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On Frances Yates

Frances Yates died on September 29, 1981, at the age of eighty-one. The following was given at the memorial meeting at the Warburg Institute last January.

It is a comfort to me to think that the majority of those here assembled to pay tribute to the memory of Dame Frances Yates knew her, as she was in life. For how could I possibly describe her presence, that sibyline figure with the leonine head, those shining eyes and expressive features which would look in turn visionary or kindly, eager or gloomy, but never, never arrogant or affected. We remember that almost childlike unworldliness which yet went together with a soundly practical common sense in her judgment of people and situations, her profound concern for her colleagues and her students, and that good-humored laughter with which she reacted to the follies and pedantries of academic life.

Her intellectual formation was as unique as was her personality. Her father’s position as a chief naval constructor necessitated frequent moves from shipyard to shipyard, and so she had little regular schooling. Instead she was mainly taught by her two remarkable elder sisters, Hannah, who was fourteen years older, and Ruby, more than twelve. The Yateses were certainly an unusual family, in which things of the mind counted for much more than worldly concerns. Hannah became a novelist of no mean gifts; Ruby, who had a talent for painting, became a missionary teacher in South Africa and described her dedicated life there in a book entitled A Garland for Ashes. A brother, James, ten years older than Frances, was killed in the war late in 1915. On our last visit to her house in Claygate my wife and I found Frances busy sorting the letters which her brother had written home week by week throughout his school and university years, and she remarked that the age reflected in these letters seemed to her as remote as that of Elizabethan England.

Frances took an external BA in French at University College* and though her MA was internal, her mind was never ground in the academic mill. I always attributed the complete originality of her approach to this happy escape, and I know that she thought so too. Not that she had not fully mastered all the techniques of research. Her first book, which she published at the age of thirty-four, the biography of John Florio, subtitled “The Life of an Italian in Shakespeare’s England,” certainly succeeded in what she described in the preface as “an attempt at reconstructing, from material collected from many and varied sources, the life and character of Florio as contemporaries saw him.”

Reading with the knowledge of hindsight we can discern in these modest words the first adumbration of her aims as a historian. She saw the past in terms of living human beings rather than of impersonal forces, and it was the way people and events were reflected in the minds of contemporaries that she strove to reconstruct through her indefatigable labors. What counted most for her in this work of reconstruction were human contacts and relationships, the network of friendships and hostilities that makes up the living fabric of culture, and it was in following one of Florio’s contacts that she found the theme which was to become decisive for her life and work. I am of course speaking of Giordano Bruno, whom Florio met in Oxford in the spring of 1583, and whom she describes as “this slender little man with the large dreamy eyes and the chestnut-brown hair.” Florio figures in Bruno’s Cena de le ceneri (The Ash Wednesday Supper), recounting Bruno’s clash with two Oxford pedants, ostensibly over the interpretation of the Copernican theory.

I say ostensibly, for the more Frances tried to penetrate this turbulent story in order to reconstruct the way it may have been read by contemporaries, the less could she accept the conventional reading of the clash as a conflict between a champion of modern science and medievalizing bigots. She had formed the plan of publishing a translation of this crucial text, but evidently felt hampered by the complete isolation in which she worked. In 1936 she put an advertisement into the Times Literary Supplement about her project. This brought a response from Dorothea Waley Singer, the wife of Charles Singer, the historian of science, a response which was decisive for her life and for ours. For the Singers invited her to their house at Par together with Edgar Wind, who brought her into the circle of the Warburg Institute, then recently arrived from Hamburg. The experience of meeting this small band of refugee scholars who had brought Aby Warburg’s library and ideas to these shores must have struck a chord in her, and her loyalty to this Institute never wavered, as she so nobly showed in her will.

In some of her contributions to the first numbers of our journal she set out her new interpretations of Giordano Bruno’s attitudes and aims. She argued that the Oxford pedants he attacked were not the medievalizers but the antischolastic grammarians, and that for him the doctrine of Copernicus was a Pythagorean mystery which pointed the way to a spiritual renewal. This lapsed Dominican who had been sent to Elizabethan England with a letter from the king of France was revealed as the champion of the movement of the “politiques” who hoped to heal the religious divisions of Europe by opposing both the Protestant radicals and the Catholic fanatics.

It was clearly incumbent on her to trace the ramifications and manifestations of this movement. This she did in her monumental study, The French Academies of the Sixteenth Century, which came out in 1947 but is reported as complete in the first annual report of this Institute, covering the year 1940-1941.

In this great book, which testifies to her staggering erudition, she gave a further indication of how she conceived of her work as a historian. I refer to the opening paragraph of the tenth chapter, which I had rather quote than paraphrase:

The political and religious history of the sixteenth century in France is usually written from the point of view of its disunity; the wearisome story of the campaigns of the religious wars has been told again and again, and the fanatical hatred animating the opposing parties has been painted in the darkest colours. Such a picture is a true reflection of the grim events which actually occurred. Nevertheless, history as it actually occurs is not quite the whole of history, for it leaves out of account the hopes which never materialised, the attempts to prevent the outbreak of wars, the futile efforts to solve differences by conciliatory methods. Hopes such as these are as much a part of history as the terrible events which falsify them, and in trying to assess the influence of their times upon idealists and lovers of peaceful activities such as our poets and academicians the hopes are perhaps as important as the events.

