This article is the result of research conducted over the course of two years during the pandemic, and as I reached the end I felt that I wished there was some way I could share it. So it really is a great honor to be able to present this here. Before we begin I have some disclaimers, however.
First off I would like to make a disclaimer about information. Most of this article consists of information about mystics, and the books they left behind to record their visions. I don’t believe that studying will necessarily make you a better mystic because it has to come from your experience, but there may be a reason why, if you are reading/watching this [a video of the talk this article was drawn from is available here] and are drawn to a particular figure, you might want to read their writings, and that could help you on your path.
The second disclaimer is that I have not read all of these mystics. I have read most of them, but a couple of the books I am recommending are books I have not read. I have done this research to build a bibliography to serve others, not necessarily to know all this information. Also, I am not an expert on this topic, and this bibliography is almost certainly woefully incomplete. There are many more people in the 14th century, in this tradition, whom I have not investigated, and about whom I know nothing.
Thirdly, even if I were an expert in the 14th century Rhineland mystics, this subject is incredibly deep and no one knows very much about it or knows anything for sure. We are talking about a group of Orders which existed outside of the Church, who wrote very little, and what they did write down is full of mysterious figures, such as the Friend of God of the Oberland, who is almost certainly a visionary figure but might be a real person.
What does the 14th century have to do with Rosicrucianism?
When we talk about the beginning of radical pietism, we usually begin the history with Jacob Boehme, a mystic to whom the Rosicrucians are indirectly connected. But the mystical tradition Boehme was working in actually begins much earlier. There already was a German Christian mysticism which existed before even the Lutheran Reformation, which had its own character in Christendom, and even informed the character of the Reformation — Luther himself was highly influenced by it.
In the case of the Rosicrucians I am bringing up an enigmatic remark by Faivre, that Theosophy and Rosicrucianism were what occurred when German mysticism encountered Hermeticism through the works of Paracelsus. And if we look at the historical record we can see this is the case. Paracelsian alchemy stresses the importance of the outer light as a form of mystic interpretation, similar to following the footsteps of nature, and he includes salt as a principle with sulfur and mercury, in order to reflect the Holy Trinity.
In the Fama, Paracelsus is mentioned as being an ideal Rosicrucian, although he is stated as being “not part of the order.” This can be read as one of the Fama’s many literary riffs, indicating that the principles of the imagined Rosicrucianism are essentially Paracelsian. Historically we see this backed up in the adjacent writings of many of the writers of the manifestoes, such as Tobias Hess, who was a Paracelsian and was being attacked for it by the Galenists.
Often when studying or practicing Rosicrucianism it is the Hermetic and alchemical elements which come to the foreground in our understanding of the phenomenon. But in the background, a pre-existing German mysticism absorbed alchemical and Paracelsian influences, and Theosophy and Rosicrucianism were born from the synthesis. If we want to find evidence of this pre-existing mysticism, we can go to the Confessio, where the writers of the manifestoes clarify their position.
But that also every Christian may know of what Religion and belief we are, we confess to have the knowledge of Jesus Christ (as the same now in these last days, and chiefly in Germany, most clear and pure is professed...)
Although we cannot be by any suspected of the least heresy, or of any wicked beginning, or purpose against the worldly government, we do condemn the East and the West (meaning the Pope and Mahomet) blasphemers against our Lord Jesus Christ, and offer and present with a good will to the chief head of the Roman Empire our prayers, secrets, and great treasures of gold.
The first quote here emphasizes that the order is a Christian order, first and foremost. But what I would like to draw everyone’s attention to is that they state that Christianity is only most purely professed in Germany. This is an example of German chauvinism which occurs again and again in the communications we have remaining from Andreae and his circle. They sincerely believed that Germany was a spiritually chosen nation. We must understand this in the context of the Lutheran Reformation, and my interpretation of what they mean is that Lutheran orthodoxy is the exoteric and even esoteric Christian theology and mysticism of the sect.
We see this echoed in the second quote, where they make it clear to all the many who accused them of heterodox theology that they “condemn the East and the West, meaning the Pope and Mohamet” responding to some of the ambiguities in the Fama where their readers were not sure, in the many pamphlets published in response, whether they were in fact Muslims or whether they were Catholic, because they talked about the Church of Rome. They are here clearly stating that they are Christian mystics existing in the Lutheran tradition, and that Germany is a special nation. I want everyone to remember this chauvinism that the writers of the manifestoes have, because later we will see that it even manifests against members of other Protestant sects. There is a profoundly Germanic theological bias that this circle has.
