A Page in the Life of Ralph Thoresby

[In our mini-series ‘A Page in the Life’, each post briefly introduces a new writer and a single page from their manuscript.]

Laura Sangha

Ralph ThoresbyThe Leeds antiquarian and pious diarist Ralph Thoresby (1658-1725) wrote a lot. An awful lot. Between the ages of nineteen and sixty-seven he kept a diary, often recording entries on most days of the week. Seven volumes of Thoresby’s life-writing survive, and at approximately 500 pages per volume that’s 3,500 pages of text. The page transcribed below is fairly typical at 550 words, so that makes close to two million words of Thoresby’s self-reflection out there. You don’t have to read them all though, because this page below provides a relatively good sense of the content and scope of Thoresby’s written self:


Brotherton Library, Yorkshire Archaeological Society MS 24.

[22 May 1709][1]

afternoon Mr Pollard from 19 Math:28 proceeded to the Evidences & signs that we are followers of Christ in the Regeneration, 1 hatred of sin is a good signe of a renewed Soul, so 2 a fear to Sin, 3 carefulness to avoid all occasions and temptations to Sin 4 vigorous sinsere & resolute opposition of the whole man against Sin, & particularly 1 against sins of a spiritual nature, 2 Sins of the heart and tho’ts, & 3 Sins of Constitution & Custome, 5 inward love to God & Religion, & 6 due performance of secret Spiritual dutys, Application: 1 to the Regenerate, as they have rec’d the Grace of God to be truly renewed, so to labour to exceed others in holiness, 2 to the unregenerate, not to delude themselves with false hopes of heaven with out regeneration – afterwards catechised above 30 poor children, heard them the appointed psalms & distributed several Bibles – Read as at noon in Dr. Mantons Sermons in family & observed usual duties

23 morn: read Annotations in family & Mr Henry in secret, writ til 10 at Church, & after transcribing Topography of the Town til 4 at Church, after surprized with a visit from my Lord Irwin & some Relations, to see the Collections, Even: read as usually Continue reading

Fantastic Thoresby – Part III: historic storms, floods and corpses washed out of graves

Laura Sangha

This post is part of an occasional series on antiquarian, topographer and dissenter Ralph Thoresby (1658-1725).

dawlish railwayIt’s been a little wet in the south of England this winter, as some of you may have noticed. Storm has followed storm, houses have been flooded, villages cut off, and here in the south west the railway at Dawlish washed away. This has precipitated a deluge of news stories dragging out all sorts of beloved clichés as the media bandwagon has careered on its merry way. Predictably a political row about the causes of flooding has erupted where Conservatives have blamed Labour for previous policy mistakes and Labour have accused the government of ignoring climate change. But the storms have proven to be a delightfully flexible concept, allowing for commentary on all sorts of social issues, including: the storm blitz spirit, the storms and austerity, the storms and the royal family, the storms and the proposed high speed rail link, the storms and the under-equipped army, and my personal favourite, the storms and the mysterious case of the python that was battered to death in the night-time.

1607 FloodPerhaps more interestingly, the storms have also prompted some writing on historic bad weather and its consequences – I am sure I am not the only early modern historian who was delighted to see a seventeenth century woodcut on the front page of the Guardian’s website on February 12. We were also offered some timely musings on Daniel Defoe’s The Storm, his memorial to the hurricane that pummelled northern Europe in 1703, and this blog on eighteenth-century ‘climate change advocates’ provided some interesting historical context. Continue reading

A post written in the stars

Laura Sangha

According to my horoscope, consulted on the website of a popular entertainment magazine, this will be a good week for me. With six planets in my sign, I’m ‘the one to watch!’. I might be feeling the pressure, but before the week is out, ‘luck will come’. Excellent news, I am sure you will agree. Look in most entertainment magazines and tabloid papers and you would hardly be surprised to find the similar revelations in the stars, tucked away somewhere between the week’s television and the latest suduko. You might be more interested to discover that, unlike wikipedia currently suggests, astrology did not gain broader consumer popularity through the influence of ‘regular mass media products’ in the twentieth century, but in fact had a ‘popular’ following many centuries before then.

