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 rest of his life as a refugee.
Dr. Yates associates the Rosicrucian tracts closely with the cause of Frederick and liberal Calvinism in Germany. She shows how, before the Bohemian throne was offered to Frederick, the Palatinate acted as a link between liberal Protestant circles in England and Bohemia, and argues that Frederick was deliberately built up—notably by Christian of Anhalt—as leader of a European liberal Protestant movement. She shows—and this is I think quite new—that the Rosicrucian tracts derive intellectually from the English mathematician, alchemist, and magician, John Dee; and she reminds us of Dee’s long stay in Bohemia at the end of the sixteenth century.
Carefully analyzing not only the Rosicrucian tracts but also Catholic attacks on them and on Frederick’s cause, she shows that contemporaries associated Rosicrucianism with the Protestant cause in Bohemia. She argues that the Rosicrucian tracts expressed the outlook of radical forces building up in Germany before the outbreak of the Thirty Years War. They describe “a world reformation which the Bohemians expected to achieve through the Elector Palatine.” “Whilst involving definite reforms in education, church, and law, this general reformation has millenarian overtones; it will bring the world back to the state in which Adam found it” (p. 57).
The writings of philosophers sympathetic to the Rosicrucian movement were published in the Palatinate during the second decade of the seventeenth century. Dr. Yates studies especially those of Robert Fludd and Michael Maier.
A culture was forming in the Palatinate which came straight out of the Renaissance but with more recent trends added, a culture which may be defined by the adjective “Rosicrucian.” The prince around whom these deep currents were swirling was Frederick, Elector Palatine, and their exponents were hoping for a politico-religious expression of their aims in the movement towards the Bohemian adventure…. The new alchemy was to unite religious differences. [P. 90]
Some parts of this thesis seem to me stronger than others. Dr. Yates wisely does not claim that Frederick and Elizabeth of the Palatinate were personally associated with the Rosicrucian movement. Attempts to smear a leader, especially a defeated leader, with the views of men far more radical than himself is a familiar political technique, not yet extinct. But Dr. Yates has established the existence of an exciting, if still mysterious, group of thinkers and printers centered on the Palatinate, with contacts in Bohemia and England, perhaps in Italy (especially Venice). She has shown that between 1613 and 1620, utopian ideas of general reform were circulating in Germany which the Rosicrucian movement expressed; and she has established, I think, that the ideas of the Rosicrucians derive from John Dee. The movement came late to France, but there was a great scare in Paris in 1623, when alleged Rosicrucian agents, called the Invisibles, were denounced as witches and social subversives (chapter VIII).
The remainder of the book opens up some of the fascinating questions which arise if we accept the existence of “the Rosicrucian enlightenment.” Dr. Yates defines this as “a phase in the history of European culture which is intermediate between the Renaissance and the so-called scientific revolution of the seventeenth century. It is a phase in which the Renaissance Hermetic-Cabalist tradition has received the influx of another Hermetic tradition, that of alchemy. The ‘Rosicrucian manifestoes’ are an expression of this phase, representing, as they do, the combination of ‘Magia, Cabala, and Alchymia’ as the influence making for the new enlightenment.” How does Rosicrucianism relate to Giordano Bruno, who
…as he wandered through Europe had preached an approaching general reformation of the world, based on return to the “Egyptian” religion taught in the Hermetic treatises, a religion which was to transcend religious differences through love and magic, which was to be based on a new vision of nature achieved through Hermetic contemplative exercises. He had preached this religion, enveloped in mythological forms, in France, England, and Germany. According to himself, he had formed a sect in Germany, called the “Giordanisti.” [P. 136]
Are there any connections between Rosicrucians and that other secret international group, the Family of Love, with which printers and intellectuals were also associated (p. 216)? How does Campanella fit in, whose City of the Sun described “an ideal city ruled by Hermetic priests who keep the city in happiness and virtue through their benevolent scientific magic”? Campanella profoundly influenced Andreae, the one man whom we can with reasonable certainty link with the Rosicrucian tracts, and who was in contact with two of Campanella’s disciples at about the time the tracts were being produced (pp. 137-138).
