No living historian has done more to read the message concealed behind the symbols of the past than Dr. Frances Yates. In a succession of remarkable books—from The French Academies of the Sixteenth Century (1947) through The Valois Tapestries (1959) and Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (1964) to The Rosicrucian Enlightenment (1972)—she has patiently set out to decipher codes that had become indecipherable with time and to recover meanings that had ceased to be meaningful.

Decoding is, by its nature, a solitary, laborious, and sometimes a hazardous task. It requires stamina, infinite patience, and above all a capacity to work one’s way intuitively into an understanding of mental processes that are frequently alien and remote. There will be clues that at first sight appear infinitely promising, only to lead to disappointing dead ends. There will be false trails, seductive enough to mislead the most expert—even Dr. Yates. But there are occasions when the rewards, in the sudden illumination of what was previously obscure, more than compensate for the long years of labor. Dr. Yates has deserved, and enjoyed, such rewards; but it is particularly gratifying that the private satisfaction is now belatedly being accompanied by public recognition. Dr. Yates has certainly earned her success.

The successful are traditionally rewarded by the reprinting of scattered early pieces and minor works in the canon—a reward of which some of them would be better advised not to take advantage. In this instance, however, there need be neither doubts nor regrets. Astraea is a new-old book—old in the sense that it is largely (but not entirely) composed of reprints; new in that the essays have been revised, and sometimes rewritten, and that, when juxtaposed within a single volume, they add up to a composite whole. At first sight the title, Astraea, suggests as recondite a theme as any with which Dr. Yates has bemused, bedazzled, and sometimes baffled her readers, although that handsome silvery portrait on the dust-jacket of Elizabeth I with her feet planted firmly on a map of southern England is a reassuring indication that they may after all not become entirely air-borne if they choose to travel with Dr. Yates as their guide. Indeed they would be well advised to do so, for those who take the trouble to follow her are promised an exhilarating ride.

But who, they may reasonably ask, is Astraea, what is she? The very need to ask the question is itself a vivid example of how far our ability to read the code has been lost. But let us listen to the dedicatory, words of a work by a Dutchman who had taken refuge in the England of Elizabeth: “The Kingdom of Saturn and the Golden world is come again, and the Virgin Astraea is descended from heaven to build her seat in this your most happy country of England.” Already the shadows begin to lift, and we glimpse something of the connotations with which Astraea was surrounded. Patiently, but with an infectious excitement, Dr. Yates leads us back to Virgil, forward to Dante, and then through the labyrinthine ways of sixteenth-century literature, politics, and imagery until suddenly we are confronted with the vision of the Virgin Queen herself.

But the Virgin Queen Astraea, the symbol of order and justice, has, we remember, her feet planted on southern England, and more specifically the county of Oxfordshire. Why, of all places, Oxford, not usually known as the favorite haunt of virgins? Not, as it happens, for any good academic reason, which anyhow might be hard to find, but because Oxfordshire contains within its borders Woodstock and the village of Ditchley. The significance of this becomes clear as Dr. Yates unravels for us the story of the Accession Day tilts of Elizabethan England and the part played in the staging of these festivities by the lord of Ditchley, Sir Henry Lee. This is a fascinating depiction of a man and a moment—a man who set out to revive the spirit of English chivalry, and found the moment propitious because he was skillful enough to invest old forms with new meanings.

Old forms given new meanings; the traditional vocabulary used in a new context. It is this that was happening in sixteenth-century England and continental Europe, and it is the strength and intensity of the phenomenon that give the age its complexity and its endless fascination. For what Dr. Yates is really doing as she deciphers the cryptograms is to show how the world of the sixteenth century, so deeply imbued with the sense of an eternal order, set out to legitimate change.

Dr. Yates is not an analytical historian, and indeed she touches only very lightly on this problem of change in a society whose modes of thought were based on changelessness; but the problem remains implicit in every essay in her book. Part I, devoted to Charles V and the idea of Empire, is essentially about change in the international order. The Europe of Charles V was a Europe whose traditional unity, however theoretical, was being destroyed by religious division—above all by the Protestant Reformation in Germany—and by the political fragmentation that came with the increased assertiveness of territorial states; and it was a Europe, too, whose horizons were being dramatically expanded to the west by the discovery of the New World of America, just as they were being contracted in the east by the advance of the Turk.