The search for order and meaning in the sky is, of course, ancient. No one would deny that there is an obvious link between the sun and events on earth. As winter finally loosens its grip here in the UK you might be particularly aware of this right now. The northern hemisphere is slowly exposed to more direct sunlight because of the tilt of the earth’s axis, the days lengthen, the altitude of the sun changes, the sun feels hotter. As a result, animals change their behaviour, plants and trees burst into life, and Brits start donning shorts and having shivery picnics at the seaside.

A diagram of the heavens from a 1613 almanac.The evident link between the celestial bodies and terrestrial events was no less obvious to our forebears, and it led very naturally to an interest in the heavens. It was common to wonder how else the celestial bodies might influence life on earth. Lunar cycles were being recorded on cave walls as early as 25,000 years ago; the first organised system of astrology arose in the second millennium BC in Babylon; it was developed by the Greeks and Romans, and refined by Arabic practitioners. By the early modern period it was a very well established scholarly tradition, backed up by scriptural references: Jesus’ birth was of course marked by the appearance of a new star in the sky that the wise men followed to Bethlehem (Matthew 2:1-2), and at the beginning of the world ‘God said, Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years’ (Genesis 1:14).

Thomas Blount gave a neat early modern definition in his 1656 Glossographia or a Dictionary (and note Blount’s qualification which preserves God’s omnipotence as well as man’s free will):

Astrology: Astrology is a Science which tels the Reasons of the Stars and Planets motions. Astrology doth promise by the motion and influence of Stars and Planets to foretel things to come, or it professeth to discover the influence and domination of the superior Globe over the inferior, and therefore may be tearmed a kind of natural divination, so long as it keeps it self in due limits, and arrogates not too much to its certainty; into which excess if it once break forth, it can then be no longer called natural Divination, but superstitious and wicked; for the Stars may incline, but not impose a necessity in particular things.

The characters of the xii signes... so that every man will understand them.

The characters of the xii signes… so that every man will understand them.

Natural astrology was concerned with the general character of planetary influences in such fields as agriculture and medicine; judicial astrology was the attempt to interpret these influences to make prediction and give advice (so tabloid stars are an example of this). Mastery of the science of astrology took skill and was intellectually demanding, and as a result, sixteenth-century astrology tended to be the domain of the learned and elite members of society. In seventeenth-century England however, this began to change, as a result of the emergence of handbooks which set out the basic rules of astrology and the rise of the ‘almanac’. Sorry wikipedia, but popular knowledge of the science was therefore probably greater in the Tudor and Stuart period than ever before or since.

The anatomy of a mans body, as the parts thereof are governed by the 12 celestial signs

The anatomy of a mans body, as the parts thereof are governed by the 12 celestial signs.

An almanac was an annual, short, cheap publication with a range of material in it. It fulfilled a variety of roles, offering religious, moral, practical as well as astrological advice. Usually the first section had a calendar and details of planetary motions and conjunctions. Along with the prognostications, there was often also an ‘Anatomy’ or ‘zodiacal man’, as well as information on local fairs, highways, the phases of the moon, feast days, medical and farming advice. Often almanacs had a secondary role as a notebook or diary (look at the front of your diary, mine still has ‘useful information’ including astronomical information), and therefore they were worth hanging on to, and many survive, luckily for us. Bernard Capp[1] has shown that the genre allowed astrology to take on a new social dimension. They served as handbooks that set out the basic rules to astrology in a clear and simple manner, for use by all sorts of people, from peers to serving-maids. Astrological terms passed into common usage: think ‘jovial’, ‘lunatic’, ‘mercurial’. And almanacs were really the starting point for this post – I was idling browsing a few from spring 1613, exactly 400 years ago, wondering what sort of things were going on back then, and I thought it would be an excellent idea to share some of that advice with monster readers, to set them up for the summer.[2] Enjoy!

WARNING: This stuff is a bit dated, for the most cutting edge advice you should probably turn to biodynamic gardening, where ‘gardeners plough, prepare, sow, plant, harvest and compost according to the phases of the moon and the constellations (signs) it passes through’.

1613 HISTORY: How many years is it since….

Frontispiece to John Woodhouse's alamanac for 1613.

Frontispiece to John Woodhouse’s alamanac for 1613.

