John Dee: The World of an Elizabethan Magus
“John Dee e il suo sapere”
The Occult Sciences in the Renaissance: A Study in Intellectual Patterns
In 1570, one of the most important books of the Elizabethan period was published in London. This was Henry Billingsley’s English translation of Euclid, with a preface described on the title page as
…a very fruitfull Preface made by Maister John Dee, specifying the chief Mathematicall sciences, what they are, and wherunto commodious; where also, are disclosed, certaine new secrets Mathematicall and Mechanicall, until these our daies greatly missed.
In this preface, Dee ranges over all the mathematical sciences then known and strongly urges their encouragement and improvement. As a manifesto for the advancement of science, Dee’s mathematical preface has been said to be of greater importance than Francis Bacon’s Advancement of Learning, published thirty-five years later, for Dee fully understood and emphasized the basic importance of mathematical studies for the advancement of science, whereas Bacon underestimated mathematics. Dee’s mathematical preface had a great influence and was widely read until well on in the seventeenth century. Dee also exerted a strong personal influence through his many contacts with the school of mathematicians and scientists which made the later Elizabethan age a period of importance for scientific advance.
Another famous, or infamous, work by Dee is the True and Faithful Relation of what passed for many years between Dr. John Dee and some spirits, published with a strongly disapproving preface by Meric Casaubon in 1659, half a century after Dee’s death. This strange work, more briefly known as the Spiritual Diaries, describes the attempts made by Dee to summon angels with Cabalistic numerological conjurations, attempts made in association with Edward Kelley. It showed Dee in an extremely superstitious light, and stamped him with the reputation of a deluded fanatic, an object of scorn and derision, which lasted throughout the nineteenth century. This reputation eclipsed that of the author of the mathematical preface to Euclid and of the other genuine scientific work, which were completely forgotten.
Only in the present century have scholars begun the rehabilitation of Dee. Ignoring the Spiritual Diaries, they have rediscovered Dee the scientist, Dee the author of the mathematical preface. The pioneer in this respect was E.G.R. Taylor, who in a book published in 1930 examined Dee’s geographical knowledge. Her work established the great practical services rendered by the “conjuror,” through his knowledge of scientific instruments and of geography, to the bold mariners of the Elizabethan age. In a later book (1954) she was concerned with the host of designers and makers of new and improved scientific instruments who flourished in the later sixteenth century in London, and again emphasized the importance of Dee as a leader in this movement. Meanwhile, in 1937, F. R. Johnson had drawn attention to Dee as an astronomer, and to his interest in the Copernican theory. More recently, in 1958, D. W. Waters in his study of Elizabethan navigation emphasized the importance of Dee’s mathematical preface to the English Euclid in encouraging the development of mathematics and navigation.
How is Dee’s …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.