northumberland, when he wrote a work on tides. When the Catholic Queen Mary came to the throne, Dee’s father was among many protestants arrested. He was released but only after being deprived of all his financial assets - assets which Dee had expected to inherit. Subsequently, having apparently come to terms with Catholic society, he proposed to Queen Mary that she build a Royal Library. Although the idea was not taken up, Dee himself began to build his own library. After Mary’s death, in 1558, Dee soon found favour with the Protestant Queen Elizabeth (some historians believe Dee might have been spying for her while Mary was still Queen) to the point of being asked to use his astrological skills to choose a coronation day. He served as her trusted advisor on astrological and scientific matters; and also provided technical assistance for the various global voyages of discovery under way at this time.

Dee spent much time abroad, collecting books for his library (at his mother’s house in Mortlake), and studying the linked subjects of astronomy, astrology, mathematics and magic. By the mid-1560s, he had returned to live with his mother. In 1568, he published Propaedeumata Aphoristica, which he presented to Queen Elizabeth who was so impressed she took maths lessons from Dee to understand it. And two years later, he published his Mathematical Preface (on the central importance of mathematics for other arts and sciences) to Henry Billingsley’s translation of Euclid’s Elements. In time, this would prove to be Dee’s most influential and reprinted work. In 1578, Dee (who had already lost two wives who bore him no children) married Jane Fromand, and together they had eight children. The following year, Dee’s mother gave him her house, and the year after she died.

From the early 1580s, Dee began turning his studies towards the supernatural, especially with the much younger Edward Kelley, a medium he met in 1582. Together they travelled to Poland, at the behest of an impoverished yet popular Polish nobleman, and Bohemia, arranging spiritual conferences and giving magical performances. Kelley was taken on as an alchemist by Emperor Rudolf II, but, after six years, Dee returned to England in financial difficulties. There he found the Mortlake house ransacked, and much of his library and many of his scientific instruments stolen. He tried without success to get compensation for his losses. Queen Elizabeth did approve him for a post in London but this failed to materialise. Eventually, in 1595, he was appointed warden of Manchester College. In 1605, after his wife and several children had died of the plague, he returned to Mortlake, living his final years in poverty, dying himself in 1608. Historians believe that three years later, William Shakespeare based his character of Prospero in The Tempest on Dee. Further biographical information can be found at Wikipedia, MacTutor, or Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Dee’s intermittent, and often brief, diary was first published by the Camden Society in 1842 entitled The Private Diary of Dr John Dee, and The Catalogue of his Library and Manuscripts, as edited by James Orchard Halliwell. The preface explains that the diary was written in ‘a very small illegible hand on the margins of old Almanacs’ and was only discovered ‘a few years ago’ in the library of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. The editor goes on to state: ‘The publication of this Diary will tend perhaps to set Dee’s character in its true light, more than any thing that has yet been printed.’ The text is freely available online in various places, not least Internet Archive. It certainly counts as one of the very earliest of English diaries. More recent editions of the diary include: The Diaries of John Dee, edited by Edward Fenton (Day Books, 1998); Dr. John Dee’s Spiritual Diaries: 1583-1608, A True & Faithful Relation, edited by Stephen Skinner and Meric Casaubozn (Llewellyn Publications, 2012); and John Dee’s Diary, Catalogue of Manuscripts and Selected Letters (various editors, Cambridge University Press, 2013).

Here are several extracts from the 1842 edition (the first includes a gruesome account of how his nurse killed herself).

‘Aug. 5th, Rowland fell into the Tems over hed and eares abowt noone or somewhat after. Aug. 8th, I gave Nurse Barwick six shillings, so she is payd for the half yere due on Weynsday next. Aug. 9th, I payd to Mr. Lee the scholemaster 5s. Aug. 22nd, Ann my nurse had long byn tempted by a wycked spirit: but this day it was evident how she was possessed of him. God is, hath byn, and shall be her protector and deliverer! Amen. Aug. 25th, Anne Frank was sorowfol, well comforted and stayed in God’s mercyes acknowledging. Aug. 26th, at night I anoynted (in the name of Jesus) Ann Frank her brest with the holy oyle. Aug. 30th, in the morning she required to be anoynted, and I did very devowtly prepare myself, and pray for vertue and powr and Christ his blessing of the oyle to the expulsion of the wycked; and then twyse anoynted, the wycked one did resest a while. Sept. 1st, I receyved letters from Sir Edward Kelley by Francis Garland. Sept. 8th, Nurse Anne Frank wold have drowned hirself in my well, but by divine Providence I cam to take her up befor she was overcome of the water. Sept. 23rd, Sonday, T gave Nurse Barwyk six shillings for a monthis wages to ende on Wensday comme a fortnight; Mrs. Stackden was by. Sept. 29th, Nurse Anne Frank most miserably did cut her owne throte, after-none abowt four of the clok, pretending to be in prayer before her keeper, and suddenly and very quickly rising from prayer, and going toward her chamber, as the mayden her keper thowght, but indede straight way down the stayrs into the hall of the other howse, behinde the doore, did that horrible act; and the mayden who wayted on her at the stayr-fote followed her, and missed to fynde her in three or fowr places, tyll at length she hard her rattle in her owne blud.’

