Happy Hallowe’en! During this time of unwitting mimicry of ancient ceremony and conjuration of forgotten powers, it seems only appropriate to venture into the world of Renaissance magic for this month’s “Peckie” (short for “Peckerhead,” of course).
Adopting an alias. Speaking with angels. Wife-swapping. If October’s “Renaissance Peckerhead of the Month” nominee Edward Kelley were alive today, he’d have his own show on TLC.
Edward Kelley is most famous for his partnership with John Dee, the great Renaissance magus and scholar. Dee served as an advisor to Queen Elizabeth, counted among his acquaintances Renaissance power mongers Frances Walsingham and William Cecil, and served as tutor to the poet Sir Philip Sidney.
In 1582, Kelley introduced himself to Dee. Dee had been increasingly obsessed with occult communication—specifically “angelic conversations” enabled by a scryer, one who could interpret the messages of a crystal ball. Kelley found Dee and gave him the happy news that his scryer-hunting days were over: Edward Kelley himself was just the man Dee was looking for.
Scrying was not, however, Kelley’s first career, nor was “Edward Kelley” his first name. Though Kelley proclaimed to have matriculated at Oxford, seventeenth-century historian of Oxford Anthony á Wood could find no student of that name during that time in any of the colleges of the university. He did, however, find a young man–same age, from the same place in Ireland–going by the name “Edward Talbot.” “Talbot” left Oxford abruptly–given that he was pilloried and had his ears clipped in Lancaster after that, as punishment for forgery, chances are he did not leave Oxford willingly.
Kelley managed to convince Dee of his ability to speak with the angels. He described to Dee the process by which he received these angelic communications: He would see the celestial beings in crystal ball, and they would indicate letters on a tablet in their own language, a tongue Dee and Kelley called “Enochian.” English translations of the Enochian communications would unfurl from the angels’ mouths in paper ribbons. Dee seems to have been sincerely thrilled and amazed with Kelley’s astonishing ability to communicate with the angels.
Shortly after Kelley and Dee began working together, Kelley met and married the widow Jane Cooper, and, to his credit, seems to have treated her well, even arranging for her to have a Latin tutor.
In 1583, Dee, Kelley, and their families moved from England to Europe, trying to win the patronage of Emperor Rudolf II of Bohemia, himself highly interested in magic and alchemy. Having failed to secure his sponsorship, they traveled a bit before connecting with another patron, Vilem Rožmberk. They settled in the Bohemian town of Třeboň and began building a reputation for themselves.
Kelley was very, very good at building a reputation—in this particular iteration, it was as an alchemist, a much more lucrative trade than scrying. It was so much more lucrative, in fact, that Kelley began trying to get out of his partnership with John Dee. But how to do it?
Here’s where the movie of Edward Kelley’s life gets an “R” rating: scholars think that in order to convince Dee to sever their partnership, Kelley reported that an angel named Madimi ordered them to share everything they had—including Dee’s wife of nine years, Jane (Jane was 23 when she married the 51-year-old John Dee) and Kelley’s wife, conveniently also named Jane.
Dee wasn’t happy about the angel Madimi’s command, but on May 22, 1587, what Dee termed “the cross-matching” occurred. Nine months later, Jane Dee gave birth to a son, Theodorus Trebonius Dee.
After the “cross-matching,” Kelley left Dee in Třeboň. Dee went back to his home in Mortlake to find his library decimated and his collections ravaged. He died in poverty, forced to sell off various of his prized possessions.
Unlike Dee, Kelley went on to find fame, riches, and the patronage of Rožmberg; Emperor Rudolf II even had him knighted. Eventually, however, Kelley got caught in his web of deception. Rudolf had him imprisoned on a false charge of murder, hoping to keep him from leaving Bohemia with his “secret” for turning base metals into gold. Kelley died in prison in 1597.
Edward Kelley is considered the progenitor of the con-man-alchemist trope, the magician who fleeces his followers, as in Ben Jonson’s play The Alchemist. I imagine that in Disney movies and such he’d be the wheedling dealer in tricks, the man who betrays the good guy but really has a heart of gold.
Though something tells me if Edward Kelley had a heart of gold, he’d hock it.
I believe that most people (or at least the people I want to know) have a special “library place” in their hearts. It’s what causes the smile that breaks when entering a new library; the shiver on catching the familiar whiff of old books; the frisson of anticipation after realizing that stacks and stacks of books can be taken home and savored.
Libraries have been a big part of my life for the last five years. In 2007, my community’s library was closed for lack of funds, leaving 82,000 American citizens without access to any public library whatsoever. Unthinkable, right?
Long story short: a group of very cool folks got together and fundraised and fundraised some more and re-opened the library as a nonprofit. There are hopes that we can pass a library district in the near future so that the library is again sustainably funded, but in the meantime we all work like crazy to keep the doors open (more here: www.josephinelibrary.org).
So last year, when I planned my first solo trip to England—sans husband and kids, free to direct my steps wherever I wanted without worrying about potty breaks, snacks, or pending soccer matches—it was only natural that at the top of my must-visit-or-else-what-the-hell’s-the-point-of-going list was Oxford’s storied and magnificent Bodleian Library.
The Bodleian, built in 1320, was Oxford’s first university library (meaning it wasn’t attached to one specific college). That original library, smallish and uninspiring, expanded when Humfrey, Duke of Gloucester, donated over 200 valuable manuscripts in the 1440s, so the university constructed a new room over the Divinity School. (Harry Potter fans: note that the hospital wing scenes with Madame Pomfrey were filmed in the Divinity School, and all of the Hogwarts library scenes were filmed in Duke Humfrey’s library.)
