John Dee, portrait
JOHN DEE, 1527–1608, English mathematician and occultist. He was educated at Cambridge. Accused of practicing sorcery against Queen Mary I, he was acquitted and later was a favorite of Queen Elizabeth I, for whom he drew up valuable hydrographical and geographical materials on newly discovered lands. He also made calculations in preparation for adoption of the Gregorian calendar in England, which he vainly sought.
He is better remembered, however, for the more sensational side of his career. His interest in crystal gazing, divination, and the occult led to his association with [the charlatan and medium], Edward Kelly, who claimed to have discovered the alchemical secret of transmuting base metal to gold. Dee and Kelly spent several years abroad, [researching and communing with angelic spirits], patronized by various nobles and monarchs.
When Dee finally broke with Kelly and returned to England, he found himself generally shunned and much of his property destroyed. Although he maintained the favor of Elizabeth and was warden of Manchester College (1595–1604), he later retired to seclusion, and died in poverty, particularly out of favor with the court on the acceesion of James I. . Dee wrote extensively on his occult experiments and on mathematics, natural science, and astrology. His diary was edited in 1842 by J. O. Halliwell-Phillips.
The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age, Francis Yates
The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age, Francis Yates, (Routledge, London, 1979), pp. 92-
DEE’S FIRST PERIOD (1558-83): THE LEADER OF THE ELIZABETHAN RENAISSANCE
John Dee (1527-1608), 1 was the son of an official at the court of Henry VIII. He was thus born into the Tudor world at a time immediately before the break with Rome, when the divorce issue was looming. His connections and patrons during the early part of his life were the noblemen whose families had been influential in the Tudor Reformation. He was particularly close to the Dudley family, strong adherents of radical reform. Robert Dudley, afterwards Earl of Leicester and favourite of Queen Elizabeth I, had been Dee’s pupil when a child; throughout his life he encouraged Dee and his enterprises. Dee’s memories went back to the time of Edward VI and the radical reform of that reign; and he served with zeal the last of the Tudors, Queen Elizabeth I, promoting with enthusiasm the Elizabethan expansion.
He was of Welsh descent, and believed himself to be descended from an ancient British prince, even claiming some relationship to the Tudors and to the queen herself. He associated himself intensely with the Arthurian, mythical, and mystical side of the Elizabethan idea of ‘British Empire’.
Among the thousands of books in Dee’s library 2 were the writings of the authors with whom we have been concerned. He had a considerable collection of Lullist works. He possessed the works of Pico della Mirandola and of Reuchlin. He owned several copies of Agrippa’s De occulta philosophia. He had the 1545 edition of the Latin version of Giorgi’s De harmonia mundi. There is no doubt that he was fully conversant with these works and with many others of similar tendency. Though such works may have formed the core of Dee’s library, and filled the centre of his mind, that library and that mind also included a vast wealth of scientific knowledge of all kinds, and of literary and historical material. It was the library of a man of the Renaissance, bent on assimilating the whole realm of knowledge available in his time.
This library was at the disposal of friends and students. Here came courtiers and poets, like Sir Philip Sidney (nephew of the Earl of Leicester), navigators and mathematicians, historians and antiquaries, all learning from Dee’s stores.
The manifesto of Dee’s movement was his preface to Henry Billingsley’s translation of Euclid, which was published in 1570. I have been through this preface from various points of view in other books. It is now available in a facsimile reprint. 3 The following résumé is therefore only the briefest possible outline made from the point of view of this book.
With the opening invocation to ‘Divine Plato’ we are at once in the world of ‘Renaissance Neoplatonism’. The subject of the Preface is the importance of number and of the mathematical sciences, and this is confirmed by quotation from one of Pico della Mirandola’s Mathematical Conclusions: ‘By number, a way is had, to the searching out and understanding of every thyng, hable to be knowen.’ Dee’s outlook is that of Renaissance Neoplatonism as interpreted in Pico della Mirandola’s synthesis. And Dee’s Neoplatonism is associated with Renaissance Cabala, for the outline of the Preface is based on Agrippa’s De occulta philosophia on the three worlds. Like Agrippa, Dee thinks of the universe as divided into the natural, the celestial, and the super-celestial spheres. The tendency of the movement towards concentration on number as the key to the universe, which is apparent in Agrippa and in Giorgi, and which Reuchlin had accentuated through his emphatic association of Pythagoreanism with Cabala, is carried forward by Dee in a yet more intensely ‘mathematical’ direction.