The attempt of Charles V to hold his disintegrating world together while at the same time making space within it for the newly discovered lands appears in retrospect foredoomed to disappointment. Yet, by appropriating to themselves the symbols and the images of more than a thousand years of European history, Charles and his advisers created a form of sacred authority which was capable of commanding loyalty and respect, in part because of the resonances still struck by the old imperial theme.

The golden age; the return of Astraea; Rome; Constantine and Charlemagne; even Hercules and the outer limits of Europe beyond which no man dared venture—all these emotive images were called into play to consecrate and reinforce the authority of the young Charles of Ghent. Power and public relations were as intimately associated with each other in the sixteenth century as in the twentieth, and no ruler was better served by the image makers than the Emperor Charles V. Dr. Yates does not tell us this, but the image was powerful enough to enter into the calculations of one of the most astute political figures of the 1520s, Hernán Cortés, at this moment many thousands of miles from home. How, after all, does he present the conquest of Mexico but as an imperial donation, a voluntary tanslatio imperii from Montezuma to Charles V?

So much has been written about the imperial idea under Charles V that Miss Yates’s short essay on the theme is bound to look rather slight, though she handles it attractively, and makes good use of a brilliant piece of detective work by Earl Rosenthal on Charles’s device of the pillars of Hercules and his motto, Plus Ultra. But the Charles V piece is no more than a prelude to the two more substantial sections of the book, which consist of essays on the English and French monarchies respectively. The prelude, however, is a logical one, for the imperial theme, no longer the exclusive preserve of the Holy Roman Emperor, becomes the connecting link—if sometimes rather a tenuous one—between the Tudor and Valois conceptions of the monarchical ideal.

Each of these monarchies was confronted by the challenge of religious conflict threatening the order and stability of the state; and the ruling dynasty of each found it necessary and expedient to deploy a full armory of symbolism and imagery in its attempt to assert the majesty and the sacredness of its authority. The imperial theme, with its connotations of order, legitimacy, conquest, and sovereign authority in matters ecclesiastical, was invoked and reinvoked by those who served, or aspired to serve, the crown.

Needless to say, they ordered these matters somewhat differently in France. There was a professionalism about the pageants, the festivities, and the religious processions of the Valois which makes even the most spectacular of Elizabeth’s “progresses” across England look like the bumbling efforts of inspired amateurs. But the objective was the same. Elizabeth, like Catherine de’ Medici and Henri III, and later Henri IV, seized upon those themes and images, like the golden age and the return of the Virgin Astraea, which were intended to evoke an ideal vision far removed from the harsh realities of political hatreds and sectarian strife. The disparity was no doubt much wider in France than in England, but in both countries one gets the impression that, as so often happens, the mythmakers themselves were among the first to succumb to the myths they were so elaborately spinning, and to believe that by the alchemy of some splendid pageant, the age of iron could be instantly transformed into an age of gold.

Even in England the make-believe tended to wear thin as the contrast between the Virgin Astraea and the raddled old queen became increasingly stark. Yet how vigorously was the imagery exploited, and how ingenious and far-fetched were the uses to which poetry and pageant were put!

She was, She is (what can there more be said?)
In earth the first, in heaven the second Maid.

It is easy enough to laugh at the improbable analogies and the fulsome adulation. Even Dr. Yates, who is not prone to laugh at such things, precisely because she realizes that they need to be understood, looks rather askance at this one. But how can we gauge its impact on contemporaries? It seems to me that one of the fundamental difficulties of method, still unresolved in that new historical growth industry, the study of festival and imagery, lies in the fact that intention is so much easier to study than impact. When Elizabethans were told to sing “Vivat Eliza!” for an “Ave Mari!” did they take the equation of their queen and the Virgin Mary in their stride, or inwardly look on it as blasphemy? Or is it possible that the equation met a strong psychological need?


