Samuel Pepys and the library of John Dee

In the first in a new series of guest posts about John Dee’s life, books and publications, the Pepys Librarian at Magdalene College, Cambridge writes about books owned by both John Dee and Samuel Pepys.

In 1667, Elizabeth Pepys was so impressed by the ‘legerdemain’ of a juggler that ‘in all seriousness’, according to her amused husband, she reckoned the performer could not have performed his tricks ‘without the help of the devil’.

Yet Pepys was not above contemplating the darker mysteries:  a few months earlier he had found himself discoursing  ‘greatly’  with Sir George Carteret about the freaky fulfilment of Nostradamus’s prophecy of the burning of  the City of London; he owned books of prophecy by William Lilly, the ‘State Astrologer’ of the Interregnum, such as Monarchy or No Monarchy (PL 1112 (2)); and he owned a splendid historical collection of  almanacs and horoscopes from those of early modern England to Chinese silk and paper examples.

The current RCP exhibition on John Dee reminds us of how prevalent an interest in the occult arts was, and how it lasted well into the seventeenth century.  It sat alongside the new sciences of Hooke, Newton and Boyle and perhaps unexpectedly, the juxtaposition was not always uncomfortable. Pepys certainly did not believe everything he heard or read of popular superstition: but he did not dismiss it all either, seeing its power to be both political and psychological. The sudden thunderstorm at the Coronation of Charles II intrigued him;  and he acknowledged the tricks the suggestible mind can play: after an evening of hearing ghost stories from  his host during a visit away from home in 1661, Pepys somewhat sheepishly recorded how an encounter with a dislodged pillow sitting up at the end of the bed made him ‘much afeared’.

Several copies of John Dee’s works are in the Library as Pepys left it at his death in 1703. In addition, two manuscripts in the collection had been previously owned by Dee.

The earliest example of Dee’s writings in the Library is PL 1080(2), the first edition of 1599 of Dee’s Apology  (A Letter containing a most briefe discourse apologeticall, with  a plaine demonstration and fervent protestation).  The Dee is listed among other works of navigation in a list of contents written under Pepys’s instruction.

A striking woodblock on the title page shows Dee, supported by God’s sword of Truth, confronting his detractors represented in a multi-headed figure.  The quotation at the foot of the page is aptly chosen: `Falsus testis, non erit impunitus: et qui loquitur mendacia, peribit’ (Proverbs, 19:9 :  ‘false witness will not go unpunished; and the person who speaks lies will perish’.)

The defence by Dee against allegations of witchcraft is a common one:  ‘from my youth hitherto, I haue vsed, and still vse, good, lawfull, honest, christian, and diuinely prescribed meanes, to attaine to the knowledge of those truthes, which are meet, and necessary for me to know...’

The gold-tooled vellum binding of PL 2158 contains another copy of the letter, along with its treatise on navigation, this time in the edition printed by John Daye, 1577.

The book was given to Pepys by Thomas Croone, as witnessed by the letter which is still housed within the volume in the Pepys Library: ‘I have according to my permission sent you that  Disciorse of Sir John Dee which I spoke of; if it be in any way serviceable to you , I shall hold it a very great happyness that I had this opportunity of showing my debt.’ (December 1674).  Croone was an anatomist and physician, and he appears in Samuel Pepys’s Diary, most notably for reporting an experimental blood transfusion between two dogs in 1666. The donor dog, not surprisingly, died, but the recipient, by all accounts, did very well.  Pepys had some work to do to put the Dee volume to rights: ‘You will find’, says Croone, ‘ the first and second pages of the book at the latter end of it about the middle of one of the Latine Orations cited by Mr Dee.’

The volume as Magdalene received it from Pepys has no such confusion, having clearly been repaired, re-collated and rebound.

Of particular interest in relation to the current exhibition are the two manuscripts in the Library that were originally owned by Dee: PL 1207 and PL 2329.  The first of these is a fifteenth-century manuscript of the works of the influential thirteenth-century scholar Roger Bacon, including his Optics or Perspectiva.

This examination of the properties of light is an important work in the history of science, bringing the principles of geometry to bear on the study of physics. Some of the diagrams of light being refracted would not look out of place in a modern textbook.

Pepys also owned a printed copy (the Frankfurt edition of 1614, now PL 1208 and shelved by Pepys next to the manuscript), and putting these two versions together offers a valuable exemplum for how elaborate scientific diagrams were rendered in an early printed text. And as an illustration of the way scientific knowledge was often oblivious to national borders in the Middle Ages, it is worth noting that Bacon’s work on optics is closely based on the treatise ‘The Book of Light’ Kitab al-Manazir by the great Arabic scholar Alhazen.

The Bacon manuscript probably came into Pepys’s possession in 1692 when he bought a number of items from the sale of the estate of Lord Lauderdale which took place in Toms Coffee House.

The second came probably from the same sale. It is PL 2329, comprising a number of mathematical treatises.

The history of this volume is complicated and touches on many of the recurring patterns of book transmission in the period: dating from 1407, when it was written by Sevatius Tomlinger in Paris, the book still has its early binding, originally hinged,  in white leather over oak boards (though this was rebacked by Pepys), with a plate attached.

This deluxe manuscript was one of two (the other being Oxford, Bodleian MS Ashmole 424) presented seventy years later to Peterhouse in Cambridge by the physician Roger Marchall in what was an unusual benefaction by someone who was neither a cleric nor an aristocrat.

Both of these volumes were borrowed in 1556 by John Dee, but apparently returned two years later. It is likely that the Pepys MS became the property of Dee in 1564 in exchange for printed books. It was certainly in his collection by 1583.  The trail goes cold but Lauderdale acquired it in the seventeenth-century. The dissipation of Lauderdale’s excellent collection of deluxe volumes may have been one of the incentives for Pepys to ponder upon the future of his own collection after he died: he decided, of course, to leave it all to Magdalene College on the understanding that nothing would be added or removed.  And so it has remained.

Dr M E J Hughes, fellow in English and Pepys librarian, Magdalene College, University of Cambridge