Dee’s mathematics were applied in the practical sphere through his teaching and advice to navigators, artisans, technicians. He also had a grasp of abstract mathematical theory, particularly the theory of proportion as taught in the work on architecture by the Roman architect, Vitruvius. The Preface contains many quotations from Vitruvius; Dee follows Vitruvius on architecture as the queen of the sciences and the one to which all other mathematical disciplines are related. 4
Dee’s numerical, or numerological, theory is closely related not only to Agrippa’s basic statement about number, but also to the more extended treatment of this theme in a Cabalist setting by Francesco Giorgi. Dee does not mention Giorgi in the Preface - the only Cabalist whom he mentions is Agrippa - but he had Giorgi’s work in his library and there is no doubt that he had studied the De harmonia mundi carefully. Yet Dee seems to be coming to his subject of proportion in relation to number more through Agrippa and the Germans than through Giorgi and the Italians. Giorgi’s architectural symbolism was related to his knowledge of Italian architectural theory. As we have seen he applied the theory of architectural harmony to the plan for a Franciscan church in Venice. Dee, however, refers for the theory of proportion to the German artist and theorist Albrecht Dürer.
It is significant that, at the point in the Preface at which Dee advises the reader to consult Vitruvius on theory of proportion, he also advises him to consult, on the same subject, Agrippa and Dürer. 5 Thus the reader of the Preface would look at the diagrams in the De occulta philosophia on proportion in relation to the human figure, and also at the same diagrams in Dürer’s basic Four Books of Human Proportion (Vier Bücher von Menschlicher Proportion, 1528) which transferred to the north the Italian art theory on proportion.
Dee and his readers are coming to theory of proportion through Agrippa, the occult philosopher and Cabalist; he cites the German artist, Dürer, as the exponent of the theory. This is an interesting indication that Dürer’s work was known to Dee, and presumably to the English readers whom he is addressing, and it suggests that Dee’s artistic theory, which was one form of his concentration on number, came to him through the German Renaissance rather than the Italian, though he would find the same theory in the Italian tradition on which Giorgi depended.
Like Reuchlin, Agrippa, and the Christian Cabalists generally, Dee was intensely aware of the supercelestial world of the angels and divine powers. His studies in number, so successful and factual in what he would think of as the lower spheres, were, for him, primarily important because he believed that they could be extended with even more powerful results into the supercelestial world. In short, as is well known, Dee believed that he had achieved, with his associate Edward Kelley, the power of conjuring angels. 6 In one of the descriptions of his séances with Kelley, Dee speaks of the book of Agrippa as lying open on the table, and there is no doubt that Agrippa was Dee’s main guide in such operations. The sensational angel-summoning side of Dee’s activities was intimately related to his real success as a mathematician. Like the Christian Cabalists generally, he believed that such daring attempts were safeguarded by Cabala from demonic powers. A pious Christian Cabalist is safe in the knowledge that he is conjuring angels, not demons. This conviction was at the centre of Dee’s belief in his angelic guidance, and it explains his pained surprise when alarmed and angry contemporaries persisted in branding him as a wicked conjuror of devils.
The angel-conjuring is not apparent in the Preface, which can be read as a straightforward presentation of the mathematical arts. The underlying assumptions are, however, indicated in the fact that Dee is certainly following Agrippa’s outline in the De occulta philosophia and that was a work founded on Renaissance Magia and Cabala. Also he hints in the Preface at higher secrets which he is not here revealing, probably the secrets of the angel-magic.
The extremely complex nature of Dee’s mind and outlook baffles enquirers, many of whom have begun to become aware of his importance and are impressed by the Preface, but would like to forget the angel-magic. Real progress in the understanding of the past cannot, however, be made on obscurantist lines. The facts about Dee must be faced, and one fact certainly is that this remarkable man was undoubtedly a follower of Cornelius Agrippa and attempted to apply the ‘occult philosophy’ throughout his life and work.
Another very important aspect of Dee’s mind was his belief in alchemy. The studies prosecuted with Kelley included not only the angel-magic, but also, and above all, alchemy. Kelley was an alchemist and was believed, according to some rumours, to have succeeded in effecting transformations and in making gold. Practical Cabala and practical alchemy thus seemed to go together in the Dee-Kelley partnership.
I am faced here with a historical question. What place had there been in the Hermetic-Cabalist tradition, stemming from Ficino and Pico, for the Hermetic science of alchemy? The Ficinian outlook, with its emphasis on astral correspondences, would, one would think, have been a philosophy favourable to application as alchemy. Little has, however, as yet been heard of alchemy as an interest of Ficino or of Pico, and their followers. Yet there is a point at which alchemy does enter this tradition, and that very decidedly, and that is with Cornelius Agrippa.
