Dr John Dee is one of the most perplexing figures of the Elizabethan period: a classical scholar, a mystic and astrologer, and a mathematician — not a combination we’re used to seeing today. For Dee, as for many of his contemporaries, religion, mathematics and magic didn’t exist in separate categories. Indeed, as he makes clear in his Mathematicall Praeface to Euclid’s Elements, mathematics occupied a position somewhere between the natural and the supernatural:
A meruaylous newtralitie haue these thinges Mathematicall, and also a straunge participatiõ betwene thinges supernaturall, immortall, intellectual, simple and indiuisible: and thynges naturall, mortall, sensible, compounded and diuisible.
Dee enjoyed (or endured) a reputation in his lifetime as a magician — he may have been the inspiration for Shakespeare’s character Prospero — and it persists to this day in some circles. You can decide for yourselves how widely mathematics is still regarded as a department of the occult…