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on 2 October 2016
“The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age” is Frances Yates' prequel to her seminal “The Rosicrucian Enlightenment”. It contains short essay-like studies on various aspects of the Renaissance in England during the reign of Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen. By way of introduction, Yates also expounds on the occult philosophies of Pico della Mirandola, Cornelius Agrippa and other 15th and 16th century figures. The most sensational is Francesco Giorgi, who was a Franciscan friar.

Yates' thesis is that Italian Renaissance esotericism reached England, became an important cultural stream in that nation, and was later exported to Germany in the form of Rosicrucianism. Apparently, this is considered farfetched today, and other scholars believe that Rosicrucianism had native German sources. Another important point made by Yates is that “Renaissance Neo-Platonism” was really a combination of Neo-Platonism, Hermetism and the Jewish Cabala, the latter in a Christianized form. While Marsilio Ficino, the “father” of Renaissance Neo-Platonism, wasn't interested in the Cabala (or didn't know about it), his disciple Pico was a Christian Cabalist. So was Agrippa. The Cabala, in turn, was connected to strivings for religious reform, which explains the curious fact that Agrippa and other occultists admired Erasmus of Rotterdam, and that many later became Protestants. In Elizabethan England, esotericism also became imperialist under the influence of John Dee. Dreams of English imperialist expansion under Elizabeth, claimed to be a descendant of the ancient British kings, were tied to Messianic expectations of an anti-papal bent.

A large portion of “The Occult Philosophy” consist of literary analysis, Yates seeing Neo-Platonist, Hermetic and Cabalist influences in the works of Edmund Spenser and William Shakespeare, or the art of Albrecht Dührer. I'm not particularly interested in poetry or the minutiae of art, so I mostly skimmed these sections. Yates ends with a discussion about the supposed esotericism of John Milton and speculates that the Christian Cabala led to philosemitism and thereby paved the way for the eventual return of the Jews to England. She also discusses the Agrippa legend and the witch-craze.

In an earlier book, Yates had apparently stated that the advanced and somewhat peculiar culture of Elizabethan England looks enigmatic. It has no clear origins, emerges out of the blue, and disappears just as mysteriously. “The Occult Philosophy” tries to entangle this riddle by claiming that we're really dealing with a version of Renaissance esotericism which had reached England through Italian and German channels. It disappeared due to a counter-reaction during the last years of Elizabeth and the subsequent reign of James I, but was successfully exported back to Germany with Princess Elizabeth, as detailed in “The Rosicrucian Enlightenment”. Besides, it never really disappeared in England either, raising its head again with Robert Fludd and even Francis Bacon, who Yates believes (perhaps wrongly) to have been a Rosicrucian…

Frances Yates have often been criticized by later historians, but she was a trail-blazer in "occult" studies and her books are therefore still required reading for anyone interested in this, shall we say, somewhat esoteric subject. Three stars!
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on 26 February 2018
A very fine book. Should be read in combination with her two other books on Renaissance philosophy.
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on 22 March 2013
Required reading for Rennaissance scholars or anyone interested in the esoteric side of Shakespeare's work....a side the literary establishment would like you to ignore.
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on 21 December 2011
This is now one of my favourite books, right up there with Norman Cohn's 'Pursuit of the Millenium' and Gershom Scholem's work. In fact, she occupies a similar place to Scholem in the historiography of the European Christian esoteric tradition to Scholem's in relation to the Jewish. The main difference between their approaches is that in this book her aim is not just to describe the esoteric movements but to link them to other, better-known cultural phenomena.

Yates begins with a sketch of the Christian occult philosophy leading up to the Elizabethan age. The second, main part of the book deals with various intellectual figures in the Elizabethan period and their participation in or relationship to the Hermetic-Cabalist philosophy. I'm not completely convinced that she proves the centrality of the occult philosophy in the Elizabethan intellectual world, but that's partly because of the book's only real fault - that it is too short for the enormous volume of material that it has to cover. The connections to the occult philosophy can only be outlined as each writer is only given a short chapter at most.

The writing is highly professional and excitingly paced. I read it in a few days, in the middle of moving house and various other impossible tasks. She writes as a historian who is resonantly sympathetic to esotericism, rather than as an enthusiast, which gives the work a strong academic authority. I disagree with the writer of the 2-star review here who criticises Yates for not writing as an esotericist. It's not that kind of book.