In Agrippa’s mysterious travels he was in contact with alchemists in many different places. 7 Sometimes he is heard of performing alchemical operations in a laboratory; he certainly sought out alchemical books and was deeply interested in the subject. He cannot, surely, have been the only Cabalist to be interested in alchemy. Was there a Cabalist alchemy, or an alchemical Cabala, which represented some new kind of combination of such interests already formed in the time of Agrippa? This is at present an unanswered question. Here I am only concerned to state that some close connection between alchemy, Cabala, and his other interests, existed in Dee’s mind.
A curious diagram, to which Dee attached the greatest importance as a statement of his whole philosophy, was the Monas hieroglyphica (Plate 10), published in 1564 with a dedication to the Emperor Maximilian II, 8 and an explanatory text which leaves the reader thoroughly bewildered. Dee’s monas is a combination of the signs of the seven planets, plus the symbol for the zodiacal sign, Aries, representing fire. It must have some astral significance; alchemical operations seem implied through the fire sign; it is also some kind of mathematics or geometry; but above all it is Cabala. It is related to ‘the stupendous fabric of the Hebrew letters’. It is a ‘Cabalistic grammar’. It can be mathematically, cabalistically, and anagogically explained’. 9 It is a profound secret which Dee wonders whether he has sinned in publishing.
There are no Hebrew letters in the monas sign itself, yet one gathers that the parts of the planetary signs of which it is composed were to be manipulated in a manner analogous to the manipulation of Hebrew letters in Cabala. There is also a mathematical process going on, though the mathematical side is not so prominent in the Monas hieroglyphica as it is in the Aphorisms, 10 a work published by Dee a few years earlier (1558) with which he states that the Monas hieroglyphica is closely connected. The Aphorisms, in which the monas sign appears, would seem to be stating in a more obviously mathematical form the Cabalist meaning of the Monas hieroglyphica.
I would suggest that an important source in which to study the mode of thought out of which Dee evolved his monas sign is Giorgi’s De harmonia mundi. Here he would have found numerological theory combined with Cabalist theory as the double key to the universe in a manner which is closely analogous to the double meaning of the monas, numerological and Cabalist. Giorgi begins with the One, or the monas, 11 out of which, as expounded in the Timaeus, the numbers one to twenty-seven proceed to form the universal harmony in both macrocosm and microcosm. Combining Pythagoro-Platonic theory with Cabalist letter-mysticism, Giorgi arrives at his synthesis. Dee’s mind would work in a similar way in the monas. His composite planetary symbol would imply a composite Cabalist symbol. Behind its planetary cosmology would be the ‘tremendous structure’ of the Hebrew alphabet. 12
The monas symbol includes a cross. It is a Christian Cabalist symbol, no doubt believed by its creator to have great magical power.
Dee was not only an enthusiast for scientific and mathematical studies, in the strange contexts in which he saw them. He wished to use such studies for the advantage of his countrymen and for the expansion of Elizabethan England. Dee had a politico-religious programme and it was concerned with the imperial destiny of Queen Elizabeth I.
I have discussed in my book, Astraea. The Imperial Theme in the Sixteenth Century (1975) the nature of Elizabethan imperialism. It was not only concerned with national expansion in the literal sense, but carried with it the religious associations of the imperial tradition, applying these to Elizabeth as the representative of ‘imperial reform’, of a purified and reformed religion to be expressed and propagated through a reformed empire, the empire of the Tudors with their mythical ‘British’ associations. The glorification of the Tudor monarchy as a religious imperial institution rested on the fact that the Tudor reform had dispensed with the Pope and made the monarch supreme in both church and state. This basic political fact was draped in the mystique of ‘ancient British monarchy’, with its Arthurian associations, represented by the Tudors in their capacity as an ancient British line, of supposed Arthurian descent, returned to power and supporting a pure British Church, defended by a religious chivalry from the evil powers (evil according to this point of view) of Hispano-Papal attempts at universal domination.
Though these ideas were inherent in the Tudor myth, Dee had a great deal to do with enhancing and expanding them. Believing himself to be of ancient British royal descent, he identified completely with the British imperial myth around Elizabeth I and did all in his power to support it.
Dee’s views on the British-imperial destiny of Queen Elizabeth I are set out in his General and rare memorials pertayning to the Perfect art of Navigation (1577). Expansion of the navy and Elizabethan expansion at sea were connected in his mind with vast ideas concerning the lands to which (in his view) Elizabeth might lay claim through her mythical descent from King Arthur. Dee’s ‘British imperialism’ is bound up with the ‘British History’ recounted by Geoffrey of Monmouth, 13 based on the myth of the hypothetical descent of British monarchs from Brut, supposedly of Trojan origin, and therefore connecting with Virgil and the Roman imperial myth. Arthur was the supposed descendant of Brut, and was the chief religious and mystical exemplar of sacred British imperial Christianity.
