Book review: ‘The Rosicrucian Enlightenment’ by Frances A. Yates

The Rosicrucian Enlightenment is a book written by Frances A. Yates, first published in 1972. The copy I have was published in 1975.

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The book describes in detail an oft-underlooked aspect of the Italian Renaissance period: Hermeticism. In Yates’ previous books she introduced the idea that Hermeticism had a much larger role to play than many scholars suggest – this mainly appears in her book Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition published in 1964, and The Art of Memory published in 1966.

TRE is the third in that series and, without having read the first two, I can only suppose that it is a continuation of the same themes espoused therein.

The most fascinating aspect of Yates’ book is undeniably how she links Hermetic thinkers such as John Dee, Johann Valentin Andreae, Michael Maier, Elias Ashmole and Isaac Newton all together under the banner of Hermeticism.

Now all the aforementioned figures no doubt practiced some form of occultism – whether it be in the form of alchemical transmutation, or in the consorting with angels, or simply in the practise of healing another with medicine. All of these things were, in the time of the period being spoke about in the book, seen as blasphemous and heretical behaviour. Many have been burnt at the stake for less.

Where Yates’ book goes that most others don’t in their history of the Renaissance period is to delve deep into the mystery of Rosicrucianism. From an in-depth reading of the book one can surmise that Yates is pointing us toward the idea that the idea of a secret society has its roots in the Fraternity of the Rosy Cross, and in Francis Bacon’s idea of a New Atlantis promulgating the Advancement of Learning.

Yates helpfully includes an English translation of the two most important Rosicrucian documents: the Fama (published 1614) and the Confession (published 1615). Both documents were anonymously published in the early 17th century and caused quite the stir among the local peoples of the Germanic country they were published in.

The book gives an incredible history of the Rosicrucian movement with its beginnings in Germany, its eventual outlawing after the beginning of the Thirty Years War – its gradual spread to France eventually to England.

Frances Yates hits the nail right on the head when she supposes that the history of this period cannot be discussed without first addressing the magical and mystical backgrounds which many of the figures who were later to advance the scientific principles had their humble beginnings in. Yates’ chronicling of many of these figures and the way in which the Hermetic ideals surfaced themselves again and again throughout this period give anyone with a basic understanding of the Renaissance much pause to reflect on what they have been told by their teachers in history classes.

A fantastic read which, for anyone who is interested in these topics, will be an absolute gold-mine of information.

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