Conversations with Books

John Dee signs a note which reads: Cardano has corrected this error, preserving the honor of Maternus. Click the image to explore this page in the AOR viewer


Suggested Assigned Readings

Richard Calis et al. Passing the Book: Cultures of Reading in the Winthrop Family, 1580-1730 Past & Present 261 (2018): 169-141.

Niccolo Machiavelli, Letter to Francesco Vettori, 10 December 1513.

Anthony Grafton, Commerce with the Classics: Ancient Books and Renaissance Readers (Princeton, NJ, 1997), pp. 10-52.

Learning Outcomes

Build awareness of the different ways in which readers interacted with their books, individually and across generations.

Question the extent to which reading was a private activity, or one designed for the extraction of information by one individual, at this time.

Integrate books and reading into the social and literary history of the period.


Examine the following case studies. Clicking on the links in each step or the manicule icons will load the appropriate page in the AOR viewer.

1. John Dee’s signed notes in the AOR Corpus

In Gerolamo Cardano’s Libelli quinque (Nuremberg, 1547), illustrated above, we find Dee’s signature in multiple places within notes. How does this example, on page 58, differ from the illustration above?
AOR’s advanced search feature lets you build queries in specific categories of annotation. This search lets us look at other books whose annotations mention John Dee.

Here, we add a refinement to look for transcribed references to Dee’s initials. When many of the books were transcribed, the I.D. ( or J. D.) references in the marginalia were expanded by the transcriber.

This search applies the same criteria to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Brittaniae vtriusque regum (Paris, 1517). Click through each result. What do you notice about the notes that include Dee’s initials?

Pick a result or results from the global search in a different book than Geoffrey of Monmouth or Maternus. Do you think it makes for good comparison with the signed notes you’ve seen so far? Do you think that there are any types of books that Dee was more likely to comment on in this way?

2. Gabriel Harvey reads two copies of The Courtier

While you move through the first pages of the text in the English version, open the Italian version in a window above (see how here). Are the same pages or concepts annotated? What about the language of the annotations?

3. Gabriel Harvey and John Dee talk about where they are reading

The detailed explanation of how, where, and why a book was read offered by Harvey on page 93 of Livy’s Romanae historiae principis (Basel, 1555) is the basis for this project.

Harvey also includes the following bio-bibliography in the Livy volume’s indices. How much of this note is about books and how much about  people?

This mention of a location for reading in Andreas Alexander’s Mathemalogium (Leipzig, 1504) is the only inscription of this kind by John Dee in the AOR corpus. Click here to learn more about the Mathemalogium and the circumstances of Dee’s time with Bonner. What purpose might this note serve?

4. John Winthrop Junior and John Dee

The two books by Paracelsus in the AOR corpus both have notes in the frontmatter from John Winthrop Jr, an early governor of the Connecticut colony and an enthusiast in chemistry. What do they suggest about the buyers and readers of “used books” in the early modern period?

Questions for Discussion:

What practices do you see as common among all these readers? Which are different?

Who is the audience for these annotations? Are the readers “talking to themselves,” so to speak?

Is there one particular way that either Gabriel Harvey or John Dee is writing in these books? How much of it depends on the book?

Are the readers consistent in their approach to critiquing or conversing with the text? What might that tell us about the needs readers found for their books at this time?

If you had to try to summarize in one or two words what John Dee and Gabriel Harvey are doing with these books, what would you choose?

Back to Teaching with AOR