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Of Marginal Importance: John Dee's Annotations in Mediaeval Alchemical Manuscripts

Fri, March 23, 9:00 to 10:30am, Hilton Riverside, 3rd Level - Jefferson Ballroom


The intense period of alchemical work in fourteenth and fifteenth century England (in both Latin and the vernacular) formed a lasting legacy for alchemists in subsequent centuries. The copying and circulation of older manuscript traditions, and a new body of experimental work (in the form of notes on various processes) was carefully worked over by alchemists in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, for whom the relative antiquity of these earlier sources seemed a guarantee of veracity. Manuscripts thus became palimpsests, encrusted with the interventions of successive owners and users. In this paper I explore the marginalia of the Elizabethan alchemist John Dee in the mediaeval alchemical manuscripts which he owned. I hope to show what Dee hoped to glean from the mediaeval tradition, and how he brought his humanistic textual expertise to bear on the texts, his interest in practical questions, and his search for what he called “mysteries.”