The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

Europa into the Waves: John Dee and Meandering Research

a guest post by Dyani Taff

Research feels nonlinear, like tracing a spiral, or a meandering river, or possibly like following ants’ pheromone trails, squiggly lines that crisscross each other and yet create a navigable chaos central to the ants’ communication. Sometime in 2017, I was reading Elizabeth Bellamy’s Dire Straits, and I learned that some scholars locate the earliest use of the phrase “British Empire” in a book by John Dee called General and Rare Memorials Pertayning to the Arte of Navigation, printed in 1577.1 I was and still am writing a book titled Gendered Seascapes and Monarchy in Early Modern English Culture, and so this seemed like an important thread to follow, given my interest in sovereignty and maritime-based bids for power. I downloaded the Early English Books Online copy of Dee’s book, a scan of a copy held at the Huntington Library, and was immediately enthralled at even the grainy, tilted scan of the woodcut title page:

An off-center black and white image of a ornate title page with ships and celestial bodies. The title is surrounded by latin and flanked by roses.
John Dee, General and Rare Memorials Pertayning to the Arte of Navigation, 1577. Huntington Library copy, via EEBO.

The book is not exactly about navigation; Dee presents an argument to Elizabeth I about how creating a royal navy to patrol the waters around England would protect English fishermen from pirates, enable the English to benefit economically by taxing non-English fishermen, and ultimately create the basis for what Dee terms “Sea-Sovereignty.”2 He pictures Elizabeth “sitting at the HELM of this Imperiall Monarchy; or, rather, at the Helm of the IMPERIALL SHIP, of the most parte of Christendome.”3 Since I couldn’t travel to see a physical copy in 2017—my kids were small, and as an adjunct, I had limited travel funds—I made the best of the EEBO scan. I wrote Dee into the introduction of my book, drawing on Eliza Richter’s discussion of the title page image and studiously putting her citations on my to-read list.4

The slow, start-and-stop process of writing my book chapters took me away from thinking about John Dee until the Shakespeare Association of America meeting in Washington, DC in Spring 2019, during which I got my first chance to visit the reading room at the Folger Shakespeare Library. I requested their copy of Dee’s book:

A photograph of a ornate title page with ships and celestial bodies. The title is surrounded by latin and flanked by roses.
John Dee, General and Rare Memorials Pertayning to the Arte of Navigation, 1577, Folger STC 6459

Looking at the physical title page, I could identify and examine the laurel in Lady Occasion’s hand as well as the stalk of wheat on the shore and the human figures throughout the image. Dee layers England’s Thames estuary with gestures toward new world shores; his articulation of sea sovereignty begins with the English Channel and expands to waters further abroad. Dee’s book is also bigger and has better quality paper than I was imagining while examining the EEBO copy; according to Glyn Parry, Dee hoped that this book would help to legitimate his expertise as a counselor in Elizabeth’s court and clear him from John Foxe’s accusations that he was a “conjuror,” an accusation he faced again and again.5 Perhaps he paid for high quality materials in the printing of his book to further this aim.

Research, as I’ve said, is circular: I didn’t know about Parry’s work in 2019, and only read his article this summer. With my short-term Folger Fellowship came the opportunity to write for this space, Lady Occasion holding out not a laurel wreath but rather time for that “to-read” list about Dee and his work a translator of Euclid and his role in collecting manuscripts and heavily annotating the books in his massive library; I read about Dee not being 007 and about the hand-colored title page in the copy at the Bodleian.6 Most importantly for my own research journey, I learned more about Europa and what she’s doing on Dee’s title page.

Europa’s mythography supports Dee’s story of Elizabeth’s divinely ordained position at the “Helm” of “Christendom.” According to Apollodorus’s Library 3.1, Jove, disguised as a bull, seduces Europa and carries her from Tyre to Crete where she becomes queen and gives birth to Minos, Sarpedon, and Rhadamanthys. As per Richter’s analysis, Europa’s “crossing of the sea stands for an unprecedented expansion of the sphere of influence to overseas regions.”7 Dee also likely encountered Ovid’s version of this myth, given the centrality of Ovid’s poetry to the English school curriculum. Ovid does not name Europa Book 2 of the Metamorphoses, referring to her simply as regia virgo: “virgin queen.”8 Perhaps Dee remembered the phrase from Ovid’s poem, and blended Europe and Europa, referring both to the status Elizabeth claimed for herself as virgin queen married to her country and to the geographical region Dee hoped Elizabeth would lead. The woodcutter who adapted Dee’s hand-drawn design for the title page made few substantive changes to his image, but one seems significant to me: the word “ΕΥΡΩΠΗ” appears not on the hull of the ship but in the water beneath the figure. Perhaps Dee asked for this change, but it seems equally possible that the woodcutter thought the ship an easier or clearer location for letters than in the textured, wavy lines of the ocean. Does this mean that the woodcutter is responsible for Europe/Europa slippage, and Dee meant the word to simply refer to the mythological woman (and her status as regia virgo)?

