Friday, 26 April 2013

John Dee: Mathematician and Crystal Ball Gazer!

John Dee, astronomer, pictured here with his "shew stone". Photograph by permission of the Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (U.K.).

This week’s Cathedral Library blog is about an Elizabethan scientific mastermind who coined the term “Brittania” and in later life took up crystal ball gazing! He also visited Worcester Cathedral Library and got to keep one of our precious manuscripts!
John Dee (1527-c. 1609) was an influential astronomer and mathematician of the Elizabethan era. Described by John Bale in his Index of British and Other Writers as an “astronomus pertissimus”  (an expert astronomer), Dee was originally known for the accuracy and quality of his astrological birth charts, and went on to draw up birth charts for Queen Elizabeth I and Sir Philip Sidney.  The work for which he is most renowned is The Mathematicall Praeface; an introduction to Henry Billingsley’s translation of Euclid that argues mathematics should be used as a basis for the study of the universe, and other scientific disciplines.
In his early life Dee was educated as an undergraduate at St. John’s College, Cambridge, and later became a fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge. Straddling a period of educational reform at Cambridge, Dee’s studies focused on Greek philosophy and Arabic arithmetic, and incorporated the learning of geometry, arithmetic, harmonics, and astronomy.
Dee travelled from the middle of the 1540s to the 1550s through the Low Countries, where he encountered some of Europe’s leading minds (Gemma Frissius, Gerard Mercator, Pedro Nuñez). Dee’s reputation had grown by the time he returned home from the continent c.  1551 and, aided by his former Cambridge tutor (Robert Ascham), he was introduced to the court of Edward VI. He presented to the boy-King two astronomical books he had written whilst in Louvain.  By 1551, Dee was in service as a tutor to the Earl of Pembroke’s sons and the following year was requested to join the Duke of Northumberland’s household. So renowned was Dee that by the time he came to visit Worcester Cathedral in February 1565 the then Dean (John Pedder) willingly gave him a rare Anglo-Saxon manuscript- the ‘Cosmographia’ of Ethicus. Dee was a keen collector of antiquated scientific texts and, at the peak of his financial success, is thought to have owned around three thousand printed texts and a sizeable number of manuscripts.
In 1555, during the reign of Queen Mary, Dee was accused and arrested for attempting to endanger the lives of the Queen and her sister through conjuring. When Elizabeth ascended to the throne, Dee recovered his reputation for a time. Appointed as a scientific advisor and natural philosopher within the Elizabethan court, Dee had the honour of selecting the date of Elizabeth’s coronation. Throughout the 1570s Dee served as a scientific and technical advisor on England’s voyages of discovery. By applying Euclidean geometry to navigation, he greatly influenced cartography. It was during this period that he coined the term "Brittania".
 Edward Kelly, medium to Dee in later life. Photograph by permission of the Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (U.K.).

Whilst Dee was highly regarded as a mathematician and astrologer, his reputation was increasingly dogged in later life by his association with the occult. Worcester Cathedral Library contains a copy of A True & Faithful relation of what passed for many Years Between Dr. John Dee and Some Spirits, a book which reflects Dee’s growing preoccupation with the spirit world. In the 1580s, Dee befriended and employed a mystic, Edward Kelly, in a bid to commune with spirits so that he could be further enlightened, and better understand the forces at play in the universe. A True & Faithful relation of what passed for many Years Between Dr. John Dee and Some Spirits charts the period from 1583 to 1607 (two years before Dee’s death) in which the pair took to crystal-gazing or ‘skrying’ in a bid to commune with spirits and angels. There are numerous references throughout the text to a “shew-stone” (pictured with Dee above), to which Kelly and Dee gazed into and, from which they claimed, spirits appeared out of. Written in the form of a dialogue between Dee, Kelly and the various spirits, each encounter is given a date. Dee records detailed descriptions, moreover, of the forms that these spirits took: “Suddenly here seemed to come out of my Oratory a Spirituall creature, like a pretty girle of 7 or 9 years of age, attired on her head with her hair rowled up”.
The third volume of The Biographia Britannia, available also to study in Worcester Cathedral Library, demonstrates the extent to which these otherworldly visions would, for centuries to come, tarnish Dee’s reputation as one of the most influential and forward-thinking Elizabethan mathematicians. The Biographia Britannia describes him as “famous for his extensive learning […] but withal extremely credulous, extravagantly vain and a most deluded enthusiast. […] He suffered himself to be deluded into a firm opinion that, by certain invocations, an intercourse or communication with the spirits might be obtained”. So discredited and reclusive was Dee in later life that he had to sell off his once vast library so as to avoid imminent poverty. He died in Mortlake c. 1609, though no gravestone marks his resting place.