But what not many people know is that even Luther was drawing on a mystical tradition that existed in Germany from before the Reformation, and that the seeds of the Reformation were actually planted in the 14th century. One of these mystics that both Luther and the authors of the manifestoes were aware of was Johannes Tauler.
German Mysticism & Radical Pietism
Johannes Tauler was a disciple of Meister Eckhart, and he wrote a book of highly influential sermons. The connection between Tauler and Rosicrucianism is not unknown, I have found it remarked upon in several sources. However it is almost always in passing. Interestingly enough about two days ago I discovered a paper which writes about this subject, but I have not been able to get access to it yet. Mostly, people in sources will mention that Rosicrucianism can ultimately be traced back to Johannes Tauler and the circle called 'The Friends of God', but not go into it. I’ve highlighted here some sources which mention it.
Waite, in The Real History of the Rosicrucians, is highly disappointed to discover that, rather than being ascended masters on the Tibetan Plateau, that the actual Rosicrucians were Lutheran heretics of a very mundane variety. He mentions Tauler, and then proceeds to his other investigations. Notably, in 1896 in the first ever issue of Quator Coronati in an article about Hermeticism there is a mention that Rosicrucianism is related to Tauler and that more research should be done on this subject. There may be many more references to this connection I am not aware of, perhaps people have published monographs I have not discovered yet. However, in general I have found the connection to be mentioned, because Tauler in many ways initiated the mystical tradition that Boehme and the Rosicrucians would draw from, but not investigated very deeply.
As I mentioned Johannes Tauler was the chief disciple of Meister Eckhart. He is notable for taking Eckhart’s work, which was highly mystical, heretical and earth-shattering and turning it into a practice, a tradition which people of a less mystical inclination could participate in, although there were still mystical elements. He is the loyal disciple who translates the master’s teaching into something the public can understand. He does this through his Sermons, which were recorded in a book which I believe had an influence of Jacob Boehme. He was also part of the Friends of God, a mysterious spiritual group connected with the 'Heresy of the Free Spirit' which met outside the bounds of the Church. We can see in this the beginnings of radical Pietism because this is the exact spirit of pietistic faith - seekers who follow the inner light, seeking God, beyond the realm of orthodoxy, in an inner mystic Christianity, who form communities of seekers outside the Church. Tauler’s Friends of God was the beginning, or more accurately a reinvention of this tradition, because it goes back even before him.
As I mentioned, Tauler was a disciple of Meister Eckhart. In addition to him Henry Suso was also a notable disciple, and there were many others. The context for seeking God outside the church, characteristic of the Friends of God and the Brethren of the Free Spirit, was driven by a time in which the great schism was occurring, and the anti-Pope was in Avignon. This caused an immense rupture in Christendom, and as both Popes attempted to discredit the other, they published propaganda about corruption in their rival churches, polemics whose language would be reused in the Reformation era. Ironically, the schism in the church alerted the public to corruption within its body, and made them more aware of its failings. It became possible to doubt and question the church because the church doubted itself. So in an exoteric political as well as an esoteric Christian mystic sense, the seeds of the Reformation were laid during this time. This included the Theologia Germanica, a book that was written anonymously, we are told, by a member of Teutonic Knights. This book was also connected to the Friends of God, and Eckhart and influenced Luther.
Radical pietism is also a child of this era, because this time of immense chaos and doubt lead many to seek private spiritual insight and started to found 'lay religious Orders' or Orders outside the bounds of the Church - groups which we, who are Rosicrucians, should be most interested in, because what is the Rosicrucian order, ultimately, if not a holy order meant to be founded outside the boundaries of the Church? And indeed, these pietist orders may actually be part of what the writers of manifestos are alluding to.
Meister Eckhart and the Beguines
The most famous, influential, and important of these orders were the Beguines and the Beghards. When we speak of these groups, really we are talking about the Beguines. The Beguines were an order of women. However, there were also Beghards, who were “male Beguines.” But it is the women who had the most influence here, and they initiated the movement. The Beguines were women who organized themselves into autonomous spiritual intentional communities - today we would call them 'communes'. They formed nunneries outside the bounds of the Church, and the Church was very worried about them. So they sent a trained theologian, Meister Eckhart, to monitor them and make sure they did not say or do anything heretical. He was supposed to go regulate the women.
