In 1555, John Dee was arrested for "calculating". According to his MacTutor biography:

At this time mathematics in England was considered to be equivalent to the possession of magical powers and Aubrey writes that the authorities had "... burned mathematical books for conjuring books."

In our society it seems astonishing that performing calculations could be taken to be magic. When and why did the association between mathematics and calculation begin, was it peculiar to England, and when and why did it end?

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    $\begingroup$ As an aside, my students believe my maths is black magic... $\endgroup$
    – user22
    Nov 7, 2014 at 6:03
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    $\begingroup$ Check out Thorndike's A History of Magic and Experimental Science (vol. 1 & vol. 2). I think there are more than two volumes, so you'll probably have to find hard-copies of the higher volumes in a library. Vol. 2 doesn't make it up to the 16th century. $\endgroup$
    – Geremia
    Nov 18, 2014 at 18:33
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    $\begingroup$ Related post on Skeptics: Did Augustine of Hippo warn Christians to beware mathematicians. $\endgroup$
    – nwr
    Jan 23, 2022 at 23:33

1 Answer 1


Surely it was not peculiar to England. Saint Augustine wrote "The good Christian should beware of mathematicians, and all those who make empty prophecies. The danger already exists that the mathematicians have made a covenant with the devil to darken the spirit and to confine man in the bonds of Hell" (De Genesi ad Litteram, Book II, xviii, 37, according to this source).

I think that from the IV century a.D. onwards mathematics - besides the bare minimum for everyday calculations - was especially associated with astrology, and therefore with magic. Johannes Kepler and Girolamo Cardano are the latest names which come into my mind, so probably it ended with the beginning of the XVII century.

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    $\begingroup$ hsm.stackexchange.com/questions/210/… $\endgroup$ Nov 7, 2014 at 8:51
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    $\begingroup$ But we have to consider the Renaissance revival of magic and Hermeticism and Renaissance neoplatonism : this "melting pot" was the background of John Dee mixture of magic and math. $\endgroup$ Nov 7, 2014 at 11:03
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    $\begingroup$ Related to this, Kepler's own mother was arrested for witchcraft in 1620. $\endgroup$
    – TooTone
    Nov 8, 2014 at 5:45
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    $\begingroup$ @TooTone - this can be less "relevant" than the fact that Kepler for some time in his life was forced to cast horoscopes to gain his life; and that was a "normal" practice for a mathematician... $\endgroup$ Nov 8, 2014 at 11:42
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    $\begingroup$ Didn't Kepler sell the results of his calculations to astrologers? I'm pretty sure Kepler et al. knew astrology was a joke, but that didn't prevent them making money off it. $\endgroup$
    – Geremia
    Nov 18, 2014 at 18:38

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