When the Fama Fraternitatis (Fame of the Fraternity) first left the printing presses of Wilhelm Wessel in 1614, the resulting ‘furore’ ignited a flame right across the cultural mindset of Europe. Such was the extent of the controversy it later came to be labelled by the historian Francis Yates as the ‘Rosicrucian Enlightenment’. 2014 marked the quadricentennial anniversary of the Fama and to celebrate Christopher McIntosh and Donate Pahnke McIntosh have at last provided the English speaking world with the first genuinely reliable English critical edition. The Fama famously heralded the arrival of a previously unknown philosophical secret society founded in medieval Germany by the fabled monk Christian Rosenkreutz. Its narrative is one of Rosenkreutz and his mystical sojournment to the East, and with it, the recovery of esoteric knowledge to the West – its publication triggered what can only be described as a literary sensation that eventually comes to permeate much of the intellectual landscape of the seventeenth century.
An English translation does not appear however until 1652 in London published under the non de plume – Eugenius Philalethes. A pseudonym of the Welsh mystic and alchemist Thomas Vaughan (1621-1666), this initial but seriously defective translation has been the standard edition for some three and a half centuries. Thanks to the remarkable scholarship of Dr McIntosh, we now have a reliable standard text.
The Fama Fraternitatis lays down the basic tenants of Rosicrucianism and presents a somewhat sketchy narrative of the Order’s legendary founding. The narrative explains that after Fra. C.R returned from the East and following his unceremonious rebuke by the European intelligentsia ‘he spent a great time in the mathematics and made many fine instruments’. After five such years of solitary study and the contemplation of fine working tools and instruments, Fra. Rosenkreuz sees fit to call on three more brethren to join him from his former cloister; Brother G.V., Brother J.A., and Brother J.O. It is thus that the foundations of the Fraternity of the Ross Cross are laid.
If we look to the famous Rosicrucian engraving known as The Temple of the Rosy Cross by Theophilus Schweighardt Constantiens in his pseudonymous Speculum Sophicum Rhodostauroticum (1618), we can see depicted how these four founding members go on to complete the work of Rosenkreuz’s new building known as the Sancti spiritus, at the completion of which, the Fama tells us the brethren concluded that their numbers should increase once more.
It would seem there was plenty of volunteers, as the Spanish scholar Carlos Gilly has shown; we now know that between 1614 and 1620 more than two hundred zealous replies were published both for and against the movement in response to the Fama. For McIntosh’s 2014 translation of the Fama, his preliminary research meticulously cross-referenced all known printed and German manuscript versions of the text that existed before this ‘furore’ of the original Kassel publication. This has resulted in substantial and significant revisions to the previous English interpretation.
In Vaughan’s text, for example, we read that following the completion of the Sancti spiritus, the brethren added what would appear as yet another Brother ‘R.C’ to its ranks, along with ‘his deceased father’s brother’s son, brother B. a skilful painter’. In this first defective translation of 1652, the author implies then that the next two members of the Rose Cross were; (1) another brother R.C, [a widow’s son having a deceased father] and (2) his cousin, a skilful painter [craftman]. In actual fact, the original German of the Salzburg manuscript reads, ‘Fr. R.C. seines verstorbenen Vatters Bruder Sohn Fr. B., ein geschickter Mahler G.G. und P.D. ihre Schreiber’, which McIntosh’s new edition translates as; ‘To this end were chosen Frater R.C.’s father’s brother’s son B, a skilful painter G.G. [two G’s in the original] and P.D., their scribe [or secretary]’. Thanks to McIntosh interested English scholars now know the original German manuscript states that there is only the one Frater R.C, that being Fra. Christian Rosenkreuz himself and it is he who has a deceased father [therefore a widow’s son], and it is his cousin (B) who is initiated into the order along with two others; a scribe (P.D) and a skilful painter (G.G). From a Masonic perspective, the Fama rather interestingly elaborates on how when these brethren were admitted into the Order an agreement was made to act charitably, meet annually and that they each would receive a mark or token – ‘The word C.R. should be their seal, mark and character’. Following their admittance, these brethren are informed that the philosophy of the Order was ‘not a new invention’ but a form of prisca theologia – a pristine theology. The philosophy of the Rose Cross is the knowledge known to Adam, Moses and Solomon. It is the means by which we find reconciliation in philosophy and theology, of science and religion, of technology and faith – ‘All that same concurreth together, and makes a sphere or Globe, whose total parts are equidistant from the Centre’.
