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on 21 August 2016
I read Woolley’s ‘The Herbalist’ whilst I was writing ‘A Certain Measure of Perfection’. Quite apart from the subject content, this is a more structured book and is a true reflection of the multifaceted life of Dr. Dee. It has to span a plethora of areas from Dee’s own history and how he came to be at Mortlake, his interactions with the Elizabethan Court circle and the ambiguity of his relationship with Marian Catholicism, his abilities in mathematics and astrology and his under-reported role in navigation and the ambitions of Empire.

However, most intriguing is his relationship with his skryer, Edward Kelley, one which would bring him into contact with spirits such as Uriel and Madimi, drag him to Poland and Bohemia and, ultimately, into breaking the Commandments, having all things in common.

The copious sourcing and referencing at the back make this a valuable contribution to study.

It left me wondering quite what Dee really thought about Talbot-Kelley as well as how Kelley cold have come to know so much even if he did ‘borrow’ some of the books Dee set apart from his Mortlake Library – which was to be ransacked and sold off during their Central European sojourns. [There may be one pertinent piece of archival material which has not been examined here.] It also left me thinking about the extent to which Dee merges with his alter-ego archetype of the fallen Renaissance Man, Dr Faustus, and the manner in which the obsession with the alchemical creation of gold to fill state coffers - even at the expense of further debt - prefigures our own global debt crisis.
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on 27 June 2017
Extremely well researched and written, but too dry for me. It is more like a history book and I prefer to feel empathy with the characters. It is all a matter of taste but I was disappointed as I found this book to have been built up to be something it was not.
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on 1 July 2017
Fascinating and obscure. A very strange story of the first stirrings of scientific enquiry within the magical and the mysterious world of an Elizabethan enigma, the basis of Marlowe's Doctor Faustus and Shakespeares Prospero. well illustrated.
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on 12 April 2017
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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 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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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 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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