John Dee, the ‘Mathematicall Praeface’ and the English School of Mathematics.


The 13th of July was the birth date for John Dee, one of those historical figures who seems ready-made for dopey historical thrillers as he combined the religious disputes of his time — the reigns of Queen Mary I and of Queen Elizabeth I — with astrology and astronomy and mathematics and possibly espionage, with navigation and the early days of England’s expansion to a world power; he even gets into such fascinating-to-the-fans issues like calendar reform.

The Renaissance Mathematician does him some justice by here writing a biographical sketch that focuses on, first, what he can actually be shown to have done (as opposed to the many and really too-far-reaching conspiracies that can touch on him), particularly in turning England from a mathematics desert to a place where people like Isaac Newton, John Wallis (you know his work in the &infty; symbol), or William Oughtred (of slide rule fame, as well as a pioneer in using “x” to symbolize multiplication) could thrive.

The Renaissance Mathematicus

I have written about John Dee several times in the past but always in reaction to someone making stupid statements about him so I thought that today on his birthday, he was born 13 June July 1527, I would write something positive without prior provocation.

John_Dee_Ashmolean

The world into which Dee was born was one in which mathematics did not play a very significant role and this was particularly true of England, which in this sense lagged severely behind the continent. During the High Middle Ages the European universities virtually ignored mathematics although the introductory degree was theoretically based on the seven liberal arts including the quadrivium consisting of arithmetic, geometry, music (theory of proportions) and astronomy. These subjects were only treated in a very superficial manner and there were no dedicated chairs for the study of mathematics.

This situation began to change in the fifteenth century at the humanist universities…

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