  • The world began: 5562
  • Noah’s flood: 3906
  • Conquest of the Romans: 1664
  • Coming of the Saxons: 1163
  • Coming of the Danes: 774
  • Conquest of the Normans: 546
  • The Battle at Agincourt: 197
  • Printing first used: 153 [1460]
  • The first use of coaches in England: 58
  • Pauls Steeple burned with lightening: 52
  • The rebellion in the North: 44 [a reference to the 1569 Rebellion of the Northern Earls in reign of Elizabeth I]
  • The great snow: 34
  • The general earthquake: 33 [also known as the Dover Straits earthquake, 1580]
  • Tilburie Campe: 25 [a reference to the Spanish Armada, 1588]


What phase of the moon should I….

  • Cut hedges? Between the change and the full, from the end of Jan till the beginning of June
  • Geld cattle? In Aries, Libra and Sagittarius, the moon being past the full
  • ‘Dung land’ that weeds may not abound? In the old of the moon

How can I tell if there will be rain or foule weather?

If the sun is fiery at his rising. If he rise and a little after be covered with great black clouds. If the horns of the new moon are blunt. When bells are heard further than usual. When wainscot doors and wooden coverings open straighter than of custom. When swine and peacocks make a great noise. When birds be busy in washing themselves. Moles behaving busily. Cattle eating greedily, and licking their hooves.

What should I be doing in the outdoors at the moment?

Working outside? You'll want to know when it will be light then.

Working outside? You’ll want to know when it will be light then.

In April you should sow barley, hemp, and flax, and some of your garden seeds, as cowcumbers, citrons, melons and artichokes. Good housewives should now begin to be busy about their Dairies, and tanners to pill barke.

In May you should sow barley, set and sow tender herbs and seeds, set stills to work, stir land for wheat and rye, stop lopping trees, weed winter corn, teach hops to climb, but cut off the superfluous branches, and watch your bees.

More generally, cold will diminish and living creatures will begin to recover their strength lost over the winter. Soon the earth will put on her new yearly ornaments, beasts, fowls and birds will make harmony.

When and where can I go to a fayre?

There are too many to mention, but on 1 May try Leicester, Brickhill, Reading, Warwick, Maidstone, Lichfield and Stanstead. On the 3 May try Waltham Abbey, Cowbridge, Benbigh, Knighton. In Rogation week: Beverly, Engfield, Horsham. On Ascension Day: Kidderminster, Bishops-Stratford, Wigan, Burton, Bridgend.

MORAL ADVICE: What good deeds shall I do this season?

The deeds of hospitality would be useful: feed the hungry, cloth the naked, be good to the widow and the fatherless. Remember:

Hast thou 2 Loafs, 2 Coats, give one of each
To him that pines and starves (I thee beseech)
Alas! (Rich man) thou know’st not what thy
May come unto, when thou art dead and gone.
Farmers! give th’ poor some corn. Shepherds give
Some cloth the back, some fill the Belly full
Doctors, give Physick for mere Charity:
Millers, be sure ye grind their Corn toll-free.


April is a good month to have a spring clean – not only of your house, but also of your body. It is the fittest time of year to ease diseased bodies, and to restore by means of evacuation and blood letting. Remember with this simple rhyme:

Learn the most ausipcious times to let blood with this simple guide.

Learn the most auspicious times to let blood with this simple guide.

This month all things their strength renew,
by letting of blood, you shall not rue
The pores open and blood abounds,
or purging, also no harme redounds.

And finally, beware. The sicknesses of spring are melancholy, madness, the falling sickness, nosebleeds, coughs, itch, scabs, ulcers , gout, pain in the joints, and also, ‘some strange diseases’….

[1] Bernard Capp, Astrology and the Popular Press (London, 1979).

[2] The extracts are taking from the following almanacs: John Dade, A new almanacke and prognostication, 1613; John Johnson, An almanacke and prognostication for this yeere of our lord and sauiour Iesus Christ 1613; William Mathew, 1613 a new almanacke and prognostication, for the yeare of our Lord God; John Woodhouse, A plaine almanacke and prognostication, 1613; John Bucknall, The Shepherds Almanack, being a diary or register for the year 1676.

Carnivalesque 94: No bishop, no king

Brodie Waddell

Welcome to the 94th edition of Carnivaleque! Today we will be introducing you to a wonderfully motley menagerie of historical blogs and bloggers.