In the General and rare memorials there is a complicated print (Plate 11), based on a drawing in Dee’s own hand, 14 of Elizabeth sailing in a ship labelled ‘Europa’, with the moral that Britain is to grow strong at sea, so that through her ‘Imperial Monarchy’ she may perhaps become the pilot of all Christendom. This ‘British Hieroglyphick’, as Dee calls the design, should be held in mind at the same time as the Monas hieroglyphica, as representing a politico-religious expression of the monas in the direction of a ‘British imperial’ idea.
Much of the material on Dee which I have here resumed is familiar but Dee and his activities may appear in a somewhat new light when viewed in relation to the studies in this book. In what light would this deep student of the sciences of number, this prophetic interpreter of British history, have been seen, both by himself and by his contemporaries?
I suggest that the contemporary role which would exactly fit Dee would be that of the ‘inspired melancholic’. 15 According to Agrippa, and as portrayed by Dürer in the famous engraving, the inspired melancholic was a Saturnian, immersed in those sciences of number which could lead their devotees into great depths of insight. Surely Dee’s studies were such as to qualify him as a Saturnian, a representative of the Renaissance revaluation of melancholy as the temperament of inspiration. And after the first stage of inspiration, the inspiration coming from immersion in the sciences of number, Agrippa envisages a second stage, a prophetic stage, in which the adept is intent on politico-religious events and prophecies. And finally in the third stage, stage of inspired melancholy, the highest insight into religion and religious changes is revealed.
It may seem suggestive that not only was Dee’s programme for the advance of science based on Agrippa on the three worlds in the De occulta philosophia, but also that the stages of his prophetic outlook might be clarified from the same source. First Dee as Saturnian melancholic studies the sciences of number; then he gains prophetic insight into British imperial destiny; and finally vast universal religious visions are revealed to him. Yet all the time he was, like Agrippa, a Christian, a Christian Cabalist with leanings towards evangelicalism and Erasmian reform.
It must be remembered that Dee’s ideas, which we have to try to piece together from scanty and scattered evidence, would have been known to contemporaries through personal contact with this man, who was ubiquitous in Elizabethan society and whose library was the rendezvous of intellectuals. And there were many works by Dee passing from hand to hand in manuscript which were never published. In his Discourse Apologetical (1604), Dee gives a list of his writings, many, indeed most, of which are unknown to us but which may have been available to his contemporaries in manuscript. From that list I select the following titles of lost writings by Dee:
Cabala Hebraicae compendiosa tabella, anno 1562. Reipublicae Britannicae Synopsis, in English, 1565. De modo Evangelii Iesu Christi publicandi … inter infideles, 1581. The Origins and chiefe points of our auncient British histories.
Through these lost titles, we catch glimpses of Dee studying Cabala, immersed in his ‘British History’ researches, and interested in missionary schemes for publishing the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the heathen.
Dee is not a person who can be lightly dismissed as a sorcerer, in accordance with the labels affixed to him in the witch scares. He must have been one of the most fascinating figures of the Elizabethan age, appealing to that brilliant world for his learning, his patriotism, and for the insight associated with Christian Cabala.
DEE’S SECOND PERIOD (1583-9): THE CONTINENTAL MISSION
In 1583, John Dee left England and was abroad for six years, returning in 1589. 16 During these years on the continent Dee appears to have been engaged in some kind of missionary venture which took him to Cracow, in Poland, and eventually to Prague where the occultist emperor Rudolf II, held his court. It is possible, though there is no evidence for this, that when in Prague, Dee was in contact with the Rabbi Loewe, famous Cabalist and magician, who once had an interview with Rudolf (see The Rosicrucian Enlightenment, p. 228). Dee stayed for several years in Bohemia with a noble family the members of which were interested in alchemy and other occult sciences. His associate, Edward Kelley, was with him, and together they were fervently pursuing their alchemical experiments and their attempts at angel-summoning with practical Cabala.
To this period belong the séances described in Dee’s spiritual diary, 17 with their supposed contacts with the angels Uriel and Gabriel and other spirits. Dee was moving now on the more ‘powerful’ levels of Christian Cabala through which he hoped to encourage powerful religious movements. The evidence about Dee’s continental mission is somewhat obscure and incomplete. It is referred to thus by a contemporary observer:
A learned and renowned Englishman whose name was Doctor Dee came to Prague to see the Emperor Rudolf II and was at first well received by him; he predicted that a miraculous reformation would presently come about in the Christian world and would prove the ruin not only of the city of Constantinople but of Rome also. These predictions he did not cease to spread among the populace. 18
Dee’s message appeared to be neither Catholic nor Protestant but an appeal to a vast, undogmatic, reforming movement which drew its spiritual strength from the resources of occult philosophy.
