Literature & Scholarship

John Dee in Rudolfine Prague

Patrick Leigh Fermor’s evocative account of his walk from Rotterdam to Hungary.

In his A Time of Gifts Patrick Leigh Fermor conjures up a melancholic image of Rudolfine Prague and its fascination with the occult. Emperor Rudolf II: “Moody and unbalanced, he lived in an atmosphere of neo-platonic magic, astrology and alchemy. His addiction to arcane practices certainly darkened his scientific bent.”

Johannes Kepler nourished Rudolf’s and later Wallenstein’s interest in astrology “with an ironic shrug.”

John Dee, charlatan, mathematician, and wizard, fled to the city where he basked in the attention and support of a credulous emperor and aristocracy:

As well as astrology, an addiction to alchemy had sprung up, and an interest in the Kabala. The town became a magnet for charlatans. The flowing robes and long white beard of John Dee, the English mathematician and wizard, created a great impression in Central Europe. He made the rounds of credulous Bohemian and Polish noblemen and raised spirits by incantation in castle after castle. He arrived in Central Europe after being stripped of his fellowship at Cambridge.*

*The cause of his downfall was a public demonstration of the device by which Trygaeus, the hero of The Peace of Aristophanes, flew to the crest of Olympus to beg the Gods to end the Peloponnesian War. As this vehicle was a giant dung-beetle from Mount Etna which the protagonist refuelled with his own droppings on the long ascent, the exhibition may well have caused a stir. I would like to have seen it.