Historical Background Reading on this Period



Fulcanelli said:
I have a few of her books already...the memory book, Bruno, Rosicrucian Enlightenment, and Occult in Elizabethian times. I have a friend who sort of studied with her, at least he had access to her library.

Frances Yates is an author I deeply love. I have only read the Art of Memory and that book has changed my view of history. I think that the style of Frances is excellent in describing the data, the facts, giving the reader a chance to appreciate the mystery and the fashination of arts, ideas, artifacts that have been forgotten for centuries.
Reading about Lull and Bruno in that book has been to me a wonderful experience. Before Yates, I did not know Fludd, and I met him there too.
But possibly the most fascinating thing in that book are the theaters of memory, those wonderful, magical, ancestors of the internet (or at least of Gibson's cyberspace).
By the way, I think the Art of Memory is relevant to tarot, and I have been surprised that Yates did not mention tarot in her books. The analogies are deep.....but some day we will discuss this in a separate thread :)

A book I have recently read with delight is "The Survival of the Pagan Gods : the Mythological Tradition and Its Place in Renaissance Humanism and Art" by Jean Seznec. An excellent book, and it contains a few pages about the Mantegna Tarot.




Since there apparently are some Yates-heads here, let me ask you to suggest which of two of her books are more relevant to understanding the role and impact of tarot:

The Rosicrucian Enlightment or The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age?

If you can post a reason why you think so, that would be appreciated.


John Meador

I'd recommend her Occult Philosophy to be read first. Its actually the one of Yates' I've ended up resorting to the most frequently in Tarot related esoteric researches, with the Art of Memory a close second. On occasion, I've drawn from her 1982: collected essays v1: Lull & Bruno; 1947: The French Academies of the Sixteenth Century;and her 1969: Theatre of the World and of course the main work on Bruno. Her work on the Rosicrucians is interesting but there's not much there that's applicable to Tarot to my eyes. That said, I do think that it is possible that a Tarot might have held a unique importance to certain proto-Rosicrucians. But there's nothing of this in Yates, who focuses on the English representatives. Did you know Bob O'Neill? I think I remember him once telling me he studied with Dame Yates...

Another historical work I like is Conjuring Spirits: Texts and Traditions of Medieval Ritual Magic Edited by Claire Fanger, 1998.
Here's a review:

As far as fictions concerned I'm reading Neal Stephenson's mammoth "Quicksilver" currently.



HUGE topic, Fulcanelli and one that I love!

I'm in the middle of writing something set in the 1450s, so I've been doing a fair amount of research. My answer is going to be very subjective because to narrow it down, I'd need to know more. But here's a start... many of them repeats of books that others have recommended.

Yates is an absolute must! Her Art of Memory is my favorite of hers, but Occult Philosophy is a later work and in many ways more of a synthesis. To my mind, the Tarot trumps have always seemed seductively close to the images of Ars Memoria and Alchemical Engravings. Even if you don't buy the Hermetic origins of Tarot, a basic grasps of the themes of Hermeticism will prove rewarding. Again, it all depends on how far you want to go... :) Conjuring Spirits is a thrilling read as is Forbidden Rites from the same series and they both give a feel for ceremonial magick in context. Eros and Magic in the Renaissance by Culianu is another take on the role magick played in the culture of the time. And for more of an overview check out Flint's Rise of Magic in Early Medieval Europe. Or if you just want a quick, no-frills guide to the topic: Occult Sciences in the Renaissance by Shumaker. And there are a bajillion books on Alchemy, depending on your interest and curiosity. Just as a start, because they're on my desk, check out McLean's The Alchemical Mandala or Philosopher's Stone by Peter Marshall.

Crisis of the Early Italian Renaissance is pretty much a guide to the place and time in which you're interested. For general history, Tuchman's A Distant Mirror is another favorite... compulsively readable. As is Huizinga's Autumn of the Middle Ages, although some people find Huizinga too overwhelming. Preacher's Demons is dense but especially juicy if you're interested in the subculture/underbelly of the period. The Muslim Discovery of Europe offers a fresh take on the hopelessly westernized popular narrative.

