Thursday, 8 March 2012

An English Faust


I’m completely beguiled by witchcraft and magic, by the search for deeper, sometimes darker, forms of knowledge and understanding. I’ve read deeply into lots of sources, including the infamous Malleus Maleficarum – the Hammer of the Witches, a medieval treatise based on misconception and misunderstanding, but one that was to have dire consequences for so many people, particularly women. I’m captivated also by the Faust legend, another dangerous quest.

There is an odd ambiguity in the medieval and early modern understanding of witchcraft and magic. Witchcraft was disapproved of as malevolent magic, though magic, in the form of alchemy, was a reasonably respectable if occasionally risky occupation. It would have been lethal for a woman to set herself up as an alchemist or a magus, for the simple reason that accusations of witchcraft and demonology would quickly follow. Men were on slightly more certain territory, though they, too, were in danger of slipping over boundaries. It was all a matter, you see, of perception…and politics!

Dr Faustus is the stuff of legend; but Dr John Dee is the stuff of English history. His is a fascinating story, one that embraces science and magic, high politics and low comedy. It’s a story long waiting to be told in full. Now it has, admirably, by Glynn Parry in The Arch-Conjurer of England: John Dee.

Conventionally Dee was a scientist living in Tudor England, a man with a brilliant scholarly mind who set off in pursuit of some rather dubious notions. He really stands on the cusp of a great change, a time when superstition, giving way to reason, was still fighting a determined rearguard action. In a profession like his one really needed powerful protectors to avoid accusations of black magic, and as Glynn shows, Dee’s protectors included some of the most powerful in Elizabethan England. His patrons went as high as the Queen herself, taking along William Cecil, Lord Burleigh, her chief minister, and Francis Walsingham, her spy master, on the way.

Dee claimed to be able to foretell the future, a skill particularly desired by those in power. He also had a practical political use as a kind of counter-magus! In 1558 when Elizabeth came to the throne in succession to her Catholic sister, Mary, there were many dangers for the nascent Protestant queen. In France Nostradamus, the court magician of Catherine de Medici, predicted all sorts of dire things for England. Dee was hired to give a different spin and cast a better horoscope!

Dee was clearly a reasonably astute politician himself, at least on occasion. His best ‘prophecies’, in other words, were tailored to support policy drifts, which included casting positive auspices on Robert Dudley’s campaign in support of the Dutch revolt against the Spanish, and Cecil’s campaign against the perceived Catholic threat. This was wizardry as a handmaiden to statecraft!

Alas, poor Doctor Dee, astute but not astute enough. He slipped and slipped badly - he made one political contact, one magical contact and one prediction too far. The political contact was a disreputable Polish nobleman by the name of Albrecht Laski. Believing that this man was favoured by the Queen, Dee then hired one Edmund Kelley, a ‘scryer’ who claimed to be able to talk to angels, to back up his prophecy that Laski would be king of Poland. Here Dee took his eye off the political ball; for the player to watch was not Elizabeth but Burleigh, who had no intention of advancing the Catholic Laski’s political ambitions. Down came the house, magic and all.

Now on Continental exile, Dee’s story slips from Faustian tragedy to Rabelaisian comedy. The fraudulent Kelley persuaded him that the only way for him to retain his magical powers was for the two to indulge in a spot of wife swapping. Dee agreed, sufficient proof, if any is needed, that even the most sophisticated minds are not free from risible forms of folly.

Parry has done splendid work in placing Dee, the man, the myth and the magic, in the wider stage of Elizabethan court politics. It explains why his little vessel was subject to such vagaries, moved along in one direction or another by changes in the wind. He also proves one thing that I’ve long believed – that innocence often goes hand in hind with scholarly curiosity, and, goodness, what an innocent Dee was.

There was one nugget of information which I fount wholly delightful. It was Dee who coined the term ‘British Empire’, though with all of his other prophecies this showed no great prescience on his part. His British Empire grew from the spurious contention that King Arthur, no less, had once planted colonies in the Americas. I can just see it - an Elizabethan Englishman in the Colonial Court of King Arthur!

Parry has brought our home-grown Faust out of the shadows. His scholarly efforts are commendable, and weighty. I could only wish that he had carried them a tad more lightly; the long passages from Dee’s own writings are crushingly dull. Still, if you are interested in the occult and the place of prediction in politics, if you are interested in the highs and the lows of an Elizabethan life, then I think you will enjoy this book. I did.

