The Lost Library of John Dee
John Dee — astrologer, alchemist and magus, one of the great characters of Tudor England — had the greatest private library in the western world. But when he was off on a European tour, it was pillaged by “friends” and the contents were lost. Some turned up in other collections over the centuries, but his library — like the ones of Alexandria, Constantinople, Cordoba and the Maya — is partly legendary.
The libraries we have now are mosaics of knowledge: mere fragments of the libraries we have lost plus the knowledge we have acquired.
The Royal College of Physicians has put on a show of some of the books retrieved, which include marginalia by the man himself. It’s a small, eclectic bunch, reminding us of the knowledge that has been lost.
I went to see it with my friend and colleague Sally Kirkman and we found ourselves talking astrology so much that the exhibition flashed by. I recommend going if you are in London — partially to see the absolutely beautiful building, which is a masterpiece of 20th century architecture, and works beautifully with the books on mathematics which were the outstanding items.
Then I came across this — novelist Jeanette Winterson’s brilliant talk for the opening of the exhibition. Winterson has always been interested in alchemy and I believe she is an astrology aficionado. If you have 20 minutes, listen to this. It’s not about astrology, but it’s about taking a poetic, metaphorical view of how the world works. It’s a call to respect other paradigms as well as the currently fashionable scientific one. Winterson reminds us of how astrologers should — and sometimes do — think.