In the context of the late sixteenth century in which movements of this kind abounded, Dee’s mission would not have seemed incredible or strange. Enthusiastic missionaries of his type were moving all over Europe in these last years of the century. One such was Giordano Bruno, who preached a mission of universal Hermetic reform, in which there were some Cabalist elements. 19 Bruno was in Prague shortly after Dee; he had been in England preaching his version of Hermetic-Cabalist reform, and was to go on into Italy, where he met the full force of the Counter-Reformation suppression of Renaissance Neoplatonism, and its allied occultisms, and was burned at the stake in Rome in 1600. Dee was more cautious, and was careful not to venture into Italy.
For Dee’s mission, the Monas hieroglyphica is probably the most important clue, for it contained in the compressed form of a magic sign the whole of the occult philosophy. And it had reference to contemporary rulers who were to be the politico-religious channels of the movement. The first version of it had been dedicated to the Emperor Maximilian II, Rudolf’s father. Dee may have hoped that Rudolf would step into his father’s role, and accept the monas as his occult imperial sign. In England, Dee had transferred to Queen Elizabeth I the destiny of occult imperial reform, signified by the monas.
There is some kind of congruity between the ideas associated with Rudolf and those associated with Elizabeth. As R. J. W. Evans has said: ‘Both the unmarried Emperor and the Virgin Queen were widely regarded as figures prophetic of significant change in their own day, as symbols of lost equilibrium when they were dead.’ 20 It is perhaps in some such sense of occult imperial destiny linking Elizabeth and Rudolf that the true secret meaning of Dee’s continental mission may lie. On the more obvious level it would seem to have been a movement antagonistic to the repressive policies of Counter-Reform, and as such it would have made dangerous enemies.
The emperor did not enthusiastically support Dee, and when he returned to England in 1589 it must have been far from clear to the queen and her advisers whether he had accomplished anything at all, beyond making extremely dangerous enemies.
However he had sown powerful seeds which were to grow to a strange harvest. It has been shown that the so-called ‘Rosicrucian manifestos’, published in Germany in the early seventeenth century, are heavily influenced by Dee’s philosophy, and that one of them contains a version of the Monas hieroglyphica. 21 The Rosicrucian manifestos call for a universal reformation of the whole wide world through Magia and Cabala. The mythical ‘Christian Red Cross’ (Christian Rosencreuz), the opening of whose magical tomb is a signal for the general reformation, may perhaps, in one of his aspects, be a teutonised memory of John Dee and his Christian Cabala, confirming earlier suspicions that ‘Christian Cabala’ and ‘Rosicrucianism’ may be synonymous.
DEE’S THIRD PERIOD (1589-1608): DISGRACE AND FAILURE
When Dee returned to England in 1589, he was at first received by the queen, but his old position at the centre of the Elizabethan world was not restored. 22 During his absence, the Armada victory of 1588 had occurred, and this, one would think, might have been seen as the triumph on the seas of the patriotic movement in which Dee had had so large a share. On the other hand, the Earl of Leicester’s movement for landward extension of the Elizabethan ethos in his military expedition to the Netherlands in 1586 had failed; his nephew Philip Sidney lost his life in that expedition; and the whole enterprise was checked by the queen who withdrew Leicester from his command in disgrace. Leicester never got over this; he quietly died in 1588. Thus Leicester and the Sidney circle, Dee’s supporters in the old days, were no longer there except for some survivors, such as Edward Dyer, Sidney’s closest friend, who had been in touch with Dee and Kelley in their recent adventures.
Shunned and isolated, Dee was also confronted with a growing witch-hunt against him. The cry of ‘conjuror’ had always been sporadically raised but in the old days the queen and Leicester had protected his studies. Now the enemies were increasingly vocal. Dee felt obliged to defend himself in a letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury, printed in 1604 but written earlier. It is illustrated with a woodcut (Plate 12) which shows Dee kneeling on the cushion of hope, humility, and patience with his head raised in prayer to the cloudy heavens wherein can be seen the ear, eye, and avenging sword of God. Opposite to him is the many-headed monster of lying tongues and unkind rumour, its heads malevolently turned in his direction. He earnestly assures the archbishop that all his studies have been directed towards searching out the truth of God, that they are holy studies, not diabolical as his enemies falsely assert. From his youth up it has pleased the Almighty
to insinuate into my hart, an insatiable zeale, and desire to knowe his truth: And in him, and by him, incessantly to seeke, and listen after the same; by the true philosophical method and harmony: proceeding and ascending … gradatim, from things visible, to consider of things inuisible; from thinges bodily, to conceiue of thinges spirituall: from thinges transitorie, and momentarie, to meditate of things permanent: by thinges mortall … to have some perceiuerance of immortality. And to conclude, most briefeley, by the most meruailous frame of the whole world, philosophically viewed, and circumspectly wayed, numbred, and measured … most faithfully to loue, honor, and glorifie alwaies, the Framer and Creator thereof. 23
One hears in these words the voice of the pious author of the Mathematical Preface, rising with number through the three worlds. But the admired Dee of other days, mentor of Elizabethan poets, must now defend himself from being a black conjuror of devils.