Finding any overall unifying theme is impossible with a collection of this sort, but there are a few key subjects that emerged from the nominations, each of which receives a section below:

  • The historian as detective
  • Bodily functions
  • A venerable criminal enterprise
  • Places, spaces and sites
  • Thinking about the historian’s craft

I think it is particularly interesting what’s not in the links below, namely kings and queens and ‘great battles’, the traditional material for popular histories. Not that political history and military history are entirely absent, just that they are approached from a different direction than usual. Although there are a few of gentlemen and noblewomen as well as a famous scientist, the vast majority of the nominated posts are focused on people who would have been largely excluded from textbooks written fifty years ago. What should we make of this? Is old-fashioned ‘top down’ history dying off? Or is it just that the type of people who read this blog and pay attention to Carnivaleque are predisposed against reading yet another story about Henry VIII and his wives or Charles I and his parliaments? I’d be interested to hear what you think.

However, before wandering into the carnival below, take a look at this truly heart-warming short animation that tells the tale of ‘the damnable life and death of one Stubbe Peeter, 1590’, a German werewolf. For more details, see the two posts at LOLManuscripts, but in the meantime, watch the video and be amazed.

Now, on with the show…

Continue reading

The Starlings Go to War

Laura Sangha

It’s that time of year when I am always reminded of one of my favourite providential pamphlets, The Wonderfull Battell of Starelings,fought at the Citie of Corke in Ireland, the 12. and 14. of October, 1621.[1] The pamphlet was published by a London printer in 1622, is short at nine pages, and it also has a wonderful woodcut that gives a graphic rendering of the events described in the text.

The pamphlet described howabout the seuenth of October last, 1621 there gathered together by degrees, an vnusual multitude of birds called Stares, in some Countries knowne by the name of Starlings’. The birds ‘mustered together … some foure of fiue daies, before they fought their battels, euery day more and more encreasing their armies with greater supplies, some came as from the East, others from the West, and so accordingly they placed themselues, and as it were encamped themselues eastward and westward about the citie’. Finally, on Saturday morning, at around nine o’clock:

vpon a strange sound and noise made as well on the one side as on the other, they forthwith at one instant tooke wing, and so mounting vp into the skyes, encountered one another, with such a terrible shocke, as the sound amazed the whole city and all the beholders. Vpon this sodaine and fierce encounter, there fell downe into the citie, and into the Riuers, multitudes of Starelings … some with wings broken, some with legs and necks broken, some with eies pickt out, some their bils thrust into the brests & sides of their aduersaries, in so strange a manner, that it were incredible except it were confirmed by letters of credit, and by eye-witnesses, with that assurance which is without all exception.

This ‘admirable and most violent battell’ continued with several more encounters between the two sides, before the birds seemed to vanish, so that on Sunday not one was seen about the city. On Monday the birds returned again for a final terrible assault, when many more wounded and dead birds fell into the streets of Cork. The pamphlet finishes with some rather brief and generic comments that the reader should not search out the reasons for such ‘ wonderfull workes of Almighty God’, but we should remember that ‘it doth prognosticate either Gods mercy to draw vs to repentance, or his iustice to punish our sinnes and wickednesse’.

The pamphlet’s description of strange events interpreted within a (loose) providential framework makes it typical for the time, and thanks to Alexandra Walsham, we can easily make sense of what at first seems to be a bizarre account.[2] We have already encountered this type of material on the monster. It is a great resource for teaching with, introducing students to the idea of the ‘difference’ of the early modern period – although there are lots of elements of this past society that seems familiar to us, material like this confronts us with the vast gap between the early modern outlook and mentality, and our own. They see God’s intervention in the world to create an unnatural event (birds aping human military activity), their interpretive framework, their means of making sense of the event is providential, it is religious.

What do we see? Probably we would see a ‘murmuration’: starlings gathering into large flocks in the autumn evenings – it is a natural event, spectacular, but perfectly normal. Our interpretive framework is not religious but scientific, the starlings are “always ready to optimally respond to an external perturbation, such as predator attack,” according to a Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences paper.  When dead birds fall from our skies, we call in the veterinary inspectors, carry out tests, blame fireworks, the internet, UFOs – as you can see in this news report, our modern day equivalent of the early modern pamphlet.

