Magical mystery man

The Queen's Conjuror: the science and magic of Dr Dee

Benjamin Woolley <em>HarperCollins, 320pp, £

Benjamin Woolley's speciality is poking holes in the membrane (never very sturdy anyway) that has historically held science and art apart. His previous biography, of Ada Lovelace, the unlikely daughter of Byron who also happened to be the world's first computer programmer, made much of the way in which fancy and imagination are simply the other side of fact and reason. The subtitle of Woolley's new book makes the point even more strongly. For Dr John Dee, the Elizabethan astrologer, mathematician, alchemist, scientist, philosopher, spiritualist and Protestant, the idea that some types of knowledge (the sort that you can count and plot) are sectioned off from others (the kind that you must feel and believe) would have scrambled every kind of sense.

That Renaissance men spread their interests far and wide is hardly news. We are used to the idea of Leonardo as both painter and aeronautical engineer, or Newton as both astronomer and astrologer. The man who could draw maps might also pluck herbs; the woman (and there were women, such as the Queen, whose energy and learning were the equal of their fathers' and brothers') who played the lute could also read Hebrew. But Dr Dee went even further in his quest for knowledge, and in so doing destroyed a career and reputation that had looked set to be the equal of Copernicus's or Galileo's.

Until middle age (he was born in 1527), Dee was doing very well. His extraordinary talent as a mathematician and astrologer brought him to the attention of Elizabeth I, who called him "my philosopher" and asked his advice about the timing of her coronation. Such was his success as an "intelligencer" in a world without subject boundaries that Dee managed to make a success of pretty much anything he turned his hand to. He interpreted dreams, counselled depressives, prescribed medicine, plotted new stars, drew maps, wrote consultation papers for the government and, typically for his time, tried hard to make gold out of stone.

All of these activities - framed by a relaxed and tolerant Protestant faith that exactly matched his sovereign's own - brought Dee respect and security, if not exactly fame and fortune. A series of small stipends allowed him to pursue his interests while building a stunning library of esoteric titles in the unlikely surroundings of Mortlake. His modest cottage (originally his mother's) became an essential stopping-off point for any thoughtful nobleman, scholar or cleric keen to explore the secrets of the universe. Even the Queen honoured Dee with unprecedented home visits, on one occasion arriving with a request to peer into his mysterious "magic mirror".

Where Dee went wrong was to allow his curiosity to take him into realms that lay beyond the bounds of respectable inquiry. Maintaining with impeccable logic that the best way to find out about God's grand design was to ask Him himself, Dee became fascinated by the idea of raising angels, spirits and other supernatural presences.

Such activities were too exotic for sluggish south London, and so Dee and his sidekick, Edward Kelley, and their assorted wives and children moved - appropriately enough - to Bohemia, where they set up home in Prague. There, supported by various local dignitaries, and well away from the prying eyes of central Europe's busy cardinals and nuncios, they continued to raise an odd selection of angels and fairies and a creature with the body of a lion and seven heads. The forthcoming advice was equally strange. On one occasion, an angel called Ben, who was a cubit high, commanded Kelley and Dee to sleep with each other's wives. Needless to say, Kelley had always been rather keen on Mrs Dee.

Woolley has written a fascinating account, not just of Dr John Dee, but of the complex social, intellectual and religious context that produced him. The only disappointment is that he has decided to offer no definitive opinion on what he thought was going on when Kelley and Dee raised spirits, often with witnesses present. Was this a kind of group hysteria? Was Kelley (who had already lost an ear as a punishment for fraud) duping Dee with clever props? Was Dee, whose account is the main one, simply a credulous fool?

Woolley's point, perhaps, is that Michael, Ben and the lion with seven heads made perfect sense to men who believed that the boundaries between this world and the next were full of gaps. In this case, applying our own interpretive grids (of psychosis or neurosis) would be to miss the point. And indeed, after reading this brilliant account of the Renaissance world picture, one is left wishing that just a little of that magic still remained.

Kathryn Hughes is writing a biography of Mrs Beeton