John Dee and his World of Science and Magic

John Dee (ca. 1527 – 1608)

On July 13, 1527, Welsh mathematician, astronomer, astrologer, occultist, navigator, imperialist and consultant to Queen Elizabeth I, John Dee was born. He is considered one of the most learned men of his age. Besides being an ardent promoter of mathematics and a respected astronomer, in his later years he immersed himself in the worlds of magic, astrology and Hermetic philosophy. One of his aims was attempting to commune with angels in order to learn the universal language of creation.

John Dee became a founding fellow of Trinity College and later traveled to Leuven, Brussels, and Paris, where he studied and gave lectures, often on Euclid. He collected several astronomical and mathematical instruments and returned to England in the 1550’s. In around 1555, he was charged with having made the horoscopes of Queen Mary and Queen Elisabeth. As an expansion of the case, Queen Mary was charged with treason. Dee was sent to a religious examination at Bishop Bonner’s, becoming one of his closest associates.

In the later 1550’s, he presented Queen Mary his revolutionary ideas on the preservation of books and manuscripts in a futuristic new library, which she did not support. Still, he fulfilled his plans privately through collecting and taking care of all sorts of books from Europe, which became a studying center visited by numerous scholars and academics. Elisabeth I took the throne shortly after and announced John Dee as one of her advisors in astronomy, astrology and other scientific matters. From then on, Dee was occupied with numerous official tasks like navigation assistances and still managed to complete own works like Monas Hieroglyphica, his very successful Cabalistic interpretation of a glyph, which was highly admired by contemporary academics. His most read and best known work was published around 1570. It described the importance of mathematics in several other sciences as well as art. Its success is also caused by the writing style, designed for readers outside universities.

Through the years, John Dee changed his views on science and his personal progress. He started to contact the supernatural using a crystal-gazer as a communication device. Soon, he began organizing spiritual conferences, influencing and impressing those he met. Dee was able to write several books considering his new occupation and received many invitations by high ranked politicians. After six years of absence, which he lived as a nomad in Europe, Dee came back to see that his instruments and his impressive library were destroyed. When Elisabeth passed away, James I became her successor and found no reason to support Dee anymore, since he did not believe in anything supernatural.

John Dee was an extraordinary thinker, believing in numbers delivering the real truth. After his death, many manuscripts and unpublished books were found and made public later on. He highly promoted mathematics to those not attending universities, which was often appreciated by the craftsmen and technical artists. In general, John Dee’s fans came from all parts of society, most politicians enjoyed his theories and advices, academics like his friend Tycho Brahe favored his scientific efforts, and the working class liked the way he transferred high knowledge to their uses and understandings.

At yovisto, you may enjoy a webinar session on John Dee’s Monas Hieroglyphica by Peter Forshaw.

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