Of course it isn’t as straightforward as that – it never is. Early modern people were not ignorant of bird behaviour, and they certainly knew about autumnal flocks, as you can see from this extract from an almanac of 1700:

Signs of Cold weather, or hard winter.

THE Suns setting in a Mist, looking Red, and Broader than usual.  The Clearness of the stars, and their much Twinkling.  Starlings, Feldefars, and other Birds of a Hot Nature, hastening in great Flocks or Flights from the Northern to the southern Climates. [3]

In fact, further investigation quickly uncovered further titbits about the birds: they were good mimics, valued for their singing, and could be caught and kept for pets.

One of the many illustrations in R. Blome’s ‘Gentlemans Recreation’, this one depicts the practice of hawking.

R. Blome, The gentlemans recreation in two parts : the first being an encyclopedy of the arts and sciences … the second part treats of horsmanship, hawking, hunting, fowling, fishing, and agriculture (London, 1705).

The STARLING.This is a very docile Bird, and if taken out of the Nest young is apt to learn both to walk and Whistle. ‘Tis a hardy Bird; their food is Sheeps-Hearts, or other raw Flesh, hard Eggs minced, Hemp-seed, wet Bread, and the like.

John Ray, The ornithology of Francis Willughby of Middleton in the county of Warwick Esq, fellow of the Royal Society in three books (London, 1678).

§. VII. How to take Stares with a limed string: out of Olina’s Uccelliera.Take a small string of a yard or thereabout long, bind it fast to the Tail of a Stare, having first carefully limed it all over, excepting one Palm next the bird. Having found a flock of Starlings, come as near to them as possible, holding your Stare by the wings as near as you can, and let her go to her fellows, which as soon as you shew your self to them, will presently take wing: Your tail-tied Stare endeavouring to secure her self of her liberty, thrusting her self into the middle of her fellows, will entangle many of them, and so not being able to fly, they will afford a pleasant spectacle in tumbling down to the ground: where you must be ready with a Brush or Besom to strike them down. Many other devices there are to take several sorts of birds with Lime-rods, &c. which I think needless to set down; it being not difficult for an ingenious Fowler to invent as good or better, when he shall have opportunity of taking those kinds of Birds.

Aside from this fascinating insight into just what these country folk were up to, this is a further reminder that early modern people were far from ignorant about the world around them, but that the battle of the starlings points to areas of divergence in underlying assumptions, outlooks, and technological and intellectual understandings between their society and ours. At certain moments, certain people would turn to a religious interpretation, though it is clear that this was not the only explanation on offer.

A sketch of a starling from John Ray’s ‘Ornithology’. Ray was a fellow of the Royal Society.

Of course, the significance of the battle has been attached by the pamphlet’s author, perhaps as a means to justify printing his entertaining report – a moral message makes it worthy of publication. Or maybe it was a way to appease the author’s printer Nicholas Blount, who seems to have adhered to Calvinist principles: Blount refused to print plays and other frivolous material, so the author’s religious framework was perhaps necessary concession with its roots in the world of commerce. They key thing is, that when we look beyond cheap printed pamphlets the interpretations might diversify.

The other thing that strikes me about all these birds mustering together and plummeting from the heavens, is that in some respects a certain amount of faith is needed to accept our scientific explanations. Scientists admit that starling flocks ‘transcend biology’, and that science has only a sketchy understanding of what the phenomena is all about – there is much more ‘still to be discovered’. Our modern confidence that we will eventually work it out contrasts with the early modern warning not too look into these mysteries too deeply, highlighting yet more difference. Yet there is also similarity: this clip was filmed recently in Ireland, and science alone might find it hard to explain the sense of awe in wonder inspired by the sight and sounds of the murmuration even today. The clip also makes it much easier for us to appreciate where the ‘battell’ interpretation came from. I strongly recommend that you watch the video (it gets really good about 50 seconds in), and perhaps let me know what you see.

[1] Anon, The wonderfull battell of starelings fought at the citie of Corke in Ireland, the 12. and 14. of October last past 1621 (London, 1622), STC (2nd ed.) / 5767.

[2] Alexandra Walsham, Providence in Early Modern England (Oxford: OUP, 1999).

