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John Dee



John Dee

London 1527 - Mortlake 1608


English mathematician and astrologer, was born on the 13th of July 1527, in London, where his father was, according to Wood, a wealthy vintner. In 1542 he was sent to St John's College, Cambridge. After five years spent in mathematical and astronomical studies, he went to Holland, in order to visit several eminent continental mathematicians. Having remained abroad nearly a year, he returned to Cambridge, and was elected a fellow of Trinity College, then first erected by King Henry VIII. In 1548 he took the degree of master of arts; but in the same year he found it necessary to leave England on account of the suspicions entertained of his being a conjurer; these were first excited by a piece of machinery, which, in the Pax of Aristophanes, he exhibited to the university, representing the scarabaeus flying up to Jupiter, with a man and a basket of victuals on its back. He went first to the university of Louvain, where he resided about two years, and then to the college of Rheims, where he had extraordinary success in his public lectures on Euclid's Elements. On his return to England in 1551 King Edward assigned him a pension of loo crowns, which he afterwards exchanged for the rectory of Upton-uponSevern, Worcestershire. Soon after the accession of Mary he was accused of using enchantments against the queen's life; but after a tedious confinement he obtained his liberty in 1555, by an order of council.
When Elizabeth ascended the throne, Dee was asked by Lord Dudley to name a propitious day for the coronation. On this occasion he was introduced to the queen, who took lessons in the mystical interpretation of his writings, and made him great promises, which, however, were never fulfilled. In 1564 he again visited the continent, in order to present his Monas hieroglyphica to the emperor Maximilian, to whom he had dedicated it. He returned to England in the same year; but in 1571 he was in Lorraine, whither two physicians were sent by the queen to his relief in a dangerous illness. Returning to his home at Mortlake, in Surrey, he continued his studies, and made a collection of curious books and manuscripts, and a variety of instruments. In 1578 Dee was sent abroad to consult with German physicians and astrologers in regard to the illness of the queen. On his return to England, he was employed in investigating the title of the crown to the countries recently discovered by British subjects, and in furnishing geographical descriptions. Two large rolls containing the desired information, which he presented to the queen, are still preserved in the Cottonian Library. A learned treatise on the reformation of the calendar, written by him about the same time, is also preserved in the Ashmolean Library at Oxford.
From this period the philosophical researches of Dee were concerned entirely with necromancy. In 1581 he became acquainted with Edward Kelly, an apothecary, who had been convicted of forgery and had lost both ears in the pillory at Lancaster. He professed to have discovered the philosopher's stone, and by his assistance Dee performed various incantations, and maintained a frequent imaginary intercourse with spirits. Shortly afterwards Kelly and Dee were introduced by the earl of Leicester to a Polish nobleman, Albert Laski, palatine of Siradz, devoted to the same pursuits, who persuaded them to accompany him to his native country. They embarked for Holland in September 1583, and arrived at Laski's residence in February following. Upon Dee's departure the mob, believing him a wizard, broke into his house, and' destroyed a quantity of furniture and books and his chemical apparatus. Dee and Kelly lived for some years in Poland and Bohemia in alternate wealth and poverty, according to the credulity or scepticism of those before whom they exhibited. They professed to raise spirits by incantation; and Kelly dictated the utterances to Dee, who wrote them down and interpreted them.
Dee at length quarrelled with his companion, and returned to England in 1589. He was helped over his financial difficulties by the queen and his friends. In May of 1595 he became warden of Manchester College. In November 1604 he returned to Mortlake, where he died in December 1608, at the age of eighty-one, in the greatest poverty. Aubrey describes him as "of a very fair, clear sanguine complexion, with a long beard as white as milk - a very handsome man - tall and slender. He wore a goune like an artist's goune with hanging sleeves." Dee's Speculum or mirror, a piece of solid pink-tinted glass about the size of an orange, is preserved in the British Museum.
Encyclopedia Britannica, Cambridge University Press, 191111

Main works: Monas hieroglyphica (1564); Propaedeumata aphoristica (1568); Parallacticae commentationis praxosque (1573); Perfect Arte of Navigation (1577).

Bibliography: St. Clucas (ed.), John Dee: Interdisciplinary Studies in Renaissance Thought, Dordrecht, Springer 2006; N.H. Clulee, John Dee's Natural Philosophy: Between Science and Religion, London, Routledge 1988; Ch. Fell Smith, John Dee: 1527-1608, London, Constable and Company 1909; P.J. French, John Dee: The World of an Elizabethan Magus, London, Routledge & Kegan Paul 1972; M. Kugler, Astronomy in Elizabethan England, 1558 to 1585: John Dee, Thomas Digges, and Giordano Bruno, Montpellier, Université Paul Valéry 1982; W.H. Sherman, John Dee: The Politics of Reading and Writing in the English Renaissance, Amherst, University of Massachusetts Press 1995; B. Woolley, The Queen's Conjuror: The Science and Magic of Dr. John Dee, Adviser to Queen Elizabeth I, New York, Henry Holt and Company 2001; Fr. Yates, The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age, London; Routledge 2001; Fr. Yates, Renaissance Philosophers in Elizabethan England: John Dee and Giordano Bruno, in Ead., Lull & Bruno, collected essays vol. I, London, Routledge & Kegan 1982.



Catalogus librorum bibliothecæ externæ Mortlacensis D. Joh. Dee, Aº 1583, 6 Sept. [Transcribed from the MS. in the library of Trinity College, Cambridge.] List of Manuscripts formerly owned by Dr. John Dee. With preface and identifications by M. R. James, [London,] 1921, 39 p., in 4°.

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