No wonder that hard-headed historians, reading such words, did not quite know at first how to place her. No Board of Studies, as far as I know, has ever introduced “hopes” among the options, and so her pursuit of hopes and dreams seemed to place her outside the pale of orthodox studies. But no wonder either that, after thirty more years of unceasing work among the texts and documents, she was recognized as the pathfinder she was; her books had made her famous, she had vindicated her faith in the historical importance of dreams and dreamers for the course of civilization.

Dreams are notoriously hard to explain to the wide-awake mind; their manifestations are elusive and fragile, like the wings of a butterfly. It was precisely here that Frances Yates found she could profit from her contact with the Warburgians, who had always urged the relevance of visual evidence for the study of cultural history. She gave a new emphasis and a new twist to this approach by concentrating on these ephemeral images which only the historical imagination can reconstruct, the pageants and festivals, the masques and ballets, designed to entertain, and to in-still in the minds of the mighty a glimpse of higher values, of possibilities beyond the reach of conventional argument. She was to make these mute images yield their secret message, as she did in The French Academies and in the dazzling interpretation of the Valois tapestries. She paid equal attention to the verbal images of rhetoric, propaganda, and poetry of the Elizabethan age in which she studied the dream of a world empire that had been adapted and sometimes perverted by the newly emergent nation-states but still held the promise for war-torn Europe of a return to chivalry and noble deeds.

Since I had come to the Institute early in 1936 I must have been there at the time of her first visits, but frankly I do not remember them, nor do I have very vivid memories of her from the time when she had joined the commune of Warburg scholars evacuated to the Leanear Denham and had taken charge of the Institute’s publications.

It was different when I returned after the war late in 1945. At that time the Institute was housed in South Kensington, in the former senate and library premises in the Imperial Institute Building, and there I was privileged to experience the triumph of mind over matter. There was a self-service canteen in the dark and dismal basement which served some of the vilest food on offer even in those days of austerity. Not all my colleagues braved these horrors of dubious mincemeat, soggy greens, and mashed potatoes made of “pom,” but I do not think that Frances Yates or Rudi Wittkower ever noticed what they were eating. I did, but I often sat down with them and sometimes with Charles Mitchell at one of the long tables to listen to their inspiring conversations. The depressing surroundings were turned as if by magic into one of those academies which were the topic of Frances’s research.

The Warburg Institute never was, and I trust will never be, a mutual-admiration society. We did not necessarily agree with each other, and in those early years Frances had to submit to a good deal of criticism, especially from the instinctive skepticism of Fritz Saxl and the more measured probing of Gertrud Bing, who always read her drafts and returned them with her polite but unsparing comments. Frances was to pay a very moving tribute to the role of this catalyst in the preface to her Art of Memory.

But though she was always ready to accept criticism in matters of detail and presentation, she generally stood her ground when it came to larger issues. Rather than give up her interpretation she would go on rooting among the sources until she found another text or image that seemed to her to clinch the argument. There can be few of us who have not occasionally felt a little giddy when trying to follow her reading of the evidence, but in the course of the years I have come to think that there is a quality in her historical intuition which we disregard at our peril. I mean the rapport she had established with the people of the past. She had always been a reader of primary rather than of secondary sources and though her disregard of established views would make one pause, one had to concede that she had come to understand the mentality of past ages with greater immediacy than most of us.

When, in discussing Baïf’s Academy, she writes, for instance, that “all hope is not lost of finding some healing way of meditation with which to soothe the agony of Europe’s soul” we sense that she is giving voice to an authentic feeling which contemporaries could not have dared to formulate quite in that way but which they would have recognized as their own. If she appeared on occasion to dig in her heels under attack it was that she felt it her duty to lend a voice to such hopes and longings of a tormented age.

The mad and maddening writings of Giordano Bruno still challenged her understanding and demanded that she should appreciate his dream of supernatural powers to be achieved through spiritual techniques. Once more her interest in the visual image bore fruit, for that art of memory which Bruno taught in England turned out to rely on the manipulation of such images, a tradition expounded by Frances in what is perhaps the most original of all her original books. She found this art to be linked in Bruno’s mind and practice with the Great Art, the Ars Magna of the thirteenth-century Catalan philosopher and mystic Ramón Lull, with which she wrestled in years of truly heroic study. But for her the turning point came when it dawned on her quite suddenly, as she wrote, that the long-sought clue to the enigma of Bruno was to be found in the esoteric writings attributed to Hermes Trismegistus. To these pseudo-Egyptian texts, which were regarded with awe in the Renaissance, she was to add that other mystical current, the Jewish Cabbala, as another source of insights.

