October 2014 Book of the Month: A True and Faithful Relation of What Passed for Many Yeers Between Dr. John Dee and Some Spirits by Meric Casaubon (1659)

Title-page and frontispiece of A True and Faithful Relation…with portraits of Kelly and Dee: Fellows’ Library N.9.19 Gall (© Jesus College, Oxford)

The spiritual diaries of the mathematician and magus John Dee (1527-1609) were found decades after his death in a secret compartment. They contain his conversations with angels (facilitated by the clairvoyant Edward Kelley), through which Dee hoped to understand the underlying mysteries of the universe. Casaubon’s edition of these dialogues also presents the cabalistic grids and mysterious ‘Enochian’ language which were used to communicate with the spirits.

John Dee (3)

A copy of Dee’s Holy Table containing letters from the Enochian language: Fellows’ Library N.9.19 Gall (© Jesus College, Oxford)

The book also charts the worldly fortunes of Dee and Kelley. Despite the Queen’s Philosopher’s expertise in geometry, navigation and astrology, Dee died in penury. Kelley was markedly more successful at courting patronage on the Continent. However, after his alchemical experiments failed to impress Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II, Kelley was imprisoned and died after attempting escape.

The conversations were published with a preface by Casaubon both to endorse the existence of miracles and to discredit the ‘enthusiastic’ Protestant sects to which many politicians of the time belonged. Casaubon sympathetically maintained that Dee’s faith was genuine, but nevertheless consigned both men to the group of false prophets depicted on the frontispiece.

Emma Jones (Library Assistant)

 Sources and further reading:

  • Catalogue record on SOLO
  • French, Peter J., John Dee: The World of an Elizabethan Magus (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1972).
  • Harkness, Deborah, John Dee’s Conversations with Angels: Cabala, Alchemy, and the End of Nature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).
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