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4.3 out of 5 stars
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VINE VOICEon 9 January 2007
It would be very difficult to write a dull biography of John Dee. He was perhaps the archetypal Renaissance man; astronomer, astrologer, explorer and mathematician, he was a friend of Elizabeth I but died in poverty, reviled for his spiritualism.

Based on Dee's private diaries, Woolley's biography is filled with fascinating detail, not only of his experiments, but of Elizabethan court life and society. Thorough without being tedious, this is always eminently readable. And - hurrah! - it has proper citations, an extensive bibliography and a decent index, thus proving once and for all that this kind of slightly populist history does not have to abandon all proper academic convention.

If I have one misgiving, it's that the central, apparently driving force for much of Dee's life, his relationship with Edward Kelly, is under-analysed. Certainly, the facts about Kelly are few enough; but aside from a single, speculative mention of some passing evidence for Kelly's being an apostate priest, no consideration is given to his origins. More importantly, there is little comment on the true nature of the spiritual 'actions' undertaken by the two men. Did Kelly genuinely believe in his visions? And what was his hold on Dee, that he could pursuade him to abandon his morals so far as to exchange wives?

This aside, the book is excellent. In the twenty-first century, we have forgotten that the separation between science and magic is a very recent thing. Woolley takes us straight into the mind of a man for whom they were identical. Recommended.
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on 12 October 2008
I agree with one of the other reviewers in that the book seems to aim at a populist audience but then veers towards being an academic book. I do not think the book analyses the relationship between Dee and Keeley enough and even more importantly is the way it fails to deal properly with the "actions" (meaning sessions summoning spirits). It is certainly a detailed catalogue of the sessions themselves but we never are informed whether Dee saw any spirits himself of did he rely on Kelley totally. Secondly, did Kelley see the spirits or was he making it up? There is no discussion of this at all and I think the book would have benefitted greatly from such a discussion.

On the plus side, the parts of the book dealing with the religious and political situation which form the background to the story of Dr Dee are very interesting as is the end of the book where more analysis is attempted.

I'd not avoid this book because it is a biography of a very unique Elizabethan figure and is well written in many places. However be warned that the middle section largely reads like a diary account of Dee's sessions with no reflection of what he felt or even speculation about this.
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on 22 August 2014
Benjamin Woolley writes absorbingly about the truly fascinating life of Dr Dee; intellectual, thinker, bibliophile, philosopher, mystic, prophet, mathematician and scientist who frequently served the power brokers attempting to sustain the ascendancy of England under Elizabeth I. He offers a panoramic view of the death pains suffered by western and central Europe's believers in magic and astrology; who had long-based their conjectured beliefs in earth’s central position within a fixed heavenly firmament; as opposed to the birth pains and Renaissance reason of a new European age based on sound logic, mathematics and pragmatic observation. Dee, like the very age he was born into, was himself caught wandering between old practices and new exciting sciences, and his life here is sketched rather well. I enjoyed all the detail offered (some rather scandalous) concerning Dee’s private life and his conjuring of ‘angels,’ with Benjamin Wooley’s narrative standard remaining high and extremely readable throughout. It pleased me to see that this volume looks genuinely based upon considerable research that the author has so obviously mastered. Splendid.
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on 22 October 2013
This is a good read for people interested in Dee and Kelley and there contact with the angels although the author bangs on a bit at the beginning and tries to be funny but really isn't.But it was the scrying sessions i was interested in and found this part very entertaining.
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VINE VOICEon 25 November 2011
On page 38 of this book there is a quote by the 17th century historian John Aubrey: "In those dark times, astrologer, mathematician and conjuror were accounted the same things". This encapsulates the contradictory nature of Doctor John Dee very well. He demonstrates amply the contradictions of the Elizabethan era, the boundary between Medieval magic and enlightenment science and rationality. The book goes into what was for me rather excessive detail on the seances (or "actions") in which Dee took part, usually through the medium of the sinister Edward Kelley. But there were many interesting passages about Dee's interest in the latest explorations of America, astronomy and calendar reform, which show that he was a polymath of considerable achievements. He wrote a paper on calendar reform for Elizabeth's government after Pope Gregory's promulgation of the revised calendar in Catholic countries in 1582; but was also consulted by Robert Dudley on the most auspicious day for Elizabeth's coronation in 1558, based more on astrology than practical scheduling issues.

Dee led a colourful life, being married three or four times and having a lot of children (the book seems a litle inconsistent in places over the names of his wives and number of children), reverted from oppressed Protestant to Catholic oppressor under Queen Mary and may have been employed by Walsingham as part of his network of intelligencers. He also made a long journey across central and eatsren Europe in the 1580s after England became too hot for him and returned to find that the attitude towards alchemy and mysticism was beginning to change (though it is worth remembering that even the great Isaac Newton made experiments in alchemy later).

In sum, a lot of fascinating stuff about the Elizabethan era, but the detail in the lengthy scenes involving spirits, etc. became boring for me after a while.
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on 10 October 2013
An excellent read, I now understand a lot more on Dr John Dee. Well written book, and I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested the work of Dr Dee.
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on 12 November 2012
This is an extremely interesting book if, like me, you enjoy history. I read a chapter every night and I always look forward to the next one.
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on 1 February 2014
Having read descriptions of this and other books about the mysterious Tudor 'conjuror' Dr John Dee, I finally opted for this one. I was initially worried that it might be too academic or dry but within the first few pages, my fears were dispelled. The author has researched his subject meticulously but still written it in a very accessible way so that the reader is able to get a very intriguing insight into a person now largely forgotten and written out of Tudor history.

Although to modern sensibilities, the idea of conversing with angels seems ridiculous, through the book you get a real sense of why this was potentially dangerous and very believable to the people of the time. What I found particularly fascinating was how mathematics was seen as suspicious, 'calculating' in the worst sense.

If you're at all interested in other aspects of the Elizabethan era, this book will not dissapoint.
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on 15 February 2011
This book is a great example of why i enjoy reading history so much. Its exciting and easy to read and the author has written in a narrarative form which makes this complex subject easy to understand.
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on 25 August 2011
An excellent insight into the 16th century, and a very interesting man. Very easy to read, and highly recommended for anyone who enjoys historical factual books.
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