This book is thoroughly recommended for anyone seeking a balanced, sober-minded and thorough approach to a neglected but crucially important part of early modern European intellectual history. I will be reading 'The Rosicrucian Enlightenment' as soon as possible.
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on 29 November 2010
To preface, my credentials as a reviewer of historical or literary scholarship are nought. I am a layman with an interest in medieval and religious history. This book was, however, fascinating and I ripped through it.

I disagree that it is stuffy in parts, I believe the style, depth and indeed pace is apt for the subject and nature of the material, but written in way that is perfectly accessible for a non-scholarly audience, unlike many books published by routledge.

The themes are, as a previous reviewer described, revelatory, and where the author saw reason to question the accuracy of her interpretations, has pointed this out. This seems appropriate given the very original and provocative nature of the scholarship, and as such lent an added air of credibility.

Overall I was thrilled with this book and throughout was imbued with confidence that the authors reading of history was both unbiased and well considered. I would recommend highly to anyone with an interest in history of the occult or renaissance era Christianity, but certainly not for those who wish to explore the occult itself in any depth, for this book neither is nor pertains to be about that.
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on 28 July 2001
An outstanding accomplishment by a writer who has given so much fresh understanding on this subject over the years. The real marvel is how anyone could do so much justice to an important review of such lives as those of John Dee, Pico Della Mirandola, Francesco Giorgi, Henry Cornelius Agrippa et al. This is a real gem and Dame Frances Yates shows the way yet again for the historians in rescuing such important figures from the shadowy world of Renaissance 'Magic'
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on 17 May 2009
It's undeniable that Frances Yates' corpus of work represented a genuine breakthrough in historical and literary studies. Yates' studies genuinely changed the way we looked at the Renaissance. It's also hard to imagine Keith Thomas' 'Religion and the decline of Magic', the new historicism of Stephen Greenblatt or the place of the occult in popular culture without her influence.

However, It would also be a fair comment to say that 'The Occult Philosophy..' is a pretty stuffy read in places. It was obviously written for a scholarly market and as such, much of it functions as a literature review, commenting on and criticising other writers in the same field. The opening chapters on contemporary cabalistic philosophy are hard going, unless of course you've specialist interest in this area in the first place. Strange and mysterious it might be, but Elizabethan occult philosophy often comes across as a tediously elaborate system: a handbook for supernatural civil-servants.

There's also a great deal of speculation - Yates' is often caught wondering if such-and-such had seen such-and-such painting, or whether so-and-so is referring to this really obscure piece of cabala... All of this undermines the revolutionary import of her thesis. Although most of the work is firmly grounded in textual research, you do feel at times that Yates is wrestling the facts into a shape that fits squarely with her ideas.

That said, I found the three chapters on Durer and Melancholy, Chapman's 'Shadow of Night' and Christopher Marlowe totally fascinating. Her work on Shakespeare is revelatory, and her reading of 'The Merchant of Venice' in terms of Jewish mysticism had me scuttling back to the original text. I doubt somehow that i'll be hunting down the lesser known works of Cornelius Agrippa with as much zest...
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on 2 July 2006
This book may be of value to academic historians labouring under the misconception that Renaissance magic is little more than divinely-inspired bunkum. If you are such a historian, then I would heartily recommend this book to you. You may find it revelatory.

However, the reason I refer to it as 'amazing' above, is because although the author could be said to give a more balanced view of the period, this is of very little consequence because in every crucial area she is no better than any other dull-as-ditchwater historian. It is as if she has looked a potentially very interesting time in history in the eye, and failed to register that all the time it was actually looking back at her.

I found myself almost leafing through page after page of inconsequential, parochial argument about such unspiritual things as 'facts' and the 'influence' of one writer on another, without ever gaining even a fragment of insight into the so-called 'occult philosophy' itself.

So to summarise: if you are looking for a misconceived trawl through the facts, whose aim is simply to correct the misconceptions harboured by fools, then buy this book. Perhaps you could skim it and then put it on your shelf.

Otherwise, spend your time doing something (anything) else.
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