Frontispiece to Elias Ashmole's publication of Arthur Dee's alchemical anthology Fasciculus Chemicus (1650).
Arthur Dee (1579-1651) was the eldest son of the Elizabethan magus, John Dee. He accompanied his father on his peregrinations through Europe. At Prague they were guests of Rudolph I, the great alchemy-loving, Holy Roman Emperor whose court attracted many talents. After enduring fourteen years as Court physician to the first Romanov Czar at Moscow, Arthur Dee became court physician to Charles I . Sometime after Charles I's execution on January 30th 1649, Arthur Dee retired to Norwich where he became a friend of Thomas Browne.
Arthur Dee was none-too-pleased when the inquisitive antiquarian Elias Ashmole clandestinely published his alchemical writings under a pseudonym; only a day after Charles I execution, 31st January 1649. Clearly piqued, he wrote to Ashmole-
I am sorry you or any man should take pains to translate any book of that art into English. for the art is vilified so much by scholars that do daily deride it, in regard they are ignorant of the principles. How then can it be in any way advanced by the vulgar? but to satisfy your question, you may be resolved that he who wrote Euclid's Preface was my father. the 'Fasciculus' I confess, was my labour and work'.
The decade of the 1650's in fact saw the greatest publication of esoteric literature England has ever witnessed. This was due to not only a liberalisation of printing-press licenses during the Protectorate of Cromwell (1650-160) but also to the social and psychological uncertainties which the newly-established Republic engendered. Arthur Dee however was not to witness this surge of interest in esoterica for he died in September 1651. Upon his death he bequeathed several manuscripts and books of an alchemical nature to Browne. A manuscript edition of Dee's anthology listed as once in Browne's Library.
An allusion to the name Ashmole can be seen in the tree and mole in the bottom left corner of the frontispiece which depicts Sol et Luna along with their cheeky off-spring, the trickster figure and emblem of alchemy, Mercurius. The respective left and right side columns are left an inventory of the arts and sciences ruled by the goddess Minerva ruler of learning . To the right are the instruments of Mars, god and ruler of martial strife, conflict and war.
In many ways the publication of Fasciculus Chemicus 'tested the waters' for Elias Ashmole. It prepared for a good reception, readership and a profitable book-sale of his famous collection of British alchemical authors ranging from medieval to contemporary, in the vast compendium of Theatrum Chemicum Brittanicum (1652).
A facsimile edition of Dee's book can be found here
Throughout the 1650's decade many notable first publications on Paracelsus, the Cabala, Hermetic philosophy, alchemy, the Rosicrucians and Hermes Trismegistus were printed. Its worth noting that seven years after Arthur Dee's Fasciculus Chemicus appeared, his one-time Norwich associate, Sir Thomas Browne, published in the peak year of books printed of an esoteric subject- matter,1658 his highly crafted, diptych discourses, Urn-Burial and The Garden of Cyrus.
It's a curious coincidence worth noting that according to Wikipedia at least, John Dee (b.1527) and his son Arthur, shared the same birthday, July 13th. Also, John Dee was aged 52 years old when his first-born and eldest child Arthur was born!Notes
Adam Maclean's scholarly web-site devoted to the study of alchemy lists the following manuscripts of interest -
573. Oxford, Bodleian Library MS. Ashmole 1790.
160 folios. Paper. 17th Century.
I. f 1-19v Spiritual actions of John Dee in Prague 1586.
II. f 22-33 Original papers relating to Dr. Dee's Actions with spirits.
III. f 34-65 Ashmole's observations and collections concerning Dee's magical or spiritual transactions, and collections concerning Dr. Dee, his son Arthur Dee and his associate Sir Edward Kelly. IV. f 68-77 Some of Ashmole's correspondence relating to Dr Dee and his family.