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?

  • 4
    $\begingroup$ As an aside, my students believe my maths is black magic... $\endgroup$ – user22 Nov 7 '14 at 6:03
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ 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 '14 at 18:33

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.

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ hsm.stackexchange.com/questions/210/… $\endgroup$ – José Hdz. Stgo. Nov 7 '14 at 8:51
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ 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. $\endgroup$ – Mauro ALLEGRANZA Nov 7 '14 at 11:03
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Related to this, Kepler's own mother was arrested for witchcraft in 1620. $\endgroup$ – TooTone Nov 8 '14 at 5:45
  • $\begingroup$ @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... $\endgroup$ – Mauro ALLEGRANZA Nov 8 '14 at 11:42
  • $\begingroup$ 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 '14 at 18:38

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.