Dee does not explicitly discuss reproductive freedom or sex either in his title page or his treatise, though the prosperity he imagines for the “Brytish Monarchy” as a result of sea-sovereignty is grounded in patriarchal, early capitalist ideas about the control of people and of commodities. By 1577, twenty years into her reign, most subjects had likely reconciled themselves to Elizabeth’s refusal to marry and produce an heir to the throne, notwithstanding her marriage negotiations in the 1580s with the Duke of Anjou and her famous poem “On Monseiur’s Departure.” Dee’s inclusion of Europa in the title page hints at a lingering hope that the regia virgo would marry and bear children, or perhaps a hope that she would produce another kind of profitable legacy in sea power or land or commerce. As I return, now, to these texts in the wake of the supreme court overturning Roe v. Wade, I am acutely aware of this literary and cultural tradition that celebrates people who seize control of land and bodies and then profit by exploiting their work. Ovid’s Zeus in bull-form is beautiful and snow white, surprising Europa with his tameness; he works hard to “restrain his passion” (in Miller’s translation of vix iam, vix cetera differt) and to feign gentleness long enough for her to lose her fear of him and to climb onto his back. At this point, Europa is still virginal, but Ovid plays up the sexual inuendo:

cum deus a terra siccoque a litore sensim
falsa pedum primis vestigia ponit in undis;
inde abit ulterius mediique per aequora ponti
fert praedam: pavet haec litusque ablata relictum
respicit et dextra cornum tenet, altera dorso
inposita est; tremulae sinuantur flamine vestes.

The god little by little edges away from the dry land, and sets his borrowed hoofs in the shallow water; then he goes further out and soon is in full flight with his prize on the open ocean. She trembles with fear and looks back at the receding shore, holding fast a horn with one hand and resting the other on the creature’s back. And her fluttering garments stream behind her in the wind. 9

The bull’s hoofs sensim—little by little, gently—inde abit—go into and out of—the waves at the edge of the shore, the phallic hoof penetrating a vaginal sea. Europa holds the bull’s horn tightly in her hand. Unda—wave—becomes pontus—the sea, and suddenly it is too late for Europa to turn back: Jove has his praedam—prize, booty, plunder—and there’s nothing she can do. Jove gets what he wants and Ovid does too. Without explicitly describing sex, he calls Europa and Jove’s coupling into readers’ minds, an account laced through with Jove’s deception and Europa’s fear. Though she climbs on the bull’s back of her own accord, the narrator remarks that she does it nescia quem premeret: in Miller’s translation, “little knowing upon whom she rests.” Did Europa consent to this relationship? Could she have, without knowing fully that the bull was Zeus? We never hear her voice, only Jove’s and the narrator’s. And even if she did consent or take pleasure in sex with the god, it seems impossible not to ask: did she choose to become a mother in Crete or did Jove and the other men in her society force her to carry those children to term, for the supposed good of the state, for Jove’s own legacy, for the sake of cultural and national mythmaking? And what did people in Crete make of the new arrivals; what environmental or ecological changes happened as a result of that migration or colonization? How much of this, if any, did Dee consider when he made Europa his figure for Elizabeth and the extension of her power across the sea and into a fantasy of global control?

I’ll be returning at least once more to Dee’s title page and treatise when I make final revisions to my book’s introduction; part of that work will involve sorting out the relationships between the human and more than human figures in the image. I probably won’t reference Roe v. Wade or forced pregnancy or reproductive rights in my introduction, but I hope that my research and writing can open Dee’s text and the others that I examine far enough that my readers can ask their own pressing, present-oriented questions about European pasts that are so very clearly still with us 500 years on. People wrote these stories; we can, through knowing ourselves more fully, work to write new ones.

Dyani Johns Taff is Assistant Professor of English at Colby College. She writes and teaches about early modern literature, working at the intersection of gender studies and the maritime humanities, with explorations into environmental justice and premodern critical race studies. Her most recent essays are “Dark Holes and Violent Allegories in The Faerie Queene” (Spenser Studies) and “Death and Revolution: Thinking with Hester Pulter” (The Sundial). She is currently writing a book titled Gendered Seascapes and Monarchy in Early Modern English Culture.

  1. John Dee, General and Rare Memorials Pertayning to the Arte of Navigation, London: printed by John Daye, 1577, sig. A2r., page 3. Folger call number: STC 6459.
  2. Dee, General and Rare Memorials, sig. E4r, page 39.
  3. Ibid, sig. G3r, page 53.
  4. Eliza Richter, “‘The Ship of Europe’: The Iconography of John Dee’s General and Rare Memorials,” in Early Modern Constructions of Europe: Literature, Culture, History, ed. Florian Kläger and Gerd Bayer (New York: Routledge, 2016).
  5. Glyn Parry, “John Dee and the Elizabethan British Empire in Its European Context,” The Historical Journal 49, no. 3 (September 2006): 654, https://doi.org/10.1017/S0018246X06005462.
  6. Katherine Birkwood, “Was John Dee ‘The Original 007’?,” Notes and Queries 64, no. 2 (June 2017): 248–49, https://doi.org/10.1093/notesj/gjx038. For Dee’s signature, see the British Library post about General and Rare Memorials.
  7. Richter, “The Ship of Europe,” 189.
  8. Ovid, Metamorphoses, trans. Frank Justice Miller, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 1977), 120.
  9. Ovid, 120-121.

One Comment


  • Thank you, Dyani, for offering us a great example of how an early modern scholar might speak to contemporary politics and fraught issues. And thanks, too, for your recounting of how the best scholarship is almost always nonlinear, welcoming serendipity and employing a generous scholarly community to help us think through what to make of the past.


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