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Inventory no. 15449 - Article by JAB in 'The Ashmolean', December 1999

John Dee and his 'Holy Table'

The enigmatic figure of John Dee, Elizabethan mathematician and magus, has a widespread fascination, partly on account of the broad range of his interests. His relevance to the Museum of the History of Science is typically through practical mathematics, especially navigation, and mathematical instruments. Dee is especially remembered in the history of science for his preface to the first edition of Euclid in English, translated by Henry Billingsley and published in London in 1570. Dee's long preface names and explains all the branches of mathematics, not all of them recognisable as part of the discipline even in Dee's time, and claims that all are founded on the fundamental mathematical sciences of geometry and arithmetic. Each branch of mathematics can be represented as a science and, separately, an art: that is to say, each has both a base in mathematical learning and applications in the material world of the practical arts. Thus Dee's preface asserts the usefulness of mathematics, its secure grounding in the certainty of scientia, and its broad range of applicability in many areas of life. The preface is accompanied by a large diagram or 'groundplat', that sets out these relationships in a schematic manner.

A vision such as this underpins the impressive developments in practical mathematics that took place in the sixteenth century, one of whose outcomes is the growth of mathematical instrument design and manufacture in the period, that is well represented in the galleries of the Museum of the History of Science. Dee was exercised that these innovations, that would be important to the progress of navigation and other aspects of the practical arts, were largely a Continental phenomenon and that England was being left behind. He did his best to convince the English that they could not afford to remain outside this expertise and visited mathematicians in France and the Netherlands as part of his programme of improving mathematical expertise in England. His preface to Euclid was part of this programme.

But the material rewards from such a programme were slow, particularly when the investigator moved beyond the certainties of mathematics and began to struggle with the contingencies of the natural world. Traditional natural philosophy, a subject that in the sixteenth century was largely distinct from mathematics, offered insights into the causal relationships in nature and explanations of natural phenomena, but did not concern itself with the material improvement of man's estate. Practical mathematics, on the other hand, promised useful technical improvements in many areas of professional practice, but did not offer insights into the nature of things. Dee was one of those philosophers of the period who thought that these ideas could be combined, and that a true natural philosophy would yield both understanding and improvement.

One route, indeed short-cut, to this natural philosophy involved the recovery of the original understanding of the world that Adam had possessed in his state of grace in Eden. Adam's knowledge had been complete and intuitive and been perfectly expressed in the original language used before the confusion of tongues at Babel. The first person to write this down had been Enoch, so that the recovery of the Enochian script would be an important step towards the recovery of the true, Adamite natural philosophy. The language was that of the angels, who had not been subject to the Fall, so that one route to the perfect knowledge of nature, and the improvements that would follow from this, would be communication with angels.

To help in such a plan, Dee needed the assistance of a medium, his 'skryer' Edward Kelly, who managed to conjure up the appearance of the angel Uriel. Following the angel's instructions, Dee had his 'holy table' made in 1582 with the characters of the Enochial alphabet, to assist their future communication, when the angel could simply indicate the successive letters of his messages. Of course, this still left the messages to be translated into a language Dee could read. A marble copy of this table - the wooden original has not survived - was formerly in the Ashmolean Museum and is now among the displays of the Museum of the History of Science. It was probably made after an engraving published by Merric Casaubon in 1659. The marble table was presented to the Bodleian Library in 1750 by Richard Rawlinson, according to whom it had previously belonged to the astrologer William Lilly.

The connection between the surviving object and John Dee may thus be a somewhat distant one, but such is the fascination Dee continues to exert, that it is a popular object for modern visitors. It also reminds us that, as well as promoting the careful and diligent application of mathematics, Dee pursued a short-cut to enlightenment by trying to understand the language of the angels.

Jim Bennett

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