Abound with proto-masonic allusions, the Fama explains how the brethren are warned of those ‘accursed’ gold-makers who would use this ‘true philosophy’ for less noble or spiritual means. These ‘many runagates and people do use great villanies and cozen and abuse the credit which is given them’. Intent on stealing the master’s secret wisdom for less pious ends, such ruffians are as the Fama indicates, best avoided. Furthermore, it also suggests that a Brother seeking the true alchemy (a spiritual transmutation) should disregard or indeed mentally divest themselves of the want of precious metals.
As one might expect of such a characteristically and overtly prophetic document as the Fama, millenarian and eschatological tendencies colour much, if not all of its allegorical and symbolic imagery. However, there are some very straightforward masonic allusions:
He thought (he being a good architect) to alter something of his building and to make it more fit…and so, unlooked for, uncovered the door…For like as our door was after so many years wonderfully discovered, also there shall be opened a door to Europe (when the wall is removed) which already doth begin to appear, and with great desire is expected of many.
As we can see from the above passage the secret wonders of the Fra. Christian Rosenkreuz, whose unerring learning in the arts was ‘like a globe or circle, to the only middle point and Centrum’, was in fact rediscovered by a ‘good architect’. We are informed that while in the course of his labour this ‘good architect’ (Brother N.N.) uncovers a door to a fabulous hidden tomb – the tomb being that of Fra. C.R. It being a ‘greatly desired’ door, the Fama details how this ‘good architect’ removes ‘the wall’ and hence opens the door unto Europe.
The allegorical and symbolic nature of this ‘wall’ might well be discerned if we assess this ‘good architect’ in relation to that other virtuous character named in the Fama who ‘shall undoubtedly give to the world the last light… likewise hath Theophrastus been in vocation and callings’. This ‘Theophrastus’, who is undoubtedly the Swiss Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, known as Paracelsus (1493-1541) had an influence that not been fully set in motion until his death, and not until 1589-1591, 1603 and 1605 with the printing in Basel of the Johannes Huser of Waldkirch (Baden) editions of works like Opus paramirum and Philosophia Sagax had the Paracelsian legacy permeated it’s fertile native Lutheran soil and found its way into the sacred repository of Frater C.R’s tomb. As the Fama states: ‘Wherein there lays divers things, especially all our books, which otherwise we had. Besides the Vocabular of Theoph: Par. Ho.’ Such an acronym would not have been lost on Fama’s receptive audience. With the stability offered by the Peace of Augsburg in 1555, non-doctrinal aspects of speculative spiritual discourse were finding a particularly receptive audience in minds savaged by the Thirty Year War. Anti-orthodox movements represented by the likes of Sebastian Franck (1499-1542), Casper Schwenckfekd (1489-1561) and Valentin Weigel had propagated radical Paracelsian ideas of the Kirche ohne Mauer against the Steinkirche or Mauerkirche (church of stone or walled church) indicative of ever intensifying Lutheran orthodoxy. Paracelsus had condemned the Mauerkirche in his De septem puncti idolatriae christianae (1525), and such ideas had been adopted by Weigel and other reformers in the hope of a second Reformation, The Third Elijah and other eschatology and millenarian tendencies. Adam Haslmayr (c.1560-1630) takes up Paracelsians ideals as revelatory, calling them ‘Theophrastia Sancta’. In the wider poltico-historical context, Susanna Åkerman’s book Rose Cross over the Baltic: The Spread of Rosicrucianism in Northern Europe (1990) describes this period 1610 to 1620 as a ‘mixture of popular eschatology and Paracelsian ideas’. Åkerman’s presents an overview of a time, ‘characterised by a resistance to the Counter-Reformation’.
It is in such a context we must assess the Fama, and in the light of such a context, one might forgive the more speculative masonic historian within us being somewhat roused by the Fama’s suggestion that it is the ‘good architect’ that will be the one to tear down ‘the wall’ of the Mauerkirche. As David Stevenson has stated, ‘had there been no architect among the brothers, there would have not been a new age dawning’.
Let us hope that this translation opens a new door in future Masonic and Rosicrucian research.