Jul 132013

Dee1  dee4

Today is the birthday of John Dee (1527) who was a Tudor era English mathematician, astronomer, astrologer, occultist, navigator, and consultant to Queen Elizabeth I. He devoted much of his life to the study of alchemy, divination and Hermetic philosophy. He was considered one of the most learned men of his age, and at one point is reputed to have amassed the largest library in England. He was a pious Christian but his incorporation of occult beliefs, astrology, attempts to commune with angels, and the like ran him afoul of the church many times.  Although his systems of thought were always complex, his life’s work moved in an arc from what the modern world often considers to be more acceptable and more practical investigations such as mathematics, astrology, and navigation, at the beginning, to much more esoteric explorations such as his various attempts to learn the universal language of creation from the angels to bring about the apocalyptic unity of humankind, towards the end. Although to the modern world he seems to have had fingers in many different pies, he considered that his work was an essential unity: many paths to the ultimate goal of finding transcendent truths.  It is impossible to describe all of his accomplishments in a simple blog post, so here is a sampling.

From 1542 to 1546 Dee attended St. John’s College, Cambridge. Because of his superior intellectual abilities he was made a founding fellow of Trinity College, where the clever stage effects he produced for a production of Aristophanes’ Peace procured him the reputation of being a magician that clung to him through life (it did not mean then what it means now to be a magician). In the late 1540s and early 1550s, he travelled in Europe, studying at Leuven and Brussels, and lecturing in Paris on Euclid. He studied with Gemma Frisius (who was a mathematician and instrument maker), and through him became a close friend of his former student, the cartographer Gerardus Mercator. Dee returned to England with a significant collection of mathematical and astronomical instruments.

On return in 1553 Dee took up the position of rector at Upton-upon-Severn parish in Worcestershire, in which position he had time to write.  In 1555, he was arrested and charged with “calculating” for having cast horoscopes of Queen Mary and Princess Elizabeth; the charges were expanded to treason against Mary. Dee appeared in the Star Chamber which was a very serious business.  At that time Star Chamber’s major role was to get rid of the queen’s enemies – real or imagined. It was a secret court with no witnesses (only written accusations), no formal indictments, and no real rules. If convicted of treason, Dee would probably have been executed. He managed to clear his name but he was then handed over to a bishop for a religious examination. He cleared himself again but he had acquired a reputation that would follow him all of his life.

When Elizabeth took the throne in 1558, Dee became her trusted adviser on astrological and scientific matters. From the 1550s through the 1570s, he served as an adviser to England’s voyages of discovery, providing technical assistance in navigation and ideological backing in the creation of a “British Empire,” a term that he was the first to use. In 1577, Dee published General and Rare Memorials pertayning to the Perfect Arte of Navigation, a work that set out his technical improvements on navigation along with his vision of an English maritime empire beginning with the New World.


In 1564, Dee wrote the Hermetic work Monas Hieroglyphica (“The Hieroglyphic Monad”), an exhaustive Cabalistic interpretation of a glyph of his own design (pictured), meant to express the mystical unity of all creation. He travelled to Hungary to present a copy personally to Maximilian II, Holy Roman Emperor. This work was highly valued by many of Dee’s contemporaries, but the loss of the secret oral tradition of Dee’s milieu makes the work difficult to interpret today.

By the early 1580s, Dee was growing dissatisfied with his progress in learning the secrets of nature and with his own lack of influence and recognition. He began to turn towards the supernatural as a means to acquire knowledge. Specifically, he sought to contact angels through the use of a “scryer” or crystal-gazer, which would act as an intermediary between Dee and the angels. Dee’s first attempts were not satisfactory to him, but, in 1582, he met Edward Kelley, who impressed him greatly with his abilities. Dee took Kelley into his service and began to devote all his energies to his supernatural pursuits. These “spiritual conferences” or “actions” were conducted with an air of intense Christian piety, always after periods of purification, prayer and fasting. Dee was convinced of the benefits they could bring to humankind. Kelley’s written work is remarkable for its sheer mass, its intricacy and its vividness. Dee maintained that the angels laboriously dictated several books to Kelley, some in a special angelic or Enochian language.  It is not entirely clear whether Kelley was a clever fraud.

In 1583, Dee met the visiting Polish nobleman Albert ?aski, who invited Dee to accompany him on his return to Poland. With some prompting by the angels, Dee was persuaded to go. Dee, Kelley and their families left for the Continent in September 1583, but ?aski proved to be bankrupt and out of favor in his own country. Dee and Kelley began a nomadic life in Central Europe, but they continued their spiritual conferences, which Dee recorded meticulously. He had audiences with Emperor Rudolf II in Prague Castle and King Stefan Batory of Poland, and attempted to convince them of the importance of his angelic communications.

Dee returned to England in 1589 to find his library mostly destroyed and his instruments stolen.  He took a position for a while as Warden (head) of a college in Manchester, but was not well received by the scholars there, so evenually he returned to London where he died in poverty in about 1608.

I had to think long and hard about a suitable recipe.  I suppose angel food cake would have worked. I considered, given his support for sea exploration, of shipboard food.  But even though I can bake ship’s biscuit, I don’t recommend it.  So I settled on a recipe from his era that is a cross between a rice pie and rice pudding: “Tart of Ryce” from The Good Huswife’s Jewell, a Tudor cookbook for the middle class published in 1596. Remember, though, that rice was an expensive delicacy in Dee’s day (not to mention the spices). This would have been a special treat.

I had a lot of difficulty converting the 16th century recipe for the modern cook, mainly because of the oddity of boiling rice then adding egg yolks and boiling some more.  Certainly by my tastes this would have made a nasty concoction as a base for a dish. This not at all like a modern rice pudding because there is no dairy involved. Elizabethans might have added more sugar; they had sweet tastes.


The original version:

To make a Tart of Ryce.

Boyle your Rice, and put in the yolkes of two or three Egges into the Rice, and when it is boyled, put it into a dish, and season it with Suger, Sinamon and Ginger, and butter, and the juyce of two or three Orenges, and set it on the fire againe.

My version:


2 cups dry white rice
¼ cup unsalted butter
3 egg yolks
½ cup sugar
1 ¼ tsp cinnamon
½ tsp ginger
2 oranges juiced


Preheat oven to 350°F

Boil the rice until it is soft but not mushy. When cooked, drain and add the butter in small chunks, stirring until it is melted. Let the mixture cool slightly.

Whisk the eggs, sugar, spices, and orange juice together and add to the rice and butter, mixing well.

Put the mixture into a well greased 10 inch round baking dish and bake for about 35 minutes or until the top is golden.

Can be served warm or cold.

Serves 6