John Dee's marginalia
A kindred spirit with my anonymous annotator
Over the past few days, I’ve been idly flicking through the (digital) pages of heavily annotated books from the library of John Dee. (If you want to see them for yourself, you can find them here.)
John Dee was a 16th century English mathematician, occultist, alchemist, and astronomer – arguably best known for being an occultist. He was court astronomer to Elizabeth I and the owner of the largest book collection in 16th century England – at an estimated 3,000 texts, it was larger than the libraries of Oxford and Cambridge combined. Sadly he died in poverty in 1609, much of his library stolen over the years. He’s a truly fascinating character, and his marginalia is equally as interesting.
I’ve only worked through a couple of volumes and they get quite repetitive at points, but I thought I’d select a couple of bits to discuss.
The below is from folio B iij v of a commentary by Herman Walter Ryff on the second book of Pliny’s Natural History.
Nearly every page is annotated to a similar degree; he clearly thought this book worth careful study.
First off: I’m always on the look out for manicules – those little pointing hands, like in the top right above – so I was delighted to see quite so many in this book. We really ought to go back to drawing manicules on things.
Dee’s annotations on this page are concerned with spirits and souls. At the top, you can see he’s written spiritus mundi, or ‘the spirit of the world’; in the bottom left margin, he’s written haurire spiritum mundi, or ‘to drain/drink up the spirit of the world’. At the very bottom, he’s written anima 1 - primum mobile, spiritus 2 - q. ess[enti]a, corpus - 3, or ‘the soul 1 - the first moveable thing, the spirit 2 - the fifth essence, the body 3’. He’s noting down key points from the text, possibly for easy reference in future.
Something that struck me was how similar this page looked to the heavily annotated copy of a book I bought the other day and wrote about. The page is slathered with annotations and underlining, such that you spend more time looking at the annotations than you do the text itself. Most of the marginalia is again picking out key points from the text, likely for easy reference but also as a form of thinking on the page.
Looks similar in many ways, doesn’t it? Imagine that John Dee had a highlighter and it’s not far off.
I don’t think either of them – John Dee and my anonymous annotator – were thinking of a future reader when they wrote their marginalia. It’s personal, written for nobody but themselves; there’s something almost intrusive about reading it.
A consequence of this expected privacy is that the annotator is free to write whatever they please. One of my favourite things (aside from manicules) is when the annotations express an opinion – a passing thought, a laugh, a raised eyebrow – the snarkier the better. It’s like they can’t not use the pen as an extension of themselves, making a mark for no purpose beyond expression. They’re not marking it for future readers, and possibly not even for themselves. It’s pure expression, and I love it.
John Dee is no exception to this.
It’s a remark that makes me imagine a man, hunched over his desk with quill in hand, snorting when he comes across this line and unable to stop himself from writing the 16th century equivalent of ‘yeah, right’. It’s not large, drawing future-Dee’s attention to it, but small, like a mutter.
I found similar in my Grafton book, albeit more emphatic:
The best thing? I had the same reaction when I read this bit as well. At that moment, it felt like a book club, like we were reading this book together and chuckling at the same parts.
Over four centuries apart, Dee and my annotator are doing the same thing: scrawling all over the text, leaving behind a trail of thoughts and reactions. Here I am now, sat on my sofa, reading through both, and reacting to their reactions.
A bit meta, really.
(Somebody needs to save this post to Readwise Reader and highlight and annotate it too, just for entertainment value.)
Edited 05/11/22 to fix some grammatical mistakes.
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