Friday, 19 April 2013

Fragments of "The Reeves Tale", printed by William Caxton

“Incunabula” is the name given to fifteenth-century books printed by moveable type. The library of Worcester Cathedral is fortunate to have a collection of forty five such early printed books. One of the rarest items in the incunabula collection is fragments of “The Reeve’s Tale” from William Caxton’s first edition of The Canterbury Tales. These fragments were printed in Caxton’s Westminster workshop in 1478. The fragments exist today in the form of two folios, and are accompanied and bound with a letter from the donor in 1917, Mr M. Tomkinson of Franche Hall, Kidderminster. 

Photograph by permission of the Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (U.K.)
The work of Chaucer was already popular by the time Caxton came to set up shop in Westminster, and was available in numerous manuscript editions. That Caxton chose to print the work of a well-established English author evidences his entrepreneurial skills. Confident that The Canterbury Tales had enough of an audience, Caxton printed around three hundred copies of his first edition. Other books Caxton published in English (The History of Reynart the Foxe, Troilus and Criseyde and Mallory’s Morte D’Arthur) further suggest that his printed texts catered to the established literary tastes of late medieval Londoners.

Photograph by permission of the Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (U.K.)


Although the technology Caxton used to produce books was revolutionary, the picture of the fragments above demonstrates how the appearances of Caxton’s incunabula were still greatly influenced by, and reminiscent of, the manuscript tradition.

That is to say, throughout his career as a printer Caxton used only gothic typefaces because they closest resembled the scribal hands most commonly used in late medieval manuscripts. As a printer in London, Caxton would have been in direct competition with the market for manuscripts. Therefore it is likely that he consciously used typefaces that would have been familiar to his target audience, so as to maximize shop sales. For example, the typeface he uses in the fragments of “The Reeve’s Tale” above is called lettre bâtarde, and is based upon a Burgundian script. Edmund Childs notes that despite Caxton’s enterprising nature, he might be considered a less imaginative printer than some of his European counterparts because there is little variation between, and development of, the typefaces he used from 1474-91 (William Caxton: A portrait in the background, London: Northwood Publications, 1976, p. 131). This picture of the fragments also shows initials that were drawn later by hand in red ink, after the main body of the text had been printed by moveable type. The use of red ink is again a nod towards the manuscript tradition, in which scribes most frequently use red ink to make textual additions and corrections.
If you wish to learn more about Caxton and his influence upon English book production and the English language you may well enjoy listening to this BBC Radio 4 episode of “In Our Time”. Click on the link below.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Three Medieval Bishops of Worcester

In the thirteenth century the Diocese of Worcester had three very different Bishops, who in their own ways made their mark. So to learn about the man who organised the construction of the Cathedral's Lady Chapel, the Bishop who supported the famous Simon de Montfort, and the Bishop who loved his status and got involved in expensive lawsuits read on....
Bishop William de Blois in the Lady Chapel. This image is copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (U.K.)