Duke Humfrey’s library, finished in the 1480s, lasted about 60 years until, under legislation passed under King Edward VI meant “to purge the English church of all traces of Roman Catholicism,” the library was stripped of all books and manuscripts containing “superstitious books and images.” (Why do I include this in my short history of the Bodleian?: it is perversely of some comfort to me to know that my town’s library is not the only victim of shortsighted thinking on the part of autocratic politicians.)
The Bodleian was resuscitated in 1598 by an injection of funds from Sir Thomas Bodley, after whom it was renamed. Bodley established three guidelines that have shaped the Bodleian’s character:
1) He established an agreement with the Stationers’ Company of London that would direct the mission of the Bodleian to this day: a copy of every book registered with the Stationers’ Company was to also be deposited at the Bodleian. This agreement transformed it into a critically important repository of learning in England for the next four centuries.
2) He determined that scholars from all universities should have unfettered access to the holdings of his library, a generous and liberal policy that allowed the Bodleian to transcend the relatively parochial constraints of English scholarship. (While all scholars were welcome, however, they all had to swear the following oath: “I hereby undertake not to remove from the Library, or to mark, deface, or injure in any way, any volume, document, or other object belonging to it or in its custody; nor to bring into the Library or kindle therein any fire or flame, and not to smoke in the Library; and I promise to obey all rules of the Library.” I know this because I couldn’t resist buying the tea towel with the oath printed on it.)
3) He ordained that no books were to leave the building. No borrowing of books or materials, period. This policy is in place to this day for the majority of the collection.
I find this last policy fascinating, because in the early days of my library’s resurrection, we faced a critical decision: invest in the (rather expensive) software that would allow us to circulate books or just house the collection for patrons to view in the library. A very sage and experienced librarian decided the point by declaring that if books and materials didn’t circulate, we would have a reading room, not a proper library. If we agree with that definition (and I do), the the Bodleian, one of the most famous libraries in the world, is technically a reading room.
Even King Charles I, facing a mutinous parliament in London and escaping to the relative security of Oxford in 1642, was denied borrowing privileges at the Bodleian (though in order to appease His Majesty, the librarians had a little stall built inside Duke Humfrey’s Library so the King could taste the fruits of scholarship in privacy). By the doctrine of the divine right of kings, this was the man who was, in Shakespeare’s words, “the figure of God’s majesty/His captain, steward, deputy-elect,” and yet even he was denied check-out privileges.
After my tour of the Bodleian, marveling at the majesty of most influential books and manuscripts in history, I stopped by a pub (as I am wont to do). It occurred to me, as I re-acclimated to the noise and smell and colors of everyday life, that the American library tradition–begun by Benjamin Franklin and brought to fruition by Andrew Carnegie and countless American communities–of enabling every citizen to have free and unfettered access to information is one of the most radical movements in history.
In Oxford, at the Bodleian, I could gaze at magnificent books chained to the shelves, marvel at the scholarship contained in the august buildings, and admire the history of the furniture, the paintings, the architecture. But in little Grants Pass, Oregon, I could walk into my community’s library and check out almost any book in the building.
In this, I am richer than kings.
While doing research, I often come across fascinating tidbits or though-provoking morsels I want to share. For example, did you know midwives would sometimes place chunks of nutmeg or cloves on a laboring woman’s thigh, reasoning that the baby would be attracted to the delicious scent and want to make its way into the world?
See, that’s pretty cool. Not very useful, but pretty cool.
Sometimes, though, I come across a story that infuriates me so much I want to scream out loud (generally not recommended in a library, by the way). It’s for such occasions that I’m setting up the Vile-Hearted Renaissance Peckerhead of the Month Award.
The first of the candidates is one of two chaps named Peter Chamberlen, whom I stumbled upon while researching the childbirth preferences of Queen Henrietta Maria (1609-1669). Peter and his brother Peter (and yes, I’m channeling Newhart here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TN6UAzYY8qg) were sons of a French Huguenot emigre who moved to England in 1576 to escape religious persecution. The two Peters became midwives (yeah, I didn’t know there were male midwives in the Renaissance, either), and one of them (probably Peter the Elder, though nobody really knows) invented the obstetrical forceps.
Great, wonderful, lovely. The forward advance of medical knowledge, countless lives saved, etc. etc.
Except not. The bastard Peters kept their forceps invention secret for 150 years. They carried the forceps into the birthing room in a lined box, and they only brought them out after everyone had left the room and the laboring mother was blindfolded.
Can you imagine?
I was lucky, living in the 21st century, that there was no need for forceps in delivering my two beautiful children; both were born by c-section. But I’m pretty sure that had I lived in the 17th century, my first delivery would have needed those forceps (the second wouldn’t have, because I would have died in the first).
I remember lying there helplessly, ashamed of feeling as though an alien being were ripping me apart (I absolutely could not think of her as a baby by that point), praying for anything to stop the pain, the fear. I think of all those women of the Renaissance in that same position, women and children who could have survived with the skillful use of forceps to help along a delivery.
And those guys kept them secret, hidden in a box, as did Peter the Younger’s son, Dr. Peter (yes, again) Chamberlen, and Dr. Peter Chamberlen’s sons, Hugh, Paul, and John Chamberlen, who all joined in the family trade. Hugh Chamberlen tried to sell the secret to the French govenment, but was sent away penniless when he failed to successfully deliver the baby of a woman with a severely deformed pelvis.
Finally, when Hugh Chamberlen’s son—named Hugh (yes, again) Chamberlen—having no male heirs to train up in the family trade, leaked the secret in the beginning of the 18th century.
So, for extreme selfishness costing the lives of countless women and children, the first Out of Time Blog’s Vile-Hearted Renaissance Peckerhead of the Month award goes to Peter Chamberlen. Congratulations, asshole.
For more info on the Peters and Hughs Chamberlen: