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JOHN DEE – distinguished scientist, the forgotten Renaissance genius (Part I)

JOHN DEE – distinguished scientist, the forgotten Renaissance genius (Part I)
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John Dee. Unknown English artist. About 1586


Much has been written about John Dee, but nothing. And the personality is more than wonderful! John Dee, a contemporary of Shakespeare, was a well-known and respected man. As many researchers believe, it was from him that Shakespeare “copied” his magician Prospero in The Tempest. There were legends about Master Dee, they looked up to him, they listened to him … But then something happened – and they forgot about him, as if he did not exist at all.

If it were in our time, it could be said that the data about him was seized at one moment, as if some mysterious powerful special service was operating, “cleaning up” all the documents. Ridiculous idea: what kind of special services in the 16th century! ..

But the fact remains: in historical literature, John Dee is mentioned only in passing – as an astrologer and adviser to Elizabeth I, queen of England. It is worth noting, and this is already a lot. But the truth is much more interesting.




John Dee was one of the most prominent scientists of the Renaissance, and his contribution to science is tremendous. Yes, he checked every step by the stars, yes, he consulted with the angels and, like many then, he was looking for the Philosopher’s Stone. But after all, magic and alchemy at that time were the advanced branches of science, and his interests extended far beyond their borders. John Dee was a mathematician,a geographerand an astronomer. And, of course, an astrologer and an alchemist, but also a hermeticist – a follower of the esoteric science of the higher laws of nature.




He was born on July 13, 1527 in London. His father, Ronald Dee, a Welshman who had made a fortune in the textile trade, was a man of noble birth and held a small office at court under Henry VIII.

Later John Dee learned his ancestry from the Welsh rulers, calling the founder of the family Rhodri ap Merfyn himself, the great king of the Britons. In London, the Dee family settled, as some sources indirectly testify, on the eve of the coronation of Henry VII.

Dee Senior was not a stupid person and, rotating at court, concluded that a good education is almost the best capital for a young man, and therefore made sure that his son had worthy teachers.

Eight years old, John Dee entered a school in Chelmsford (this school still exists today, it is King Edward VI Grammar School, King Edward VI Elementary School), then, after completing a seven-year course, in November 1542 he was admitted to St. John’s College in Cambridge.

He was distinguished by an incredible thirst for knowledge, he devoted all his time to study without a trace and considered every moment spent on something else to be lost in vain. He himself made a schedule, which he adhered to rigorously: four hours for sleep, two for food and “stuff”, and the rest of the time was entirely devoted to science.

John studied Latin and Greek, geometry and mathematics, astronomy and navigation, law, philosophy, medicine, cryptography – the art of cryptography … And in all these disciplines Dee demonstrated outstanding success. In 1546, when King Henry VIII founded Trinity College in Cambridge, Dee became one of the observers on the board of the educational institution.




Students of those times were accustomed to hunt for knowledge themselves, in search of the best teachers they wandered from university to university. So did John Dee. In the late 1540s, in order to deepen his knowledge of a number of sciences, he went to the mainland, to Europe.

In 1548, he arrived at the University of Leuven, which was considered the best in Europe at that time. There he studied with Gemma Frisius – mathematician, physician, philosopher, cartographer and master of astronomical instruments, Gerard Mercator – an outstanding Flemish mathematician, philosopher and geographer, and Abraham Ortelius – cartographer, author of the first geographic atlas of a modern type.

In Leuven, Dee became interested in astronomy and wrote two substantial treatises. He was barely twenty when he was invited to the University of Paris as a teacher of arithmetic – in university circles he was then already called one of the best in this discipline, and soon he was also offered to read a course in geometry – he was also known as one of the strongest in this science. His lectures on Euclid’s Beginnings were packed with student audiences. He was offered to stay in Paris, but he refused.

After Paris and Leuven, there was Italy. In Urbino, he met the brilliant mathematician, translator of the works of ancient scientists, Frederico Commandino. Seven years later, they jointly published the works of the Arab mathematician Machometus Bagdedinus#-, carefully analyzing every word and accompanying it with detailed explanations.




John Dee returned to London around 1552 with a rich collection of mathematical and astronomical instruments, with an increased interest in mechanics. This interest was entirely in the spirit of the era: John Dee dreamed of creating a perpetual motion machine. In this, he believed, magic gems, containing colossal energy, could help him.

No matter how it looks from the point of view of a modern person, it is worth emphasizing: the scientific achievements of John Dee were beyond doubt. According to some testimonies, it was he who was the first to introduce into practice the signs of arithmetic operations, those very familiar to us “+”, “-“, “×”, “÷”.

In astronomy, he adhered to the theory of heliocentrism, the astronomical model according to which the planets revolve around the sun; this doctrine in those years was not a curiosity, but it was not considered generally accepted either.

John Dee made a lot of efforts to simplify the study of astronomy and mathematics, he taught a lot, willingly advised students and professors in these disciplines, and in navigation. Actually, the fact that England has become a strong naval power, a significant share of his merits. But these merits were appreciated a little later.




After traveling to Europe, acquaintance with the advanced scientific thought of France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, the scientist took a different look at the English teaching system. Both in England and on the continent, the seven disciplines were studied at universities – grammar, rhetoric, dialectics, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music. These subjects were divided into two courses, the first, trivium, included grammar, rhetoric and dialectics, the second, quadrivium, included the rest.

And what was regrettable for the scientist to observe: in his native England, the emphasis was on the trivium, and negligible attention was paid to the quadrivium. In 1554, he was offered to read mathematics at Oxford University, but he refused: too little attention, in his opinion, was paid to the exact sciences, and it was for him, a professor, extremely offensive. In the same year, he set out his thoughts in notes – and was known as a troublemaker who undermined the foundations of the university.

The students supported him, but the teachers took the remarks with hostility and harbored resentment. Apparently, in order to pacify the newly-minted reformer, someone drew the attention of the churchmen to the obscene occupation of a scientist – “calculations”, the performance of astronomical calculations. On May 28, 1555, John Dee was arrested. Yes, astrology was in demand, the services of “reading by the stars” were used by both commoners and monarchs.

But, on the one hand, the church did not encourage astrology, and on the other hand, John Dee recklessly undertook to make predictions for both the Tudor sisters – Queen Mary, nicknamed Bloody, and Princess Elizabeth, who also claimed the throne.

Drawing up a horoscope for Elizabeth was regarded as a betrayal of the queen, aiding her enemies and high treason. However, Dee was officially taken into custody for heresy, and Bishop Edmund Bonner, an implacable fighter for the purity of the faith, took up the case. It is unknown what words and arguments were found by Dee, but he was soon released, and even allegedly remained on friendly terms with Bonner.

Read Part II

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