The crucial figure of Andreae was already known to have influenced Comenius (who conveniently matriculated at Heidelberg University in 1613), and Miss Yates plausibly argues that the great Czech educationalist actively supported the Elector Palatine in Bohemia. She shows how in The Labyrinth of the World Comenius discussed at some length the stir caused in the intellectual world by the Rosicrucian manifestoes and the disillusionment which followed the defeat of the Elector Palatine (chapter XII). Andreae, she suggests, was similarly disillusioned after the defeat of the Bohemian adventure, and attempted to salvage something by establishing societies in Germany to propagate Rosicrucian ideals. Among the earnest enthusiasts for a model society, whether called Antilia or Macaria, was Samuel Hartlib, who fled from Germany to England in 1628 (chapter XI).
Dr. Yates makes us think again about Boyle’s and Hartlib’s “Invisible College” in London in the 1640s. The Rosicrucians made great parade of their “invisibility.” There may never have been any organization at all, but if there was it certainly remained totally secret. Invisibility came to be regarded as the characteristic of Rosicrucian brethren, so much so that Descartes (who had searched in vain for Rosicrucians in Germany in 1619) in 1623 showed himself to his friends in Paris “to demonstrate that he is visible and therefore not a Rosicrucian” (p. 116). There are a dozen references to Invisible Colleges in Dr. Yates’s index: some of these were secret societies aiming at Rosicrucian reform. Without going into the vexed question of the relationship of the London Invisible College to the group of scientists which met at Gresham College in 1645, Dr. Yates gently reminds us that this latter group (usually seen as a forerunner of the Royal Society) was initiated by Theodore Haak (“a German of the Palatinate” and a Comenian) and was attended among others by “Dr. John Wilkins,…then chaplain to the Prince Elector Palatine in London” (p. 182).
Recent historians have stressed the Hermetic and Cabalist elements in Francis Bacon’s thought. Dr. Yates rightly emphasizes the differences between Baconianism and Rosicrucianism; but she also suggests links between the two movements, “though these are difficult to trace and to analyze.” She had already suggested that Bacon’s rejection of the theories of Copernicus and Galileo might be “due to a desire to keep his programme as far as possible from implications of magic.” She now argues that Bacon’s caution was accentuated by his desire to appeal to James I, who was terrified of magic. Dee, so popular with Elizabeth, was disgraced by her successor and died in poverty. Northumberland, “the wizard Earl,” and Sir Walter Raleigh pursued their alchemical studies imprisoned in the Tower of London under James; Raleigh’s mathematical magician, the great Thomas Hariot, complained to Kepler in 1608 that he could not philosophize freely.
Bacon had to be careful. But the New Atlantis was published in 1627, when both James and Bacon were dead. “Those who read the New Atlantis before the Fama and the Confessio were forgotten would have immediately recognized the [Rosicrucian] Brothers and their Invisible College in the denizens of New Atlantis.” John Heydon actually recorded this recognition in 1662.
We must think again not only about the origins of the Royal Society but about the “Baconianism” of its members. “I would therefore suggest, though tentatively,” Dr. Yates writes,
…that Hartlib’s “vulgar” or utilitarian Baconianism may not be Baconian at all. It may rather come out of the Dee tradition, though Hartlib, like his friends, tends to regard any kind of effort for advancement of learning as Baconian, and there certainly are also strong influences from New Atlantis at the roots of the Hartlib utopianism. [P. 181]
John Pell and William Petty she firmly places in this Dee tradition, and she raises new questions about John Wilkins, first secretary of the Royal Society. His Mathematical Magic (1648) owes a great deal to Dee and Fludd, and quotes one of the Rosicrucian manifestoes. At that date Wilkins did not disconnect Baconism from the tradition of Dee and Fludd, and his own scientific practice in Oxford in the 1650s still seems to be in this tradition (pp. 184-185). The “universal character” or language, on which Wilkins and other early Fellows of the Royal Society spent so much time, was described in the Rosicrucian Confessio (p. 257).
