The Origins of the Dee Myth

A commonly recurring element of the Voynich provenance story is that the famous astrologer, alchemical and seer, John Dee, probably owned the manuscript, and brought it to the Court of Rudolf II in the late 16th century. This anecdote is not only related in just about every article on the subject of the Voynich, but it is also used as a supporting argument for the rumor in the 1665 Marci letter, which states that a “bearer” was given 600 ducats when they brought the book to the Court. So in effect, the Dee story is also used as a supporting argument for the speculative provenance from the time of Rudolf and later. But where did the Dee rumor originate? What is its basis? Are we correct to place any weight on it at all? It is true that Dee owned a vast library, kept at his home at Mortlake, but do we know the Voynich Manuscript was among the books there?

John Dee, From Bolton, 1904

John Dee, From Bolton, 1904

The earliest reference to the Dee ownership can be found in Wilfrid Voynich’s lecture, A Preliminary Sketch of the History of the Roger Bacon Cipher Manuscript. He presented it to the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, on April 20th, 1921. And not just this Dee reference, but almost the entire skeleton of the manuscript’s provenance was laid down by Voynich on that day. Much of what he said there is still regarded as a solid starting point for any understanding of what the Voynich is, and where it came from. I don’t believe that the trust in this source is at all warranted, and the Dee portion of it is just one good example. In the lecture, Voynich relates that Dee owned various Bacon works in his library, and adds,

“It is, I think, also reasonable to deduce from these facts that in the collection of Bacon manuscripts, which unquestionably came into his possession as early as 1547, he found the cipher manuscript.* The sequence of events which suggest themselves is that, having failed to decode it, he carried the manuscript to Prague, where he parted with it as a “present” to Emperor Rudolf.”

The footnote in the transcription explains the evidence Voynich uses to support this contention,

” * Perhaps it is to this cipher manuscript that Dr. Arthur Dee (John Dee’s son) refers in the following: Sir Thomas Brown relates in 1675 to Ashmole, “That Dr. Arthur Dee (speaking about his father’s life in Prague) told about . . . book containing nothing but heiroglyphicks, which book his father bestowed much time upon, but I could not hear that he could make it out,” Fell-Smith (Charlotte), John Dee, pp. 311-312″

That is Voynich’s interpretation of the Brown statement to Ashmole, and which has been repeated hundreds of times. It is the core of early belief that the Cipher Ms. may have been Dee’s, then went to the Court of Rudolf II with him, and so on. But I wanted to read the quote by Brown, exactly, so I downloaded a copy of Fell-Smith’s 1909 book, John Dee, (1527-1608). Here is the entire statement written by Brown, to Ashmole,

“I was very well acquainted with Dr. Arthur Dee [John Dee’s son], and at one time or other he has given me some account of the whole course of his life. I have heard the doctor say that he lived in Bohemia with his father, both at Prague and other parts. That Prince or Count Rosenberg was their great patron, who delighted much in alchemie. I have often heard him affirme, and sometimes with oaths, that he had seen projection made, and transmutation of pewter dishes and flaggons into silver, which the goldsmiths at Prague bought of them. And that Count Rosenberg played at quoits with silver quoits, made by projection as before. That this transmutation was made by a powder they had, which was found in some old place, and a book lying by it containing nothing but hieroglyphicks ; which book his father bestowed much time upon, but I could not hear that he could make it out.”

What jumped out at me was that the portion of the quote which Voynich left out of his footnote, “That this transmutation was made by a powder they had, which was found in some old place, and a book lying by it…”. Why was that important point omitted by Voynich?

A telling problem with Voynich’s hopeful claim is that the book referenced by Brown is the same book described in Bolton’s 1904 Follies at the Court of Rudolf II,  which is a book Voynich admits to being intimately familiar with. On pages 6 & 7,

“The fame of Dee and Kelley as magicians spread rapidly, and was enhanced by their claims to success in the manufacture of gold from base metals, a claim that ill-accorded with the chronic poverty in Dee’s household. The Philosophers’ stone used in transmutation had been found by digging in the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey [Arthur Dee’s “some old place”], together with a book explaining the process, written by St. Dunstan, the same:— ‘who in his cell’s repose; Plucked the devil by the nose.'”

This ridiculous story then seems to stem from the various legends associated with the ruins of Glastonbury, combined with the background of Saint Dunstan, “As a young boy, Dunstan studied under the Irish monks who then occupied the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey. Accounts tell of his youthful optimism and of his vision of the abbey being restored.” This, combined with the fact that, “He functions as the patron saint of goldsmiths and silversmiths, as he worked as a blacksmith, painter, and jeweller.”

I’ve no interest or need to track down how this legend morphed into an interest for the nefarious alchemists of the Court of Rudolf II, or into someone’s attributing some old book and bit of red powder to Saint Dunstan, supposedly found in the ruins of Glastonbury. Rather, suffice it to say that Voynich would have known the Dunstan book was the same one inaccurately referenced by Brown, to Ashmole, in 1675; that his knowing this is backed up by his conveniently leaving out the parts which showed that this reference was actually to an alchemical transmutation text and NOT his cipher ms.; or that it was a book claimed to be by Saint Dunstan, and clearly not by Roger Bacon. Voynich obviously knew all this, from what he says he read (Bolton, Fell-Smith), so hinting that the book Arthur Dee referred to could be Wilfrid’s Roger Bacon Cipher Manuscript was a purposefully disingenuous reference. But doing so was probably considered safe by Voynich, based on the hope that the Thomas Brown book, and the Dunstan book, would not be correlated. He was right: it was not connected, to my knowledge, until I noted it several years ago, so his faith in doing so was borne out.

Glastonbury Abbey, but no Voynich Ms.

Now knowing that the source of the John Dee ownership rumor was simply invented by Voynich, and backed up by an purposely incorrect reference, leads us to the question, “Why should we think John Dee may have owned the Voynich Manuscript, and possibly brought it to the Court of Rudolf II?”. It turns out there is no reason at all. Well, unless one would like to say it is because Dee owned a library, or “might” have been interested in such a book, or visited the Court. But that is a very thin nail to hang one’s heavy coat of provenance on, as there were many libraries, many interested in the occult, and certainly very many book owners went to the Court. So really, knowing the clever misdirection of Voynich in that 1921 lecture was the only reason at all to look to John Dee, there is actually no reason to leave “Dee’s ownership” in the slim thread of Voynich provenance.

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2 Responses to “The Origins of the Dee Myth”

  1. ekwall2 Says:

    Magicians & Chemistry (red powder?) can make for some ~strange~ bedfellows [TRUE]… ask any FounderyMan.

  2. proto57 Says:

    It turns out Rafal Prinke covered this subject very well, in great detail, awhile ago: He also came to the same conclusion, much more eloquently than I have!

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