                                                             WILLIAM DE BLOIS
                                                   Bishop of Worcester 1218-1236

 Although the monks of Worcester normally elected one of their number to be bishop, William was the papal nominee, their choice having been rejected by the Pope’s official. In spite of this possibly inopportune start, the new bishop proved to be a strong disciplinarian who worked towards raising the standard of clerical life. Bishop Blois is mainly remembered for beginning the erection of the Lady Chapel. The money raised from the pilgrims’ visits to the shrine of Saint Wulfstan was divided between the monks and the bishop. It would seem that the bishop used this as well as some of his own income to pay for the work. The adoration of the Virgin Mary was becoming a very popular form of worship in Bishop Blois’ time, and most cathedrals were adding a chapel in honour of the Virgin. The bishop was determined that Worcester’s Lady Chapel would be a fittingly beautiful construction. The old Norman choir was taken down and architects designed plans for the new choir and the Lady Chapel. We owe to the initiative and generosity of Bishop Blois the exquisite Lady Chapel and the design of the choir. He also enriched the diocese in other ways, for he purchased lands out of his own pocket for the endowment of the bishopric.

Bishop Walter de Cantelupe in the Lady Chapel. This image is copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (U.K.)

                                                  WALTER de CANTELUPE
                                                Bishop of Worcester 1237-1265  

Bishop Cantelupe was a true patriot and considered to be one of the greatest bishops of the time. The monks requested permission of the Pope to elect him and when he was enthroned as bishop, the king and many dignitaries were present. The time following the death of King John when the boy king Henry III was on the throne, was a bad time for this country. The nobles surrounding the weak king were evil and grasping. England suffered both from the lawless acts of the king and from papal tyranny. Bishop Cantelupe, together with the great Bishop Grosseteste of Lincoln realised that the only way forward was to resist the demands of both the Pope and the King. The barons appointed a committee to draw up terms for the reform of the state and Bishop Cantelupe was among their number. In the ensuing civil war, our bishop fought with Simon de Montfort for the maintenance of law and order in the country. Bishop Cantelupe is remembered as a patriot but equally as much as an excellent bishop of this diocese. The building of the Lady Chapel and the new choir continued; the Charnel House was extended, with four chaplains in attendance, whose duties included teaching in the Schools, and he founded the nunnery of White Ladies in Worcester. It is said that: “he would have merited canonisation, but for his adherence to Simon de Montfort.”

Bishop Giffard's effigy. This image is copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (U.K.)

                                                      GODFREY GIFFARD
                                                 Bishop of Worcester 1267-1301

Godfrey Giffard was selected to be bishop because he was believed to be a strong man who would enforce obedience to the Crown, which he did as a committed Royalist. As successor to Bishop Cantelupe, his actions were quite the reverse of his predecessor, whose patriotic work in opposing the tyranny of both the Pope and the King was exemplary. Bishop Giffard was one of the bishops sent to the Holy Land to meet Edward I on his return. He was a man who enjoyed pomp and state occasions and was adept at entertaining royalty. Edward I visited Worcester eight times during Bishop Giffard’s episcopacy.

He spent much of his time as bishop involved in lawsuits with the monks after years of disagreements. These were hugely expensive as going to law with a bishop meant an appeal to the law courts in Rome.       
In 1221 the Franciscan Friars came to England and a small group of friars came to Worcester, settling in Friar Street, which was then a swamp. In contrast to the monks, who at the time did little to help the needy, the friars lived among the poor and tended the sick in the medieval slums. It is to the credit of Bishop Giffard that he helped the Franciscans in many ways. As bishop of this diocese for thirty years, it seems that he was very keen to punish clerical offenders and to support institutions which were designed to do good deeds. However, he was also proud and self-important and was buried in the magnificent tomb prepared for his body during his lifetime next to the high altar.   In the following year his body was moved and the tomb taken down as it was obstructing the high altar; perhaps a fitting act in Biblical terms for someone who wished to exalt himself too readily.

Bishop Giffard's tomb underneath Prince Arthur's Chantry Chapel. This image is copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (U.K.)

Bishop Giffard also left his mark, because his family coat of arms - ten red torteaux- formed the basis of the coat of arms of Worcester Cathedral and the Diocese of Worcester. On the cathedral's coat of arms, however, the first torteaux in the top left hand corner is hidden by an image of the Virgin Mary holding the Christ child.

Mary Somers