Four hundred years ago, Europe was at the peak of the Counter Reformation, the Catholic Church’s fight-back against the spread of Protestantism. This was spearheaded by the newly-formed Society of Jesus (better known as the Jesuits), around which swirled much talk of manipulative conspiracies, such as the famous (and very probably utterly fake) “Monita Secreta” of 1611/1612.
Yet as Ioan Couliano points out in Chapter 9 of his Eros and Magic in the Renaissance, despite the external doctrinal differences between Protestant Reformation and the Counter Reformation, their internal differences were actually few and far between. This had the effect that:
A process of normalization occurs now, finding expression in the appearance of a new culture with more or less unitary traits from London to Seville and from Amsterdam to Wittenburg, Paris, and Geneva. […] Ever unwilling to acknowledge it, the principal Western faiths no longer fight alone. Side by side, they build a common edifice: modern Western culture. (p.196)
This, for Couliano, was the moment in history when the “wingless fly” of modern science began to dominate cultural discourse, and in doing so eradicated the “flying scarabeus” of the Renaissance. More than just Giordano Bruno’s life, Couliano laments, the whole magical Renaissance spirit was now at an end, put to the sword by the austerity and harshness of the new black-clothed cultural mainstream: it had no place in this new world order.
This grim alliance was the unrelenting tide against which one man in Southern Germany now tried to swim. He, almost alone, dared to dream a wonderful dream: wouldn’t it be marvellous, he mused, if the good people in the world got together in secret, to try to genuinely learn from each other, and to cure the sick for free? In short, what if there was a Conspiracy of the Good?
This whole utopian vision might easily have gone no further: after all, it was simply a counter-cultural pipe-dream. However, it seems that he now did something rather extraordinary with it: he tried to bring this impossibly ideal secret society to life.
Before long, this unknown German (along with others) released to the world a first, a second, and then (later) a third document, describing just such a secret society – the “Rosy Cross”, supposedly founded 150 years previously by a certain “Christian Rosenkreutz”, and whose members were called “Rosicrucians”.
These three pivotal texts described the Rosicrucians as masters of medicine and alchemy; rich both in gold and spirit; foes of both Rome and Islam, bowing only to the Holy Roman Emperor; and owning a “Book M” they had compiled containing the true secrets of the world, written in a language private to them. Brothers of this society (the texts claimed) lived and worked in many countries, always dressed in local clothes, hidden in plain sight.
Frustratingly, you couldn’t do anything as practical as contacting these people. However, because the Rosy Cross had eyes and ears everywhere (the texts claimed), all you had to do was ask around discretely, and they would be sure to hear and then to seek you out… if you were worthy enough, that is.
All of which triggered a frantic Europe-wide hunt for these invisible brethren. Who could they be? Were they, like plain-clothes ticket inspectors, silently walking amongst us all? Or was the whole ‘Rosy Cross’ thing a stunt; or a hoax; or an odd kind of moral allegory? Everyone had an opinion, everyone was talking about it.
Indeed, for twenty years the flames in the Rosicrucian temple hearth burned brightly, as evidenced by the hundreds of pamphlets and books inspired by the phenomenon. Indeed, it seemed that every esoteric author of the day had plenty to say on the subject, with a few claiming (fairly unconvincingly, it has to be said) to have been contacted by Rosy Cross members. And when two posters were anonymously put up in Paris in 1622 announcing the presence of Rosicrucians in the city, riots ensued.
By 1650, however, ‘Rosicrucian’ had degenerated into a slur, a codeword for unreliable or esoteric nonsense: the former flood of pamphlets was now reduced to a mere trickle, as the hopeful magic of the moment faded away. The Rosy Cross furore had run its course, and was now officially over.
Yet even today, a fair number of secret (or, at least, not fully open) societies claim to trace their historical lineage back to the Rosicrucians. Many Masonic groups even include ‘Rosicrucian’ initiation rituals: arguably, the whole Rosicrucian hullabaloo can be seen as having somehow prepared the ground for much of what Freemasonry broadly aspired to.
All the same, modern historians near-unanimously agree that there was neither a real person called “Christian Rosenkreutz” nor a secret society called the “Rosy Cross”. The whole thing was almost certainly a literary fantasy, they say (throwing up their hands), concocted by persons (mostly) unknown, and for reasons unknown.
Of course, as explanations go, this is perilously close to no explanation at all, particularly for something that Christopher McIntosh described as “the greatest publicity stunt of all time”. Really, it’s all hugely unsatisfactory.
As a consequence, for many years I have puzzled (in an Intellectual History kind of way) over where this whole Rosicrucian phenomenon actually came from – what happened, what went on, what was the intention, what was the plan? Answer those question well, I thought, and the doors to its secret history will surely open wide…
The Secret History of the Rosicrucians (c) 2012, 2015 Nick Pelling.
2. The Three Texts
3. Dating The Fama And The Confessio
4. The Fama’s First Draft
5. So… What Was The Point Of It All?
6. ‘Book M’
7. Another Mysterious Manuscript
8. Stories From The Margins
9. Andreae’s Two Journeys
10. The Limits Of Evidence