The implications of the angel-conjuring side of Dee’s doctrine had come out more prominently during his continental mission; probably rumours of this, and of Jesuit opposition to it, had reached England. Elizabeth and her advisers, always nervous of committing themselves to the rash projects of enthusiasts, would now be understandably nervous of Dee. Elizabeth had withdrawn her support from Leicester’s continental enterprise; Leicester and Sidney were both dead. No wonder that Dee’s position in England was very different from what it had been before his continental journey and that many people might now refuse to believe that the famous mathematician was a Christian Cabalist, and not a conjuror of devils.
Of Dee’s three periods, the first one, the successful one, has been the most explored. We are all now familiar with the idea that John Dee, dismissed in the Victorian age as a ridiculous charlatan, was immensely influential in the Elizabethan age, an influence which is far from being, as yet, fully assessed or understood. Of the second period, the period of the continental mission, we are beginning to know a good deal more than formerly, enough to realise that it had some very large religious or reforming scope, and that its influence long persisted in ways difficult to decipher. The third period, the period of failure verging on persecution of this once so admired and important figure, has been the least studied of all. What I now say about it must be provisional, awaiting further much-needed research. For the third period is most essential for the understanding of Dee as a whole.
Dee was very poor after his return and in great anxiety as to how to provide a living for his wife and family. A former friend with whom he was, apparently, still in contact was Sir Walter Raleigh, with whom Dee dined at Durham House on 9 October 1595. 24 Raleigh, however, was himself out of favour, and would be unlikely to be able to help him to a position. At last, in 1596, he was made warden of a college in Manchester, whither he moved with his wife and family. It was an uncomfortable place and he had difficulty with the fellows of the college. In fact the Manchester appointment seems to have been something like a semi-banishment where he was, for reasons not quite clear, unhappy.
One of his activities when at Manchester was to act as adviser about cases of witchcraft and demonic possession. He had books on these subjects in his Manchester library which he lent to enquirers investigating such cases. One of the books which he thus lent was the De praestigiis daemonum by Weyer, 25 the friend of Agrippa, in which it is argued that witchcraft is a delusion, witches being only poor, melancholy old women. Another book which Dee lent was the Malleus maleficarum, a work which is very positive as to the reality of witches.
It would seem strange that the conjuring suspicions against Dee should have taken the form of turning him into an expert on demonology to be consulted in trials, but such seems to have been the case.
The reality of witches and witchcraft was being forcibly maintained in these years by no less a person than the King of Scotland, soon to succeed Queen Elizabeth as James I. In his Daemonologie (1587), 26 James is profoundly shocked by the ‘damnable error’ of those who, like Weyer, deny the reality of witchcraft. He refers the reader to Bodin’s Démonomanie where he will find many examples of witchcraft collected with great diligence. And for particulars about the black arts the reader should consult ‘the fourth book of Cornelius Agrippa’. This was the spurious fourth book of the De occulta philosophia which James accepted as genuine (Weyer had said that it was not by Agrippa). James has much more to say about ‘the Divel’s school’ which thinks to climb to knowledge of things to come ‘mounting from degree to degree on the slippery scale of curiosity’, believing that circles and conjurations tied to the words of God will raise spirits. 27 This is clearly ‘practical Cabala’ interpreted as a black art, a fruit of that tree of forbidden knowledge of which Adam was commanded not to eat.
James’s work, if read in Manchester, would not have helped Dee’s reputation. Dee appears to have been away from Manchester from 1598 to 1600; eventually he returned to his old house at Mortlake, living there in great poverty, though still partially in touch with ‘great persons’. The accession of James I in 1603 boded little good for the reputed conjuror. Nevertheless Dee made desperate appeals to the new monarch. In a printed pamphlet, dated 5 June 1604, John Dee appeals to the king asking that those who call him a conjuror should be brought to trial: ‘Some impudent and malicious forraine enemie or English traytor … hath affirmed your Maiesties Suppliant to be a Conjuror belonging to the most Honorable Priuie Counsell of your Maiesties most famous last predecessor….’ 28 Note that Dee suspects foreigners or traitors of fomenting the rumours against him, and that he hints that such rumours might implicate the late queen and her council.
