The Rosicrucian Enlightenment
Historians are slowly learning to cope with the difficult task of understanding those intellectual movements of the past which appear to lead nowhere, which conflict with modern assumptions, and yet which undoubtedly stirred the imaginations of earlier generations. Thanks to the work of many researchers we are beginning to appreciate that the revival of serious intellectual interest in magic in the sixteenth century was an important movement of thought—as influential in the early history of science as Baconianism. Isaac Newton first took up mathematics in order to study astrology, and alchemy fascinated him throughout his life. His insistence that his great discoveries had been anticipated by the ancients picks up the idea of the Hermetic philosophers that there had been a prisca theologia, an esoteric wisdom handed down from magus to magus. Dr. Frances Yates has done more than any other scholar writing in English to make us aware of this European movement. In Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition she studied one of the great figures in this tradition. Others include John Dee, the great English mathematician, and Johann Kepler, the great astronomer. All three are important in the history of science as well as of magic. In this book Dr. Yates turns her attention to the Rosicrucian movement.
Historians have tended to steer away from this subject because it has been taken up by cranks. Dr. Yates is not so lightly to be put off. Since the Rosicrucian movement was important in its time, it is therefore a fitting object of study. It should be no more difficult to get back to the original movement despite the mass of nonsense that has accumulated around it than it should be to study, say, the early history of Baptists and Quakers in England, notwithstanding the amount of sectarian hagiography that has been written about them.
Dr. Yates starts from the three accepted original Rosicrucian treatises—two short manifestoes (the Fama and the Confessio) published in 1614 and 1615 respectively, together with the much longer Chemical Wedding of Christian Rosencreutz, attributed to Johann Valentin Andreae. The three tracts are written in an obscure and allusive style, drawing on the Hermetic tradition of secret wisdom; they hold out hopes that a Christianized alchemy will lead to a general reformation of the world, ushering in a golden age. All three originated from the Rhenish Palatinate, whose Elector, Frederick V, in 1613, married Elizabeth, daughter of James I of England. In 1619, Frederick was elected King of Bohemia, in defiance of the claim of the Hapsburg Ferdinand II, Holy Roman Emperor, to have succeeded by hereditary right. Ferdinand was a devotee of the Counter Reformation, and was attempting to stamp out Protestantism in the hitherto liberal state of Bohemia. Frederick’s acceptance of the crown was the signal for the beginning of the Thirty Years War, a life-and-death struggle between Protestants and Catholics for domination in Germany. In 1620, “the Winter King” of Bohemia was defeated in the Battle of White Mountain, and spent the…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.