The rumbling you can hear in the background is the HISTSCI HULK playing skittles with some skyscrapers. He’s all riled up and wants to place a big green foot in Carole Jahme’s butt and propel her into publishing purgatory. What has Ms Jahme done to provoke the wrath of the big green HISTSCI destroyer? Damon Albarn’s so-called Opera Dr Dee is being revived in London and Ms Jahme wrote an introductory preview posted last Monday on the Guardian’s website. This preview is unfortunately a mixture of exaggerations, half-truths and fantasies that is a blot on the Guardian’s reputation for good journalism. Now it could be argued in her defence that several of the false claims made in her article are also made in the video interview with the director of the piece Rufus Norris and the Public Astronomer at the Royal Observatory Marek Kukula at the head of the article and that they are also to blame for this piece of shoddy journalism. However there is a thing in writing in general and in journalism in particular that seems to be going out of fashion called fact checking, something that Ms Jahme apparently can’t be bothered to waste her time on. I did consider letting the big green monster loose on her but didn’t fancy the job of cleaning up the carnage so I’ve decided to expose some of Ms Jahme’s worst history of science sins myself.
Before I deal with any detail from the article I would like to address the premise given by Norris for the opera itself. He, and Albarn in previous interviews, create the impression that Dee is somehow a neglected figure, particularly as a mathematicus (which is what he was), I beg to differ. There are at least eight monographs that deal with large parts or the whole of Dee’s biography as well as several monographs that deal with wider contexts of Elizabethan culture that have Dee as a central figure. A couple of these works deal explicitly with Dee as a Renaissance scientific figure. There is also a volume of academic papers on Dee as well as academic annotated editions of his principle works. Already in the 1930s, as modern history of science was beginning to emerge, historians of astronomy, geography and navigation devoted quite a considerable amount of attention to Dee. There are articles on Dee in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the Dictionary of Scientific Biography, the New Oxford dictionary of Biography and in the Internet at MacTutor and on Wikipedia, some of them quite substantial. I do not think Dee has been neglected, in fact I can’t think of another scientific figure of his stature who has been covered in anything approaching the expansive extant to which Dee has been. This brings us to the next problem, what is Dee’s scientific stature. Just as it is easy to underestimate Dee’s importance and influence in the development of the mathematical sciences in late sixteenth century England it is also possible to overestimate them and in my opinion both in the video and the article this is done. Dee played a role as a teacher and facilitator along with Robert Recorde, Leonard Digges, Thomas Digges, Thomas Harriot, Edward Wright and others in introducing the mathematical sciences into Britain but he made no original contributions to the mathematical sciences himself. He is not a Kepler, Galileo, Descartes or Huygens and he is certainly not one of the giants on whom shoulders Newton stood as claimed by Norris in the interview. Dee is an important figure but he is no more important than at least a dozen of his contemporaries who have received not even ten per cent of the scholarly attention that Dee has.
Now to Ms Jahme who tells us that:
Dee was a larger-than-life magus figure. He was probably the inspiration for Christopher Marlowe’s character Doctor Faustus, Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist and Shakespeare’s Prospero.
We’ve been here before as the opera was premiered in Manchester but it is worth re-examining these claims. Marlow’s Faustus is of course based on the real life German magus Dr Johann Georg Faust whose fictionalised life story was a sixteenth century best seller. Ben Johnson’s The Alchemist is a satire on alchemy and alchemists in general, of which Dee was only one of many, and whilst Dee is not name-checked in the piece his medium Edward Kelly is. The claim that Dee is Prospero is old and there is no evidence to support it. Frances Yates one of the real experts for sixteenth century alchemy and magic thinks that Prospero is Giordano Bruno but addresses the claim for Dee pointing out that Dee and Bruno share many key characteristics. I think Prospero is probably a composite figure with elements of Bruno, Dee, Faust, Kelly, Robert Fludd, Cornelius Agrippa, Oswald Croll and a dozen other less well-known contemporary hermetic figures. Instantly identifying Prospero with Dee is in my opinion an act of hagiography and a failure to recognise just how widespread hermeticism was at the end of the sixteenth and beginning of the seventeenth centuries.
Ms Jahme informs us that:
Dee taught Raleigh and Drake “the perfect art of navigation” for calculating longitude from lunar distance observation, which helped facilitate the establishment of the British Empire.
Dee was certainly one of the mathematical practitioners teaching navigation and cartography to English sea captains in the sixteenth century along with Thomas Digges, Harriot, Wright and others but he did not teach Drake or Raleigh. I don’t actually know who, if anyone, taught Drake but if it had been Dee I’m sure I would have read about it in my studies and I haven’t. Raleigh and his ship’s captains were of course instructed not by Dee but by his friend Thomas Harriot who even accompanied the ill fated expedition to establish a colony on Roanoke Island in Virginia, as a sort of scientific officer. Dee instructed Martin Frobisher and other captains of the Muscovy Company in their attempts to discovery either a North-West or a North-East passage to China.
There is more to come Ms Jahme continues with the following:
Infamous in his lifetime, Dee was a risk-taker and exceptional scholar. With his eye on the court he rejected the comfort of university tenure at Cambridge, preferring to collate and categorise his data independently. A serious bibliophile, his private library became the largest in Britain. Dee charted the movement of the planets and in his early career toured Europe giving talks on astronomy – a form of science outreach that was entirely new.