All was in vain. Dee was not cleared. He died in great poverty at Mortlake in 1608.
The last act of Dee’s extraordinary story is the most impressive of them all. The descendant of British kings, creator (or one of the creators) of the British imperial legend, the leader of the Elizabethan Renaissance, the mentor of Philip Sidney, the prophet of some far-reaching religious movement, dies, an old man, in bitter neglect and extreme poverty.
I am not interested here in the sensationalism which has gathered round Dee’s story and which has tended to obscure his real significance. That significance, as I see it, is the presentation in the life and work of one man of the phenomenon of the disappearance of the Renaissance in the late sixteenth century in clouds of demonic rumour. What happened in Dee’s lifetime to his ‘Renaissance Neoplatonism’ was happening all over Europe as the Renaissance went down in the darkness of the witch-hunts. Giordano Bruno in England in the 1580s had helped to inspire the ‘Sidney circle’ and the Elizabethan poetic Renaissance. Giordano Bruno in 1600 was burned at the stake in Rome as a sorcerer. Dee’s fate in England in his third period presents a similar extraordinary contrast with his brilliant first, or ‘Renaissance’, period.
The Hermetic-Cabalist movement failed as a movement of religious reform, and that failure involved the suppression of the Renaissance Neoplatonism which had nourished it. The Renaissance magus turned into Faust.
1 On Dee, see my Theatre of the World, London, 1969; Peter French, John Dee: The World of an Elizabethan Magus, London, 1972.
2 On Dee's library, see Theatre of the World, pp. 8 ff.; French, Dee, pp. 40 ff.
3 John Dee, The Mathematicall Praeface to the Elements of Geometry of Euclid of Megara (1570), with an introduction by Allen G. Debus, New York, Science History Publications, 1975.
4 See Theatre of the World, pp. 20 ff.
5 Preface, sig. ciiii recto; see Theatre of the World, pp. 23-4, 191.
6 Yates, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Traditions, London, 1964, pp. 148-9; French, Dee, pp. 113 ff.
7 Charles Nauert, Agrippa and the Crisis of Renaissance Thought, Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1965, pp. 24-5.
8 See C. H. Josten, 'A Translation of John Dee's "Monas Hieroglyphica"', Ambix, XII (1964), pp. 155-65.
9 Ibid., pp. 127-55.
10 Propaedeumata Aphoristica, London, 1558.
11 Giorgi, De harmonia mundi, I, 3, i.
12 Written below Dee's monas symbol is a text from the Bible: De rore caeli, et pinguedine terrae det tibi Deus, (Genesis 27); 'God give thee of the dew of heaven, and of the fatness of the earth.' It is Isaac's blessing on Esau. This is a favourite text of Giorgi's which he quotes twice in the De harmonia mundi. In one of these passages the meaning assigned to dew is the usual one, that it refers to divine grace (De harm. mun., II, 7, iv). In the other passage, the Hebrew word for dew is given and the meaning is said to be that dew is a symbol for the four-lettered Name of God, with references to Hebrew authorities (De harm. mun., II, 7, xviii).
13 See Yates, Astraea. The Imperial Theme in the Sixteenth Century, London, 1975, p. 50.
14 See French, Dee, pl. 14.
15 The title-page of John Case's Lapis philosphicus, 1599, illustrates the pseudo-Aristotelian theory of the Saturnian inspired melancholy in an elaborate diagram which probably reflects some of Dee's ideas. The title-page is reproduced in S. K. Heninger, Touches of Sweet Harmony, San Marino, 1974, p. 218.
16 On the second period, see Yates, The Rosicrucian Enlightenment, London, 1972, pp. 37 ff.; R. J. W. Evans, Rudolf II and his World, Oxford, 1973, pp. 218-28.
17 A True and Faithful Relation of what passed for many years between John Dee and .. and Some Spirits, ed. Meric Casaubon, 1659.
18 Quoted by Evans, Rudolf, p. 224.
19 Bruno, passim. In Bruno's reforming movement, the Hermetic or 'Egyptian' element would seem to be dominant, but the Cabalist element is certainly there; see Bruno, ch. XIV, 'Giordano Bruno and the Cabala'. Bruno made constant use of Agrippa's De occulta philosophia, for magic images and incantations.