Bob Place has argued the case for Neoplatonism extremely well in his latest book, but the topic deserves tackling head on. Renaissance Thought and its Sources by Kristeller is a chunky but superuseful overview. So much of the iconography is allegorical and so much of the allegory of the Renaissance reflects the (then) newly available texts of classical antiquity brought back to the west by the spice trade (Tastes of Paradise discusses the role of merchants in this diaspora). The surge of interest in Aristotle and Plato cannot be overstated, and if you haven't ever taken a crack at them, you might be surprised how readable they are. The Republic is a nice (if arbitrary) starting point for Plato and Nichomachean Ethics for Aristotle. If you're philosophically inclined I also recommend Hankins' Plato in the Italian Renaissance. And although it's not ABOUT the Renaissance, check out The Gutenberg Galaxy by Marshall McLuhan which posits a fundamental chasm between visual culture and typographic culture at exactly the moment the cards turned up in Italy.

Fictionwise... I think fiction is a fabulous way to get a feel, but of course the research can be great or not so great. Terrific research does not always translate into a terrific novel. And gain it's such a wide field. Here are a couple:

Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset is set in the 14th century and too far north to be directly Tarot related, but is one of the most beautiful historical novels ever written. Undset won the Nobel in 1928.

Dorothy Dunnett's House of Niccolo series that begins with Niccolo Rising is a fantastic sprawling read and full of incident and lush detail about trade across 15th century Europe.

Memoirs of a Gnostic Dwarf is an extremely strange, "Gnostic" account of Pope Leo X's lifetime and the radical changes sweeping through Renaissance Christendom in general and Italy in particular as seen through th eyes of the title character. (n.b. This one is pretty rude/graphic/shocking/hilarious; not for the squeamish. }) )

Umberto Eco's Name of the Rose is too insistently medieval to be directly applicable, but is in a way a meditation on literacy and the Greeks and the early tendrils of the Renaissance. And a massive puzzle/mystery. Phenomenal book. Also worth checking out his nonfictional Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages.

For a direct Tarot novel: Calvino's Castle of Crossed Destinies, just cause. And then when you've finished it go back and read Canterbury Tales and The Decameron, cause they're so damn good.

If you want a phenomenal occult novel set in the Renaissance that postdates Tarot by a century or so look at Gustav Meyrink's hypnotic and seductive Angel of the West WIndow about Dr. John Dee and his magical exploits.

At the other end of the spectrum: Leonardo's Swans by Karen Essex is a slightly lurid historical romance that directly concerns the d'Este family (and Sforzas too) of Italy's 15th century. Total Tarot territory, but is not such a great piece of writing.

That's plenty for now... As you can see, I love recommending books. Many thanks to Dr. Arcanus for nudging me over here... Very much looking forward to tracking down everyone else's recs as well. :)



Scion: What a wonderful list of books! I've researched the ones that appeal to me (publisher, isbn, etc.) and added them to my LIST. I think this is an extremely misunderstood period and in MANY ways, not as bleak as so many historians paint it to be. Shame on you, for mentioning that Gnostic Dwarf book! (I'll have to pick up a copy of it right away!)

Good thing we weren't talking about a later period, or I bet you'd have recommended "The Monk" by Matthew Lewis. ;)


About Yates...

I know Dame Francis Yates is highly respected for the dot-connection work she did with her expertise as a Renaissance scholar. As far as I can discern, she did it.

However...when I read her books (and I have on numerous occasions over the past ten years) I am left feeling very hungry still. With my recent re-read of "The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age" it dawned on me, why I leave her books feeling only 1/4 full.

I am not so interested in the history of all this phenomena as I am in knowing how it works. I have had just enough background in applied occult technique to have some idea what might be the actual procedures used by these explorers from centuries past. Yates is excellent for posting dates and noting trends and changes in thought, but her books do not attempt to give the reader any real idea of what these methods of those personalities she has studied were really about. For the historian, who really has no interest in occult practice, this would be fine, the lack of applied theory. However, I am far more interested in how it all works than who, what, where, when. (Last I heard, it was Colonel Mustard, with the lead pipe, in the study, though there is a theory circulating that it was Mrs. Peakcock, in the kitchen, with a turkey.)

I'm surprised I didn't make this connection earlier on! It's just I hear from all corners how absolutely wonderful Yates is. She is. But a proper reading of her books, at least for what I want, is an expensive, tedious process. So, knowing that a new type of cabala called Lurian developed and flourished in the 16th, early 17th century, "culminating in the messianic figure of Sabbatai Sevi, after whose failure in 1665, it took other forms" leaves me still wondering what the nature of the Lurian cabala was (no further discussions on this topic are found in this book.)

HOWEVER, that she identifies these personalities and what they did certainly makes my job easier in tracking down the information I wanted in the first place. THAT is why I have trouble with Yates: she creates more questions in my mind than she answers. Thanks to the Internet (at least until AT&T and Comcast get their chance to redesign it) I can find the answers to some of my questions, making the reading of Yates far more fulfilling than it would have been when the book was originally written, not having any access to the arcane references in her books. Also, thanks to Kessinger Publishing, which has published many of these really obscure works.

