Item of the Month, June 2011 – “An important alchemical manuscript…”

Show Navigation

By | Early Medicine

This year’s Manchester International Festival sees the premier of a new opera, based on the life of the Elizabethan mathematician, astrologer and alchemist, John Dee.

We’ve already tweeted about the Opera and flagged up some Dee-related items from our collections. We didn’t highlight the following item however, saving it for a more detailed ‘Item of the Month’ post.

What you see here is a page from our MS.239, titled ‘Practica et accurtaciones Georgii Ryplay et Raimundi’ (in other words, notes on the alchemists George Ripley and Ramon Lull). It consists of 67 pages, in English and Latin, written in italic and in a secretary hand – the handwriting being that of John Dee himself.

The manuscript was purchased for Henry Wellcome on 17th February 1931 from an auction at Sotheby’s, where it was described in the sale catalogue as “an important Alchemical manuscript…on the transmutation of metals and search for the Elixir of Life”. The author of the sale catalogue was guarded on its provenance, stating it was “probably in the hand of John Dee” but noting the manuscript’s “very detailed resemblances to the varied hand of Dee”.

By the time the manuscript was catalogued by the Wellcome, cataloguer S.A.J. Moorat was more certain of Dee being its author, noting that “there seems little doubt that this MS. is by the hand of the famous astrologer and alchemist”. Moorat noted the initials J.D. are found – identical with those in other authentic Dee MSS – on five of the manuscript’s pages.

Also noted by Moorat – and visible on the image above – is Dee’s small ‘ladder sign’ given as one of his attributable marks in the 1921 title Preface to the List of MSS. formerly owned by Dr. John Dee. This reference work was produced by the then Provost of Eton College, Montague Rhodes James – now remembered more for his seminal tales of the supernatural, than for his scholarly research.

It’s rather fitting that Dee and James are linked by this manuscript: it’s easy to imagine its occult contents – and the elucidation of them by curious antiquarians – to lie at the dark heart of one of James’s stories.

For more on the possible influence of Dee on James’s story ‘Count Magnus’, see this essay from the M R James site, Ghosts and Scholars

Ross Macfarlane

Ross Macfarlane is the Research Engagement Officer at the Wellcome Library.

See more posts by this author

Comments are closed.

Related Blog Posts