[3] C.P., The sheepherd’s new kalender: or, The citizens & country man’s daily companion treating of most things that are useful, profitable, delightful, and advantageous to mankind (London, 1700), Wing (2nd ed.) / P11.

John Dee’s conversations with Angels

Laura Sangha

Question: Why would you want to have a conversation with angels? More specifically, why would you want to have a conversation with angels if you were a sixteenth-century mathematician, philosopher, court astrologer and magus? And how would you go about doing it?

Sections of Dee’s record of his conversations with angels were published by Protestant minister Meric Casaubon in 1659.

Elizabethan John Dee had some very clear answers to these questions, as is evident from the records he left us of hundreds of conversations conducted with angels between 1583 and 1587. The earliest record of his angelic conferences is prefaced by a prayer in which he outlined his motivation. He confessed how he had prayed since his youth for ‘pure and sound wisdom and understanding of your [God’s] truths natural and artificial’, truths which were to be used for the honour of god and the benefit of humankind. However, although he had studied long and hard, in many books and places, and conferred with many men, he had become disillusioned with conventional routes to knowledge and what he called ‘vulgar scholar’. His lifelong struggle to acquire a universal wisdom from dogged researches in mathematics, astrology, optics, geography, navigation, history and other disciplines had not yielded the results that he was hoping for – true wisdom remained elusive. All was not lost though, as Dee came to the conclusion that there was another way to attain the better understanding that he sought, and that was through direct consultation with angels.

Botticini’s ‘Assumption of the Virign’ (1475) depicts the 3 orders of the angelic hierarchy in all their glory.

Early modern folk understood that angels were the next step down from God in the universal hierarchy, and this nearness meant that they were endued with a special knowledge, much superior to the cloudy understanding of mankind. Dee knew that in the past God had sent his angels to men like Enoch and Moses, to ‘satisfy their desires, dowtes and questions of thy secrets’, giving them access to this true wisdom that had originally come directly from God. Conversations with angels therefore had a firm scriptural precedent, and could give man access to an ancient esoteric wisdom that had originally been communicated to Adam, but which had been lost and forgotten over the course of human history. The arts of divination and magic were fragments of this original, pristine knowledge, and the angels had the potential to fill in the missing gaps. Dee’s reasons for conversing with angels were therefore, in his mind, spiritually and intellectually sound. They were the culmination of his lifelong efforts to decipher the book of nature and to discover a universal science that could bridge the gap between heavenly wisdom and faulty human perception. His dialogues were designed to build a Jacob’s ladder to the other world. Importantly, as well as seeking this recondite knowledge, Dee was also looking for signs of his own salvation, as every good Protestant should, and he thought that his conversations were proof that he and his assistant (or scryer) were, like Enoch and Moses, the specially chosen recipients of divine knowledge. For Dee, his actions were thus a type of religious experience sanctioned by scriptural precedence.

The practicalities of Dee’s conversations reinforce this idea. The ceremonies began in the simple religious atmosphere of an oratory, a chamber in Dee’s house that had been set aside for the purpose of conducting the conversations. He and his scryer, Edward Kelly, began with a period of silent prayer. Most often Dee would humbly petition God to send his angels, addressing God and Jesus as the embodiment of wisdom, and asking that Dee and Kelly be worthy of divine aid in understanding. Dee was acutely aware of this need to be worthy, he placed great emphasis on approaching the conversations in a proper spirit of piety, and the angels themselves delivered frequent homilies on Dee and Kelly’s sins, the nature of salvation, and the necessity of complete obedience to God as a prerequisite of receiving the whole revelation. But unlike with medieval magic, initially there were no elaborate ritual preparations or ceremonies, no incantations, hymns, purifying fumigations, candles or talismans to attract the influences of the planetary angels. The one piece of magical apparatus that Dee and Kelly did have was a ‘shew-stone’ through which the scryer saw the visions of angels.

You can see the shew-stones and wax discs Dee used in his conversations at the British Museum.

Dee never saw or spoke to the angels himself, they appeared to Kelly, who related the information back to him – an angel told them that Kelly saw the angels ‘in sight’, whereas Dee could only see them ‘in faith’. The original shew-stone was probably a circular flat black mirror of polished obsidian, but there were several others, including one which was delivered by the angels themselves, as described by Dee:

I cam within 2 feet of it, I saw nowthing, then I saw like a shadow… on the ground.. hard by my books under the west window. The shadow was roundish, and less than the palm of my hand. I put my hand down upon it, and I felt a thing cold and hard, which taking up, I perceived to be the stone before mentioned.

