A blog written by Library Preservation Volunteer, Dickie Bellringer.
Right at the start of his enigmatic text Monas Hieroglyphica Dr John Dee warns that – those who don’t understand this, shut up or learn – thus demonstrating that he was not only a great intellectual but also a rather grumpy one.
The book, which resides in the Cathedral library, is drably covered in vellum and combined with a book by Dee’s contemporary Thomas Digges. This volume of two books bound together was donated to Salisbury cathedral library by the Bishop of Salisbury Seth Ward between 1667 and 1689.
The rather unpreposing binding of John Dee's Monas Hieroglyphica: the title page is much more ornate!
Dr Dee (1527-1608/9) was a mathematician and astronomer but also an astrologer, occult philosopher and adviser to Queen Elizabeth I. Much of his time was spent studying alchemy, divination and hermetic or esoteric philosophy. In short, he was a polymath and in his day he was one of the most pre-eminent intellectuals in Europe. What we might call today a public intellectual whose influence spread far and wide.
At one point in his life he became disillusioned with conventional routes to knowledge and came to the conclusion that there was another route to understanding and that was through direct consultation with angels. But it was not until he met a skryer or seer called Edward Kelly that his interest in conversing with angels really took off. His interest in esoteric philosophy, however, predates his meeting with Edward Kelly by many years. He wrote Monas Hieroglyphica during 12 days of spiritual ecstasy in 1564 when he was aged 37 and living in Antwerp, nearly 20 years before his brush with angelology.
He believed that the ‘Spirit writes these things rapidly through me; I hope, and believe, I am merely the quill which traces these characters’.
Dee was in no doubt that his work would revolutionise astronomy, alchemy, mathematics, linguistics, music, optics, magic and adeptship. He also thought it would bring power to those who understood it. He often directly addresses Maximilian II, Holy Roman Emperor from 1564 (the year the Monas was published) to 1576 and indeed it is dedicated to him. He writes: “Oh, Maximilian! May God, through this mystagogy, make you or some other scion of the House of Austria, the most powerful of all when the time comes for me to be tranquil in Christ, in order that the honour of His redoubtable name be restored within the abominable and intolerable shadows hovering above earth.”
John Dee's book contains many strange diagrams and symbols; these are just a few of them!
It would be fascinating to know why Bishop Ward (himself a mathematician and astronomer) was interested in these two books because Digges and Dee seemed to hold very different world views. Despite being post-Copernican (although only just) Dee’s Hieroglyph clearly represents a geocentric view with the sun circling the earth. But Digges (1546-1595) held a heliocentric view – indeed, he was the first to expound the Copernican system in English. It is known that the career paths of Digges and Dee crossed productively. Indeed two different books from the ones found in the Cathedral were published by them in 1573 and, although produced by different printers, are usually found bound together just like the volume found in the Cathedral. I feel there is more research on the way.