Dr. Yates suggests that “light will surely be thrown on Boehme through further exploration of the Rosicrucian movement” (p. 232; cf. p. 99). She points out that Sir Isaac Newton owned and annotated a copy of the Rosicrucian manifestoes: “it might be of use to approach Newton’s alchemy along the lines of the German Rosicrucian movement and the influences on it of the Dee, or ‘Rosicrucian,’ type of alchemy” (p. 201). Dr. Yates is ranging fairly widely here. She believes that historians should stop asking themselves whether Catholicism, Lutheranism, or Calvinism was most conducive to the advance of science; perhaps what mattered most was “the presence or absence of the Hermetic-Cabalist tradition.” The Rosicrucians were anti-Jesuit rather than anti-Catholic (pp. 226-230).
Dr. Yates is perhaps least convincing in her account of the ultimate supersession of the Hermetic-Cabalist tradition by the mechanical philosophy, though here again she drops some valuable hints. She attributes a great deal to the publication in 1659 of Dee’s diary, with a preface by Meric Casaubon accusing him of black magic (p. 188). But by that date Dee was not vital to the tradition: it could have survived without him. More to the point, I think, is the social and political antipathy which the Rosicrucian movement drew upon itself. Miss Yates brings this out well for France in the 1620s. Mersenne in his controversy with Fludd attacked Rosicrucians as “wicked magicians and subversive agents of an international conspiracy.” Mersenne, like Bacon, was afraid. He believed that the Rosicrucian type of magic and the whole Hermetic-Cabalist approach must be crushed, by force if necessary. Against Hermeticism he set Cartesian mechanism: “Mechanism divested of magic became the philosophy which was to oust Renaissance animism and to replace the ‘conjuror’ by the mechanical philosopher” (pp. 111-113).
It may be that her starting point, the marriage of Frederick and Elizabeth in 1613, has led Dr. Yates to underestimate the radicalism of the Rosicrucian movement. For in England, too, the Hermetic tradition had strong radical associations—stronger certainly than Dr. Yates’s emphasis on Thomas Vaughan and Elias Ashmole would suggest. More typical perhaps were the alchemist and Familist John Everard, a passionate defender of the Palatinate in the 1620s; Noah Biggs, the interregnum medical reformer, who praised “that famous society and community of R.C.”; John Webster, New Model Army chaplain and critic of the universities. Webster also mentioned the Rosicrucians, praised Dee, Fludd, Everard, and Boehme—and proposed the disestablishment of the Church of England and the dissociation of the universities from their traditional function of training clergymen. Webster was denounced as a Leveller in 1654 by members of the Oxford group of scientists, who “only six years previously had been drawing quite openly on the Dee-Fludd tradition.”
What had happened? The Oxford scientists, too, Dr. Yates suggests, were afraid, as were many other defenders of property and privileges. The radical movement in revolutionary England gave them more serious reason for alarm than Mersenne and Descartes had had in France twenty-five years earlier. Hence repudiation of “enthusiasm,” dissociation of science from magic, rejection of Dee, “interpretation of Bacon as the teacher of ‘experimental philosophy,’ disinfecting him from all other associations,” especially from the Hermetic tradition. Sprat’s propagandist History of the Royal Society carefully played down everything except this emasculated Baconian tradition, which, Sprat insisted, promoted religion and exploded the “enthusiasm” of the revolutionary “fanatics.” The mechanical philosophy prevailed: Newton kept his alchemical studies secret (pp.186-187).
Not every word of Dr. Yates’s book will be accepted: she does not expect it to be. But it has opened up new vistas of inquiry, new possibilities of synthesis, on which historians will be working for years to come. Its excitement is gloriously infectious, its scope is breath-taking. It is a magnificent culmination to Dr. Yates’s work—though no doubt we shall be repeating this in a year or two about her next book.
October 4, 1973