Unfortunately for the Church, things did not go according to plan. Instead of monitoring them Eckhart 'went native' and was influenced by the writings of the three most famous Beguine mystics. Then he himself began professing heretical views, and he was himself tried for heresy. I read recently that he is the only trained theologian in the medieval era to be tried for heresy.
One of the things which makes Eckhart’s mysticism so unique is that he was a trained theologian who had read Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite and had been influenced by Neoplatonism. So, when he did take this path and was influenced by the practices of the Beguines, what emerged was powerful and dangerous. He was practicing women’s spirituality within a masculine sphere and in a masculine way. Before his verdict was received, Eckhart died, so we will never know whether he would have been burned at the stake, but many other members of the Friends of God were burned after him. We also do not know if the Friends of God had yet been founded at the time of his death, or whether he merely influenced the formation of the group.
But this story is actually about the Beguines, the women who influenced Eckhart, especially because this part of the story was only recovered in the 20th century. Mechthild of Magdeburg writes a beautiful book called The Flowing Light of the Godhead which I highly recommend. I have read this book, but at the beginning Mechthild says that if you want to understand it you must read it nine times. I have only read this book once, so I cannot say that I understand it. It is a book of visions and it is very beautiful.
What I will say about its contents is that at one point she mentions a new holy Order which will emerge at the End of Times. This order will travel throughout all nations and be highly persecuted, and it will “heal the sick, gratis.” I could not help but be reminded of the Rosicrucian Order when I read this. I will not say anything more about this, but if anyone wants to experience Mechthild’s visions you can find them in this book.
The other two famous Beguines were Haedewijc of Brabant and Marguerite Porete. Especially Marguerite Porete we will mention more later, because she had a direct influence on Eckhart, and was also tried for heresy. Like the Friends of God the Beguines were pietistic orders which existed outside the church. I recommend the book God Within for anyone who wants to learn more about this.
Conversation between England, Germany and the Netherlands
The influence of this tradition was conveyed beyond Germany, and reached England via the Netherlands. There are many English mystics mentioned in God Within, my favorite being Julian of Norwich, who in some rather touching passages imagines Jesus Christ as though he were her mother. But I also want to draw everyone’s attention to Ruysbroeck, a very important mystic from the Netherlands. He attempted to harmonize the heresy of the Free Spirit with the orthodoxy of the Church, and he did this by creating a mysticism that followed the Via Positiva as far as it could go, and ending with a mystical speculation which identified the Trinity with the Godhead. Evelyn Underhill viewed Ruysbroeck as one of the greatest mystics who ever lived, and you can read her book about this. This is an incredibly subtle form of mysticism, and while it is very sophisticated, it remains identifiable as being within the tradition which began with the Beguines.
This spiritual conversation between Germany, the Netherlands and England, with lines of mutual influence extending in both directions, continues in the 17th century and resurfaces in many ways. It is evident when the Familia Caritatis, a secret society from the Netherlands, transmit their teachings to the court of Elizabeth I, and when John Dee travels to the continent and transmits his message to Rudolf II, influencing the formation of Rosicrucianism. It occurs as well in the immense influence the manifestoes had once they reached England. There is a movement from East to West and West to East. I have my own personal, ahistorical speculations about mysterious similarities between mystics and philosophers in the 14th century with those in the 17th. It is as if there is a historical reprise in which certain figures, namely Boehme, Spinoza and Bacon, respond to figures from the 14th century, Eckhart, Ruysbroeck, and William of Ockham, the great Empiricist. It is as if a theme, once heard before, returns to the symphony for a last hurrah before bowing out.