What attracted her in these newly found trends was again the element of hope, the hope cherished by some of the best minds of the age, of healing the agonies of a divided Europe by rising beyond dogma to a higher truth, the hope which made Bruno write that “true religion should be without controversy and dispute.” His vision of the dawn of a coming age of the sun blended with the old dreams of a beneficent world ruler. Frances Yates became increasingly absorbed in the various manifestations of this current, but she made no concessions herself to occultism of any form. In her interpretation, which she represented in her riveting book, The Rosicrucian Enlightenment, it was the rational scientific revolution of the seventeenth century which reaped the harvest of these fantastic dreams.

But while science was in need of rationality, poetry was not. “Looking back, it seems to me,” she once wrote, “that I always had behind me or within the thought of Shakespeare.” She had followed her book on Florio with one on Love’s Labour’s Lost, but it did not satisfy her. In her essay on “Elizabeth as Astraea” she hinted that the key to Shakespeare might be found in the very tension between the optimistic imagery of the age and its terrible realities. No wonder that she scrutinized the tradition of Hermeticism and that of the art of memory for further clues toward an understanding of Shakespeare’s mind and thought. In Theatre of the World she tried to forge such links through the figure of John Dee, magician and Vitruvian, and through Robert Fludd, whose memory theater she wished to connect with Shakespeare’s Globe. But only when she was invited to give the Lord Northcliffe Lectures in 1974 did she venture into the open in her interpretation of the last plays, which she sees as manifestations of the hopes aroused by what she calls the Elizabethan revival under James I, another hope cruelly dispelled by the death of Prince Henry and the reorientation of British policy. In her last book, The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age, she wished to give yet further substance to that vision of a reformist movement based on the Christian Cabbala.

It would be hubris and folly for me to attempt an evaluation of any of these works or indeed even of any of her individual themes and theories. What I want to bring out in conclusion are the moral qualities of her personality, qualities which must surely figure prominently in any future study of her life and work. The first is her uncompromising sense of values, the second her intellectual courage.

I have said enough about the first to have made it clear that hers was not the cool detachment of the academic historian who tries to chronicle past events for their own sake. She made no secret of who were her favorites and who her villains. One need only look at the moving last chapters of her book on the Valois tapestries to find her sympathies and hatred splendidly engaged, as when she castigates the cold egotism and overweening vanity of the impossible duke of Anjou, or read in her Shakespearean lectures how bitterly she regretted the role England played or refused to play in the tragedy of the Winter King. Cruelty, intolerance, bigotry, and pedantry were responsible for what she sometimes called the “lost moment in history.”

When I mentioned her courage I was thinking not only of her willingness to make a stand for any value she believed in, but of that intrepid determination with which she threw herself into problems of research that had daunted all her predecessors and colleagues. No doubt her intelligence, her independence, and her immense capacity for work gave her confidence. I remember that when she became interested in Lullian or pseudo-Lullian astrology she told me that there was an unpublished fourteenth-century manuscript in Catalan in the British Museum which she would have to read. She never had formally studied medieval Catalan, and the book was in a difficult script, but being Frances she plowed through the whole codex to gain a better picture of what Lullian astrology was like.

Not that she would claim to have mastered it in one go. It was part of her unconventional courage that she was never afraid of telling the reader of her failures to understand a particular text or doctrine. She wanted neither to abandon her quest nor to pretend to know more than she did. She wholly lacked false modesty or false pride. In the characteristic passage from the final pages of her astounding study of the art of Ramón Lull, you will again hear her authentic voice, and though it is not quite short I should like to read it:

This article has concluded nothing, for it is not an end but a beginning. The Lullian Art still looms in mystery like some huge unclimbed mountain. One might call the present effort a reconnaissance expedition searching out new routes for some future attempt on the summit. Only a beginning has been made at trying to clear the entrance to some long forgotten tracks of ascent and descent and it would be futile to speculate on the nature of the mountain as a whole until these have been further pursued. They lead into country much of which is unexplored, the mass of the unpublished works of Ramón Lull, and the mass of his published works which is almost equally unexplored from the points of view here suggested. The task of going through all this material is one of extreme difficulty, labour and complexity, needing expert knowledge in many fields, and I publish the present attempt at mapping out some of the routes in the hope of enlisting co-operation. My aim has been to re-open the problem of Ramón Lull and his Art through suggesting some fresh ways of approaching the problem. To prove these suggestions either right or wrong will involve stirring up, sifting, and bringing to light the Lullian material, and that is bound to be an instructive and illuminating process. Lullism is no unimportant side-issue in the history of Western civilization. Its influence over five centuries was incalculably great.

Reading this heartfelt appeal, penned in 1954, in the situation of today, one cannot help asking, “But who will be equipped in the future to carry on with this work of exploring and sifting such material of extreme difficulty? Who will be allowed to acquire that expert knowledge in many fields to prove her suggestions either right or wrong?” I hope these need not be idle rhetorical questions. I believe that if we wish to honor her memory we just must not allow her life and times to represent yet another lost moment in history.

  1. *

    An external degree is conferred on a student on passing university examinations without having registered at a college for formal instruction.

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