‘Oct. 13th, I exhibited to the Archbishop of Canterbury two bokes of blasphemie against Christ and the Holy Ghoste, desyring him to cause them to be confuted: one was Christian Franken, printed anno 1585 in Poland; the other was of one Sombius against one Carolius, printed at Ingolstad anno 1582 in octavo. Oct. 14th, 15th, a mighty wynde at sowth-west. Oct. 30th, 31st, one of these two dayes I hurt my left shyn against the sharp small end of a wooden rammar abowt four of the clok afternone. Nov. 1st, Mr. Ashly, his wife, and their familie, did com to my howse and remayned ther. They had my mother’s chamber, the mayde’s chamber, and all the other howse. Nov. 9th, Her Majestie’s grant of my supplication for commissioners to comme to me. The Lady Warwik obteyned it. Nov. 22nd, the commissioners from Her Majestie, Mr. Secretary Wolly and Sir Thomas George, cam to Mortlak to my howse. Nov. 28th, to Richard Walkdyne of his wagis 20s. Dec. 1st, a little after none the very vertuous Cowntess of Warwik sent me word very speedily by hir gentleman Mr. Jones from the cowrt at Hampton Cowrt that this day Her Majestie had granted to send me spedily an hundred marks, and that Sir Thomas George had very honorably dealt for me in the cause. Dec. 2nd, Sir Thomas George browght me a hundred marks from her Majestie. Dec. 24th to 31st, at Mr. Lurensey of Tooting all these days, and Newyere’s Day allso, and so cam home by coach (as we went) by Tuesday none, I, my wyfe, Arthur, Kate, &c. Dec. 31st, at Tooting at Mr. R. Luresey his howse; abowt thre of the clok after dynner dyd the Bishop of Laigham serve process uppon me for the nangle, but most unduely.’

‘Aug. 5th, I visited the grammar schole, and fownd great imperfection in all and every of the scholers to my great grief. Aug. 6th, I had a dream after midnight of my working of the philosopher’s stone with other. My dreame was after midnight toward day. Aug. 10th, Eucharistam suscepimus, ego, uxor, filia Katharina, et Maria Nicolls. Aug. 30th, a great tempest of mighty wynde S.W. from 2 tyll 6, with wayne. Sept. 11th, Mr. Holland of Denby, Mr. Gerard of Stopford, Mr. Langley, commissioners from the bishop of Chester, authorized by the bishop of Chester, did call me before them in the church abowt thre of the clok after none, and did deliver to me certayn petitions put up by the fellows against me to answer before the 18th of this month. I answered them all eodem tempore, and yet they gave me leave to write at leiser. Sept. 16th, Mr. Harmer and Mr. Davis, gentlemen of Flyntshire, within four or five myle of Hurden Castell, did viset me. Sept. 29th, I burned before Mr. Nicols, his brother, and Mr. Wortley, all Bartholomew Hikman his untrue actions. Sept. 30th, after the departing of Mr. Francis Nicolls, his dowghter Mistres Mary, his brother Mr. William, Mr. Wortley, at my retume from Deansgate, to the ende whereof I browght them on fote, Mr. Roger Kooke offred and promised his faithfull and diligent care and help, to the best of his skill and powre, in the processes chymicall, and that he will rather do so then to be with any in England; which his promise the Lord blesse and confirm! He told me that Mr. Anthony considered him very liberally and frendely, but he told him that he had promised me. Then he liked in him the fidelity of regarding such his promise.’

The Diary Junction

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