The Queen's Conjurer: The Science and Magic of Dr. John Dee, Adviser to Queen Elizabeth I

Benjamin Woolley, Author Henry Holt & Company $25 (355p) ISBN 978-0-8050-6509-1
Galileo, Kepler and Newton are generally credited with having accomplished the profound intellectual revolution that created modern science. Though they have done their work so well that it is perhaps impossible for us now to take seriously someone like John Dee, we nonetheless should do so, according to this new biography. Dee, who figured in the court of Elizabeth I, now has a reputation as a necromancer and a charlatan, but he was far more than this caricature, having been influential in many fields of Elizabethan science. Dee practiced what he called ""natural magic,"" an attempt to influence the spiritual forces by which God operated the universe by using mathematical logic. This did not hinder the development of science, Woolley persuasively argues, but actually made it possible. Even though Dee could not escape the Aristotelian worldview, which held that the universe was teeming with Intelligences that made it go, he nonetheless approached these forces with enough rigor to prepare the intellectual ground for a worldview that saw the universe as a great machine. The first part of the book is particularly good at placing Dee in this context, as is the epilogue; the second half of the book is devoted to a narrative of Dee's work under the auspices of the queen, particularly as a key figure in her international intelligence operation. One troubling point that Woolley (author of the new biography of Byron's daughter, The Bride of Science; see Forecasts, Nov. 20, 2000), unfortunately does not fully explore is the role and relationship between Dee and the medium Edward Kelley, secretly a Catholic sympathizer. Notwithstanding this flaw, Woolley's book presents a valuable perspective on the development of science in Elizabethan England and delivers a delightful read. Given the recent popularity of Queen Elizabeth and her court, this book could find a broad audience, incuding among those interested in the history of science or New Age spirituality. (Feb.)
Reviewed on: 02/01/2001
Release date: 02/01/2001
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