The Knights Templar
Returning to the 14th century I want to mention one of the most important parts of our story, and this is the Knights Templar. You were probably not expecting them to show up in this tale - I certainly was not - but they are connected to the Beguines in an indirect way. When King Philip needed to find a way to burn the Templars, he set his inquisitor William up to the task. William recommended burning them for heresy, but the legal means to do so did not exist yet. William was aware of Marguerite Poerete, who had written a book called The Mirror of Simple Souls - lost to history until the early 20th century - and suggested trying her for heresy seeing as the book was clearly heterodox and she refused to recant. The book was burned in front of her and then she was burned, and this was given as the legal precedent for burning the Templars. Below is a quote from Michael Sells, which describes how this event influenced the Beguines and Meister Eckhart:
Within a few years, Porete's name was being associated with what was called "the heresy of the free spirit." A series of suspect propositions was condemned in 1312 by Clement V in the Papal Bull ad nostrum, and in the bull cum de quibusdam mulieribus restrictions were imposed upon the beguines and the beghards (the male counterparts of the beguines), their houses and their habits. In 1317, Clement's successor, John XXII, promulgated the Clementine bulls and a major inquisition was begun in Strassburg by Bishop John of Durbheim. In 1327, the Dominican friar, theologian, administrator and preacher, Meister Eckhart, who had preached in Strassburg and whose ideas show strong Beguine influence...was condemned in the Papal Bull in agro dominico. For the next several decades, inquisitions were carried out throughout Europe against alleged followers of the free-spirit heresy.
Mystical Languages of Unsaying, Michael A. Sells
14th Century Hermeticism and the Manichaeans
We’re nearing the end now, and I’m going to pivot to speculating about some of the bigger picture meanings of this tradition. The first question that I want to ask is, was the 14th century Hermetic? There has always been, since the beginning of Rosicrucianism, a need for Protestant Germans to justify their having received their Hermeticism from Italian Catholics. This continues to this day, but there is some evidence that there were at least some Hermetic teachings already present in the German speaking world, and alchemy, but certainly there were not very many. As I have already noted Eckhart was a Neoplatonist. The Book of the 24 Philosophers consisting of 24 aphorisms, and coming from Sufi literature was popular among them as well, and the first two aphorisms in this book are Hermetic.
There was an immense influence of Islam upon these groups, from too many different vectors for me to be able to summarize here. But I do want to talk about Manichaeism, a Persian religion in the Zoroastrian tradition founded by the prophet Mani in the 3rd century, and partially influenced by the teachings of Christianity. Waite, in The Real History of the Rosicrucians I mentioned before, calls the Rosicrucians 'Manichaean Buddhists'.
This is a very strange statement to make, and he also says in the same passage that they have “moved to India,” which may have something to do with the Theosophical Society of the era Waite was writing with, and their deep fascination and appropriation of Indian religious practices which they grafted onto the Western spiritual traditions. Manichaean Buddhists are associated with the city of Merv in modern-day Turkmenistan, or Bactria, which is where those religions blended. It is also associated with the persecution of Buddhists in Tang dynasty China, where even though Buddhists were heavily persecuted, Manichaeans were even more persecuted. I have on the slide the only surviving Manichaean temple in the world which has survived in China by pretending to be a Buddhist monastery.
But there were also Manichaeans in Europe, famously the Cathars persecuted in the Albigensian Heresy are said to have practiced a Manichaean tradition they received from the Bogomils. Equally, as is well known, the Templars were inspired by the Ismaili Shia order known as the Assassins. What is less well known is that Ismaili Shia Sufi orders often transmit Manichaean esoteric teachings. There is a Zoroastrian matrix which exists especially in Iranian Sufism and anyone interested in this subject and what it might mean for Rosicrucianism can consult the work of Henry Corbin, as I mention on this slide. Regardless Manichaeism is elliptically connected to the history I have been talking about because it is also part of Europe’s 'Free Spirit Underground' of heretics and the persecuted, whether Templars and Beguines.
And finally, I mention the name of the infamous Jesuit Abbe Barruel, whose conspiracy theories after the French revolution hinged on Freemasonry being identical with the teachings of the Templars who practiced Manichaeism. This is most assuredly nonsense, and this conspiracy theory has done a lot of damage over the years. However I find it rather eerie that while he was off the mark there is some connection in that Manichaeism is often transmitted in Sufi orders, and what these early Christian mystics of the 14th century were often seeking was something akin to what Majorcan mystic Ramon Llull called “a Christian Sufism” in his novel Blaquerna, and Llull certainly had some contact with the Sufis. Wherever the Manichaeans went from Europe to China, they were persecuted. I don’t have any historical proof for a connection between Manichaeism and the Rhineland Mystics, but many people have made this kind of association.