Imagine if someone took a book like this, and annotated it with lavish notes and references, as was done with Eco's brilliant novel, "The Name of the Rose." The annotated book is called "The Key to 'The Name of the Rose.'" Yates herself does not proclaim to be an occultist and states so freely. With such a wealth of information that she has uncovered, it is a shame that someone with more occult leanings does not follow in her footsteps and take her work to the next level. I think Manly P. Hall attempted to do just that, and he did a fine overview of the material.

I'm wearing my asbestos suit and hope that none of you are planning on dowsing me in gasoline and igniting me. (That just conjured quite an image in my mind, of a new tarot card, a major, "The Burning Man." I think I'll add it to my deck, since I always thought 23 was more mystical than 22 as a number. Just ask Robert Anton Wilson.)


No asbestos required... It would be such a bummer if everyone had the same opinion all the time. What would we talk about?

I take your point about Yates, but in a way it's a criticism not of her books but of the realities of occult study. Not only is Yates not an occultist, she is distilling reams of material for an academic audience. The problem with discussing any kind of Gnosis is that it is subjective and personal, and can't be genuinely conveyed in a book. It's the old truism: writing about love is like dancing about architecture. The same might be said of Magick. For my money, I seek out books that seed interesting questions because I want to find the answers myself. I crave the dialectic... and I don't trust anyone else enough to let them chew my intellectual meat for me. Manly Hall has some real lulus mixed in there.

It's funny that you should mention Eco's Name of the Rose. There is a Key, and it's useful as a basic intro. But I disagree with some of those translations and some of the historical assumptions, which doesn't make me an "expert," it just means my thoughts run down a different path than the author of that "Key". Ironically, Eco himself actually wrote and published a short Postscript to the Nme of the Rosewhich in 60odd pages is about 5000 times more evocative and insightful but naturally asks more questions than it answers and sends one back to the book to be rebewildered and reenchanted. The Key and the Postscript each have their own utility and audiences.

Funny thing: recently I've been doing a lot of research on the Lemegeton and Solomonic magick. There are some terrific editions out there and some really insightful commentary... but at the end of the day I find that as much as I'm grateful for the superb scholarship available, I eventually disagree with all of the editors and pundits about something. Again: doesn't make them wrong, just means their Gnosis is not mine.

Thing is, I share your wish. I would love someone to tackle a massive editorialized reissue of these texts. If anyone did publish a new annotated Bruno or Lull or Picatrix I would be the first in line to buy it. But that would also put me first in line to find the little personal biases that creep into any writing. Robert Anton Wilson would be the first to cop to it. :)

But I hear you talking. And if you hear tell of any publication even close to what you've suggested, I wanna be the first to know...



Scion: Thanks for the kindred words. I often find myself on a different page than those with whom I travel. LOL. Tarot, for instance, has intrigued me for decades and yet I can't say I really know what it's all about, especially regarding its humble (?) beginnings. One writer is set out to prove his/her theory, to promote his/her own. Perhaps it isn't even important to know the origins. Perhaps the key is to learn to learn. I am THE FOOL, but not the version that I hear described so often in Tarot books, the degenerate (well, maybe a little of that!), the rogue (okay, a touch of that, too), the idiot (no, not that.)

I find it so odd that the academic community displays such an intense interest in gnostic experiences, trying to analyze it in words, as you have noted the impossibility of doing that. I don't understand the intellectualization of such an experience. And I wonder what fuels that?

Most of us (I'd say all, but one never knows if Kaspar Hauser might be a member of this group) approach the cards with preconceived notions as to what they mean. Imagine, seeing them without having read or heard a peep about them, left to our own devices to sort it all out and decide what they mean! Yes, you are correct in assuming that I am advocating shock therapy for any serious student of the cards, a chance to really see them with fresh eyes!

I certainly am not hosing Yates for the wonderful work she has done, and I do appreciate all the effort she dedicated to creating a scenario for all of us to consider regarding this most interesting time in history. How can we possibly know the soul of the medieval man or the Renaissance man? We can't, unless we find a way to remember it ourselves.

Scion...dare I ask what it is that you are researching? Perhaps it is that very book I alluded to in my earlier post?


If only!

No... it's a script I've been commissioned to write and any occult leanings will be ancillary.

I am working on a nonfiction book, but again, not really what you and I are looking for. Funny thing, I'm starting to think that the only way to find the books you need is to write them yourself... :)