20 Rudolf, p. 275.
21 See Rosicrucian Enlightenment, pp. 45-7. There is a copy of the rare second Rosicrucian Manifesto, which contains the version of Dee's Monas hieroglyphica, in the British Library, catalogued as Philip a Gabella, Secretioris philosophiae consideratio brevis, Press Mark 1033. h. 6 (4). It should be consulted by all students of Dee's Monas hieroglyphica.
22 On Dee's third period, see Charlotte Fell Smith, John Dee, London, 1909, pp. 222 ff. The basic source for it is John Dee, Diary for the years 1595-1601, ed. John Bailey, 1880.
23 John Dee, A Letter, Containing a … Discourse Apologeticall, in Auto-biographical Tracts, ed. James Crossley, Manchester, 1851, p. 72. The Letter was published in 1604. Dee says that he showed a draft of it to the Queen in 1592, and wrote it at Mortlake in 1595.
24 Diary, ed. Bailey, p. 23.
25 Ibid., p. 45.
26 James VI and I, Daemonologie, Edinburgh, 1597; two London editions in 1603. See Stuart Clark, 'King James's Daemonologie', in The Damned Art, ed. S. Anglo, London, 1977, pp. 156-81. The book was one of the first defences of continental beliefs about witchcraft in English.
27 James VI and I, Daemonologie, p. 10.
28 John Dee, To the King's Most excellent Majestie, London, 1604. See French, Dee, p. 10.
born July 13, 1527, London, England; died December 1608, Mortlake, Surrey
English mathematician, natural philosopher, and student of the occult.
Dee entered St. John’s College, Cambridge, in 1542, where he earned a bachelor’s degree (1545) and a master’s degree (1548); he also was made a fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, on its founding in 1546. Dee furthered his scientific studies on the Continent with a short visit in 1547 and then from 1548 to 1551 under the mathematician-cartographers Pedro Nuñez, Gemma Frisius, Abraham Ortelius, and Gerardus Mercator, as well as through his own studies in Paris and elsewhere. Dee turned down a mathematical professorship at the University of Paris in 1551 and a similar position at the University of Oxford in 1554, apparently in hopes of obtaining an official position with the English crown.
Following his return to England, Dee attached himself to the royal court, offering instruction in the mathematical sciences to both courtiers and navigators. He also served as consultant and astrologer to, among others, Queen Mary I. The latter activity landed him in jail in 1555 on the charge of being a conjurer, but he was soon released. Following the ascension of Elizabeth I to the throne in 1558, Dee became a scientific and medical adviser to the Queen, and by the mid-1560s he established himself at Mortlake, near London, where he built a laboratory and amassed the largest private library in England with over 4,000 books. Dee was as generous in making his library accessible to scholars as he was in assisting numerous practitioners who applied for advice. He was intimately involved in laying the groundwork for several English voyages of exploration, instructing captains and pilots in the principles of mathematical navigation, preparing maps for their use, and furnishing them with various navigational instruments. He was equally active in publicly advocating a British empire in Perfect Arte of Navigation (1580). In 1582 Dee also recommended that England adopt the Gregorian calendar, but the Anglican church refused to embrace such a “popish” innovation.
Dee’s scientific interests were far broader than his involvement in English exploration might suggest. In 1558 he published Propaedeumata Aphoristica (“An Aphoristic Introduction”), which presented his views on natural philosophy and astrology. Dee continued his occult views in 1564 with the Monas hieroglyphica (The Hieroglyphic Monad), wherein he offered a single mathematical-magical symbol as the key to unlocking the unity of nature. In addition to editing the first English translation of Euclid’s Elements (1570), Dee added an influential preface that offered a powerful manifesto on the dignity and usefulness of the mathematical sciences. Furthermore, as passionately as he believed in the utility of mathematics for mundane matters, Dee expressed conviction in the occult power of mathematics to reveal divine mysteries.
Perhaps frustrated about his failure to arrive at a comprehensive understanding of natural knowledge, Dee sought divine assistance by conversing with angels. He and his medium, the convicted counterfeiter Edward Kelley, held numerous séances both in England and on the Continent, where the two traveled together between 1583 and 1589. By all accounts Dee was sincere, which is more than can be said for Kelley, who may have duped him. On Dee’s return to England, his friends raised money for him and interceded on his behalf with Queen Elizabeth. Though she appointed him warden of Manchester College in 1596, Dee’s final years were marked by poverty and isolation.
It is almost certain that William Shakespeare (1564–1616) modeled the character of Prospero in The Tempest (1611) on the career of John Dee, the Elizabethan magus.
This Webpage was created for a workshop held at Saint Andrew's Abbey, Valyermo, California in 1990