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kelly greeke sir colledge

John Dee was one of the few Elizabethans to write about his own youth. Here he describes one of its most formative events:

I was out of St. John’s Colledge chosen to be Fellow of Trinity Colledge, at the first erection thereof by King Henry the Eight. I was assigned there to be the Under-Reader of the Greeke tongue, Mr. Pember being the chiefe Greeke Reader then in Trinity Colledge. Hereupon I did sett forth (and it was seene of the University) a Greeke comedy of Aristophanes, named in Greek Eirene , in Latin, Pax ; with the performance of the Scarabeus his flying up to Jupiter’s pallace, with a man and his basket of victualls on her back: whereat was great wondering, and many vaine reportes spread abroad of the meanes how that was effected. ( Autobiographical Tracts , 5f.)

The “vaine reports” were that Dee was conversant with the black arts. Gossip of this sort led to a mob’s looting of his Mortlake house in 1583 and ultimately to King James’* refusal, in 1604, to allow him a trial to clear his name. Yet throughout his life Dee would stubbornly proclaim his innocence:

I take the same God, to be my witnesse; that, with all my hart, with all my soule, with all my strength, power and understanding…for the most part of my time, from my youth hitherto, I have used, and still use, good, lawful, honest, christian, and divinely prescribed meanes, to attain to the knowledge of those truthes, which are meete and necessarily for me to know . ( Autobiographical Tracts , 79)

Two points are especially worth noting here: first, that in defending his reputation, Dee implicitly makes the distinction between the Renaissance magus, whose marvelous arts were “Naturally, Mathematically and Mechanically wrought and contrived” ( A Mathematical Preface ), and the wicked conjurer, who used evil powers; second, that by qualifying his defense chronologically (“ for the most part of my time ”), Dee admits to having slipped at least once.

In all probability Dee’s veiled admission concerns his activities over the period 1581–89 in the company of the alchemist and confidence-man Edward Kelly. Kelly, a young Worcestershireman whose perpetual black skullcap concealed the fact that his ears had been lopped off in a Lancaster pillory, convinced Dee that they could talk to spirits. A series of absurd seances followed (see Casaubon), and Dee was not cured of Kelly until the latter convinced him that they should hold both of their wives in common, an arrangement that resulted in destructive quarrels.


Dee’s career was otherwise not only respectable but distinguished. Early on he achieved international celebrity by lecturing in Paris about Euclid; and his reputation for broad learning, though sullied by the Kelly episode, remained strong throughout his life.


Queen Elizabeth* honored Dee with visits and (though belatedly) largesse, and he was cultivated by such notables as Sir Francis Walsingham, Peter Ramus, Sir Edward Dyer,* Sir Philip Sidney,* the earl of Leicester, and John Stow. Dee was a celebrated Hermetic philosopher and astrologer; he made notable contributions to mathematics, theory of science, geography, navigation, and astronomy; he was a bold philosophical apologist for British imperialism; he was an energetic advocate for reform in the calendar and in the preservation of British antiquities.

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