Octavio Paz once suggested that the cult of the Virgin Mary caught on so rapidly among the Indians of post-conquest Mexico because the male deities had been in the ascendant at the time of the conquest, and the discrediting of these deities through defeat opened the way for the revived worship of a female goddess. In Reformation England the female goddess was overthrown but not fully discredited, and the cult of the Virgin Queen may to some extent have provided a necessary temporary substitute at a time when society was being directed toward a more masculine concept of divinity.

There must, however, be some point at which the image and the fact become so disparate as to provoke disbelief and disgust. The imagery of Elizabethan England was, and remained, acceptable, because by and large the queen did succeed in giving her subjects at least something of the justice, order, and stability that the returning Astraea was expected to provide. The fertile imagination of Catherine de’ Medici and her sons, on the other hand, was perhaps too fertile, and only succeeded in making matters worse by offering visions of imperial harmony which they were patently incapable of realizing in practice.

Here and elsewhere, especially in The Valois Tapestries, Dr. Yates has shown how, through the skillful use of festival and pageantry, Catherine sought to create an image of herself as a liberal, tolerant, and reconciling ruler. Indeed, having fought so vigorously to establish Catherine’s intentions, as revealed through her use of symbolism, Dr. Yates seems at times almost too ready to accept the symbol as the reality. “By a strange injustice of history,” she writes, “Catherine de’ Medici, whose patient Erasmianism had built up over the years the climate of opinion which made possible the tolerant Treaty of Saint-Germain, became the ogress on whom responsibility for the [St. Bartholomew’s Day] Massacre was fastened.” History is full of injustices, but given Catherine’s capacity for the deception both of her contemporaries and herself, this would hardly seem to be a very strange injustice, or one that is urgently crying out for condemnation.

But it is more to the point that, even if Catherine succeeded in convincing Miss Yates, she signally failed to convince large numbers of her fellow countrymen. Not even Catherine, with all the battery of court poets and painters at her command, could create the illusion of peace and prosperity where none was to be seen. But at least she never stopped trying to conform the reality to the image, and it was only with her extraordinary son, Henri III, that the image became almost entirely a substitute for action.

The complexities of Henri’s character, religious, aesthetic, tortured, are brought into brilliant focus by Dr. Yates’s examination of the religious processions held in Paris in 1583-1584. The illustrations in her book are integral to the text, and by leading us through drawings of the processions, which can be amplified and elaborated upon by contemporary accounts, she re-creates the strange mental and religious world of the last of the Valois. Henri III, the Rex Christianissimus, becomes a penitent in a great Counter-Reformation drama of his own devising—but it was a Counter-Reformation shot through with themes that were often distant in substance and tone from the Counter-Reformation themes of Tridentine Rome.

It is almost as if all the imagery in the sixteenth-century arsenal, however incongruous when used in juxtaposition, was brought into action by the last of the Valois in a hopeless attempt to stave off the impending catastrophe. But Henri overreached himself, and the whole elaborate enterprise proved tragically self-defeating. For the panoply of pageantry had hitherto been employed to enhance the sacred majesty of kingship. Yet here was the king of France walking the streets of Paris as a penitent, with nothing to single him out from the fellow penitents who proceeded in his company. It is hardly surprising if L’Estoile and his fellow Parisians were shocked. Divinity was supposed to hedge a king, not to overwhelm him.

It took that practical exponent of common-sense politics Henry of Navarre to restore the balance so dangerously upset by his unpredictable predecessor. Once again the old images were wheeled into action. The Virgin Astraea returned to earth, and the Gallic Hercules planted himself firmly on the throne. But this time, as in the England of Elizabeth, myth and reality were not too far apart, and myth once again became broadly acceptable. The image-makers, whose world has so vividly and so readably been re-created by Dr. Yates, were back in business, deploying their essentially harmless, and socially necessary, wares. But, if the fate of the Valois is anything to go by, they would still do well to ensure that there exists at least a minimal relationship between the packaging and the contents.

This Issue

February 20, 1975