We have here four claims of which two are true, one shows a complete lack of understanding of sixteenth century intellectual culture and one is complete rubbish. The first sentence and the statement about Dee’s love of books are both correct. The statement about university tenure is quite frankly bizarre. It seems to assume that Mediaeval Cambridge was like a modern university. Dee had a fellowship at Trinity but after graduating MA he left the university, as he apparently did not wish to study for a doctorate. Accepting a life as fellow and under-reader in Greek would have been tantamount to giving up before he started, not the comfort of university tenure but a dead end in badly paid futility. However it is the final sentence that this time takes the prize for wrongness. Jahme has exaggerated and misinterpreted a moderately false statement of Norris’ and made a real mess out of it.
In the period of his life that he dedicated to the study of the mathematical sciences Dee made three trips to the European continent; these were not lecture but study tours. Such tours were common practice in the High Middle Ages and the Renaissance with young scholars travelling from university to university to study manuscripts not available in their home university libraries and to meet, study under and discuss or dispute with other scholars. Norris says that this was unique for an English mathematical practitioner at this time and although rare it was not unique. Henry Savile, who would later use his fortune to found the chairs for geometry and astronomy in Oxford, is a contemporary of Dee’s who also undertook such a study tour of the continent. Norris also claims that this was a lecture tour and it is this that Jahme falsely makes unique. On his first trip of only a few months in 1547 Dee studied in Louvain under Gemma Frisius and Gerald Mercator. He returned to Louvain for further studies in 1548 and staid until 1550. Here I would like to correct another of Norris’ false statements. He claims in the video interview that Dee’s range of subjects mathematics, astronomy, astrology, geography, cartography, navigation and history was unusually wide and unique. This is simply not true. This is the normal range of study of the Renaissance mathematicus and is exactly what Dee would have studied with Frisius and Mercator in Louvain. When he left Louvain Dee went to Paris were he did indeed lecture, not on astronomy, but Euclidian geometry. Again this is not out of the ordinary, the visiting scholar demonstrating his own learning to his hosts, nothing new or unusual here. His third trip abroad in 1562 to 1564 was to visit other scholars such as Gesner in Switzerland or the Italian mathematician Commandino with whom he published the translation of a Greek mathematical text.
He was opposed to a tiered system of education where those without classical scholarship were held back, so when his translation of Euclid’s mathematics was complete he made the arcane information accessible to non-university-taught artisans and craftsmen. In his General and Rare Memorials Pertaining to the Perfect Arte of Navigation, he advocated the usefulness of mathematics as a “Publick Commodity”.
In the above quote Jahme has got something right for a change. Dee, following Robert Recorde, is one of the founders of the so-called English School of Mathematics; a group of mathematical practitioners who made their knowledge available in the vernacular. However Dee, unlike Digges for example, also wrote extensively in Latin for an educated public. The paragraph does however contain one serious error. Although Dee wrote his very famous preface for the first English translation of Euclid’s Elements, the translation itself was not by Dee but by Henry Billingsley.
We now come to what I regard as the weirdest claim made by Jahme:
His students include Francis Bacon, promoter of the “scientific method”, and the astronomer Thomas Diggs, who believed the universe to be infinite.
Thomas Digges was not only Dee’s student but also his foster son and he was indeed the first modern astronomer to propose an infinite universe. Although Dee was instrumental in spreading knowledge of Copernican heliocentricity in England he does not appear to have been a totally convinced Copernican. Digges, however, was a totally convinced Copernican who also published the first ever partial translation into the vernacular of De revolutionibus. Now I wouldn’t claim to be an expert on either Dee or Bacon but I have read an awful lot about and by both of them and I have never ever come across the claim that Bacon was a student of Dee’s. If we look at this rationally it also seems highly unlikely. Dee was absolutely convinced that mathematics was the most important discipline of all and was the number one propagator of the works of Copernicus in Britain. Bacon rejected both mathematics and heliocentricity so it does no appear very likely that he was Dee’s student. I will happily admit that I haven’t really researched this properly but a quick search revealed that Dee mentions Bacon just once in his diary. The then 21 year old accompanied somebody else who was visiting Dee in Mortlake in 1583. Bacon never mentions Dee at all in his voluminous writings! I did stumble across one website that actually claimed the fact of Dee’s absence from Bacon’s writings as proof that Bacon was Dee’s disciple! On that basis I could prove literally anything!
It is to the enigmatic Dr John Dee that we must look for the origins of Britain’s contribution to modern Western science, yet Dee has been largely left out of the history books – why?
Both of the claims made in the quote above are simply false and two wrongs definitively do not make a right. This post is already over long but there are two short claims made by Ms Jahme that I wish to include before I close my demolition of her pitifully bad piece of history of science journalism. She writes:
In 1600, astronomer Giordano Bruno was burnt at the stake for daring to say the sun was a star.
And a few lines further on:
Within Dee’s lifetime Copernicus’s sun-centric theories would be strengthened by Galileo’s discoveries.
Giordano Bruno was not an astronomer and he was burnt for his religious opinions and not for his cosmological ones. The reports are not totally in agreement but Dee died in either 1608 or 1609. Galileo first published his telescopic discoveries in 1610 so not in Dee’s lifetime.
It would appear that one qualifies as a history of science writer these days when one is good at making things up so I’ve decided to stop being a pedant and to go with the flow. My next work will be the sensational discovery that Elizabeth the Virgin Queen was in reality Renaissance magus John Dee in drag! Remember you read it here first.