21 comments:

  1. Just tell people what they want to hear! the trick is to know how and when as this does not always yield desired results.

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    1. Yes, Anthony. In this area, as in most others, one has to box clever.

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  2. The dispersal of Dee's library, like the burning of Alexandria's, is one of those events that makes me cringe every time I think of it.

    I am very interested in the evolution of occult thinking in this period from alchemy and astrology to the beginnings of modern empirical science over roughly 100 years. In between, witch hunts and inquisitions, and the most ferocious sectarian wars across Europe. It is an extraordinary intellectual journey.

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    1. Yes, Calvin, one of the most extraordinary in human experience.

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  3. I am not sure if your fascination with witchcraft is purely academic of goes deeper. If it goes deeper then I would advise you that magic, miracles and the like can have no bases in fact. I say this as our scientific knowledge tells us that the universe only exists because forces that control it follow very strict laws and keep everything in balance. Any forces that do not follow those laws would upset that balance and we could therefore not exist at all.

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    1. AS, it goes deeper. See Calvin's point above. Modern science grew out of an interest in the occult. Here Isaac Newton is a good example.

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  4. This is a pretty interesting blog. I really enjoyed reading this post.

    www.modernworld4.blogspot.com

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    1. Thanks, Gina. I'll check yours out also.

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  5. Hi Ana, have you had the chance to read the books of Dame Frances Yates--particularly GIORDANO BRUNO AND THE HERMETIC TRADITION? She's also written extensively on Raymond Lull and Dee and I assume is footnoted in Parry's book . . . perhaps I've asked you about this before, but are you familiar with the German Jesuit Friedrich Spee? Spee was a truly lovely man who stood up against the MALLEUS MALEFICARUM crowd at the risk of his life (they were contemporaries of his) by writing a book CAUTIO CRIMINALIS exposing the Hexenprocez for the tragic, gruesome sham that it was . . . Spee also wrote beautiful poetry and a devotional book for women, the GUELDENES TUGEND-BUCH . . . unlike the epically criminal misogynists in the Dominican order, particularly (but including deeply psychologically troubled characters like Jean Bodin), who were responsible for the anti-woman pogrom of the witch trials, Spee was a great (chaste) lover of humanity and women in particular, a shining light in a deeply dark (Renaissance) age . . . the witch trials generally are a deeply troubling modern--not pre-modern--phenomenon, which leads in a straight line to the Stalin show trials and the sinister travesties of justice perpetrated by the Nazis

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    1. Chris, yes indeed, in answer to both of your questions. Spree was indeed a remarkable man. I must write about him soon, Thanks for the nudge. :-)

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  6. I admire John Dee - one of those outstanding Renaissance personalities, not unlike Leonard DaVinci or Johannes Kepler
    .
    Dee is one of the suspected authors of the Voynich Manuscript, which he allegedly sold to Emperor Rudolf II for a sum of 600 gold ducats (50,000 GBP). It's still one of the most mysterious manuscripts left to us by history.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voynich_manuscript

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  7. Hi Ana!
    Thank you for writing about this book. And to think I was wholly ignorant of John Dee when I got up this mornnig! :-)

    Funny you mention that he stood "on the cusp of a great change, a time when superstition, giving way to reason." I would go so far to say that, though we may be past the cusp, that great change is still taking place...

    -Jay

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  8. Dee & Kelley might have been able to conjure up the 'daughter of fortitude' but they were still inexperienced because they weren't even aware that they conjured up Babylon herself.

    What would they have done with her?
    Were they able to put her to good use?

    NO they failed, they had no solid plan of action, they just foolishly dabbled in things they didn't understand.

    They both ended up with nothing in the end and so their promises of glory faded in time.

    If we look at the legacy of some of these men such as Aleister Crowley & Andy Parsons, in the end they gained nothing of material or even spiritual value. In fact Parsons died in flames, so much for 'the hellfire club'.

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    1. Very true, TBM. Crowley, in particular, was a bit of a clown.

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  9. How did I miss this? My last paper in Euro history was on Dee :)I actually nicked his Monas sigil for my own hypersigil. I would have loved do have seen that Mortlake library.

    Missed you, My Love

    Joe Pearson (Coll)

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    1. Ah, Coll, so you are really Joe? :-) It's lovely to see you.

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