Christian Mysticism and the Rosicrucian Order
Returning now to the Rosicrucian Order of the 17th century I want to conclude by making the statement that, while we tend to focus on the Hermetic and alchemical aspects of Rosicrucianism, the Hermetic element is like a plant rooted in a soil that is Christian Mysticism, possibly influenced by Sufi Manichaeism. Too often we overlook that radical Pietism did not begin with Jacob Boehme, and that it extended back to the Beguines, and perhaps even before them to figures like the famous Hildegard von Bingen. The manifestoes are to some extent aware of this tradition, and the figure of Christian Rozenkreutz is a metaphor for exactly what Antoine Faivre says Theosophy and Rosicrucianism was: Christian Mystics who discovered Paracelsian Alchemy and the Hermetic wisdom of the East. In order to understand Rosicrucianism it is important to understand the tradition of German Mysticism from which it sprang.
It is also important to understand that Christian Mysticism is what most accurately represents the motivations of the people who wrote the manifestoes. The most famous of them were Johann Valentin Andreae, Tobias Hess, his teacher, and Christoph Besold, who regrettably turned on them and joined the Jesuits. The reason why there was (as Michael Maier put it) silentium post clamores, was because the Rosicrucians were persecuted by those who said they were not Orthodox Lutherans, and hounded by enthusiasts who were more interested in the occult than in Christian Mysticism and building Utopias. I want to focus on Andreae here, and I want to bring back the German Chauvinism which I mentioned at the beginning of this talk.
Many commentators often remark how, in his 20s Andreae was experimenting with radical Hermetic ideas, but by his 30s and 40s one finds him espousing only the most Orthodox Lutheranism. However, if you look closely at even his youthful writings, one finds his basic views remain unchanged. What happened was he had trouble conveying them to the world. In later life, Andreae continued to pursue the construction of Christian Utopias and a reform of the scientific project. However, he eschewed the name of Rosicrucianism and tried to distance himself from it because of what it had come to represent. To one interpretation he was attempting to create the same thing before, during and after Rosicrucianism.
In the letter to Comenius where Andreae very enigmatically describes Rosicrucianism as a “ludibrium” or a “joke” or a “game,” he also condemns Comenius for being a member of the Czech Brethren of the Free Spirit rather than a German Lutheran. To which Comenius rightly responds that Andreae is being a strange bigot, given that the Brethren rebelled against the Church with Jan Huss, well before Luther, so to claim that Lutheranism was a more orthodox movement than his was odd. And it was, but that is all part of the highly Germanic chauvinism which was woven into all of this, and I would argue, has resurfaced again in movements relating to German culture, most recently in the early 20th century in the form of Nazism. This Germanic chauvinism was also present in the manifestos and early Rosicrucianism.
On this point are two books which deal with this material. The Golden Builders, by Tobias Churton, is very accessible and it talks a little bit about the Lutheran history of Rosicrucianism and the circle of people surrounding Andreae. I highly recommend Tobias Churton, probably many of you will know more about this book than I do.
The Tessera of Antilia by Donald R. Dickson is highly scholarly, very obscure, and also contains material which has not been published anywhere else in the world because it came from the Hartlib papers. The title of the book "A Tessera of Antilia" refers to the password given by those to prove they were members of the many underground societies who sought to build an “Antilia”, a Utopia similar to the one described in Andreae’s Christianopolis.
Most interesting is that in the appendix the actual "Rosicrucian” by-laws are given - not truly Rosicrucian because although these are the by-laws of the circles which wrote the manifestoes, they themselves distanced themselves from Rosicrucianism after it took off because they felt it had evolved into something at odds with their radical Pietism. This book is an incredibly unique insight into some very obscure and forgotten texts, and it cements the case for an interpretation and consideration of Rosicrucianism as merely one, particularly Hermetic, offshoot of a pre-existing tradition of radical Pietism and German mysticism going back to the 14th century.
Theosophy, Imagination, Tradition, by Antoine Faivre
The Real History of the Rosicrucians by A. E. Waite
Quator Coronati Journal from 1896
The Flowing Light of the Godhead by Mechthild of Magdeburg
God Within: The Mystical Tradition of Northern Europe by Oliver Davies
Ruysbroeck, by Evelyn Underhill
The Mirror of Simple Souls, by Marguerite Porete
The Beguine, the Angel and the Inquisitor, by Sean L. Field