The scrying stone was the bridge between the divine and earthly worlds. Over time, other new ritual elements began to creep into the conversations, bringing a greater ‘magical’ aura to proceedings. The angels gave direction for a table of practice decorated with various mystical symbols, and for a seal of God to be inscribed on wax discs which were then placed under the legs of the table and beneath the shew-stone on the table.

The holy table used in the conversations. The angels instructed Dee in its design.

So did it work? Did Dee achieve his aims? It certainly wasn’t a complete failure – numerous spirits appeared to Kelly and extensive conversations were conducted. Most often the visitors were the archangels Michael, Gabriel, Raphael and Urial, although another, Madimi was also a regular visitor. The apparitions appeared in a variety of guises: they might look like a young girl, or a husbandman in red apparel, a yellow haired women who was like an old maid, or on one occasion just like ‘a big tall creature’. During the conversations with these celestials, two main forms of knowledge were conveyed to Dee. Firstly, the angels provided many grid like tables purporting to be an angelic alphabet.

One of the grids relating to the angelic alphabet. The angels selected letters from the grids to make words and sentences.

This represented a divine language, which if mastered would allow Dee to know the true nature of all things. Secondly, the angels provided information about the names and responsibilities of the angels – the sections of the air that they ruled, the angelic tribes that they belonged to, and the number of subordinates that they controlled.

In the first Air: the ninth, eleventh, and seventh Angel of the Tribes, bear rule and govern. Unto the ninth, 7000. and 200. and 9 ministering Angels are subject…. The whole sum of this Government amounteth to 14931

This information about the angelic hierarchy would eventually give Dee command over the angels and would allow him to participate in the society of angels. Unfortunately for Dee, his attempt to use religious magic as a means to ascend up the universal hierarchy was ultimately a failure. The angelic language and spiritual hierarchies that he learned from the angels were not the pristine knowledge that he sought, they were just the means to access that knowledge, and the language and hierarchy were only partially complete in any case. Dee went to his grave without having unlocked the secrets of nature, though fortunately for us he recorded his endeavours in great detail, giving us an insight into the pious, rational, yet strange and alien world of the Elizabethan intellectual elite.

Want to know more? [*endorsement alert*] I discuss many of the other beliefs associated with angels in my recent book. If you want to know more about John Dee try these:

  • M. Casaubon, A True and Faithful Relation of what passed for many yeers between Dr. John Dee … and some spirits (London, 1659).
  • N. Clulee, John Dee’s Natural Philosophy: Between Science and Religion (London, 1988)
  • D. Harkness, John Dee’s Conversations with Angels: Cabala, Alchemy, and the End of Nature (Cambridge, 1999)
  • W.H. Sherman, John Dee: The Politics of Reading and Writing in the Renaissance (Amherst and Boston, MA, 1995)
  • G. Szonyi, John Dee’s Occultism: Magical Exaltation through Powerful Signs (Albany, NY, 2004)

Norwich Entertainments – Part IV: Surgeons on stage

Brodie Waddell

On the 8th of March, 1679, the Norwich Mayor’s Court ordered that

Mr Robert Bradford hath liberty to erect a Stage in the usual place to sell medical Druggs, & performe Chirurgicall Cures and he hath Lycence to doe this for the space of 3 weeks.¹

Medicine was big business in early modern England. Historians have shown us that the ‘medical marketplace’ was extensive and expanding, with many people we might now call ‘healthcare entrepreneurs’ earning a living by providing their services to eager consumers.² The fact that, as every schoolchild knows, ‘medicine’ in this period was as likely to hurt or kill as to cure does not seem to have dissuaded many patients.

Peddler with apothecary bottles (17th c.). Source: Larsdatter.

That being the case, it should hardly surprise us that Mr Bradford would seek a licence from the civic authorities to hawk his ‘Druggs’ from a public stage in what must have been the centre of the city. This was a good spot to set up if he hoped to make a few shillings by attracting a sizable crowd of customers for his various elixirs.

But what about performing ‘Chirurgicall Cures’? On a stage? How can we explain this? Continue reading