“At the eve of the – destructive, and religiously motivated – Thirty Year’s War, two pamphlets were published: the Fama Fraternitatis (1614) and the Confessio Fraternitatis (1615). Their anonymous authors claimed to be members of the secret Rosicrucian brotherhood which allegedly had been founded in the fifteenth century by a certain Christian Rozencreutz. Not only did the authors call for religious reform, but also for changes in the fields of science, philosophy, theology, and politics.
The pamphlets received an enormous response. Immediately after their publication, hundreds of tracts appeared, both endorsing these manifestos and fulminating against them. All of which stirred up a genuine furor around the Rosicrucian movement.
Up until recently, research on the Fama and the Confessio has largely concentrated on the question as to who the anonymous authors of these texts were as well as on their esoteric character and their relation to Paracelsianism. This early-modern movement is named after the sixteenth-century physician Paracelsus, the only recent historical figure who is explicitly mentioned in the pamphlets. He reformed the established Galenic medicine by emphasizing the importance of chemistry and alchemy in the production of medicines.
In my dissertation I primarily focus on the call for general reform in the pamphlets. I find they are best understood through this call to action. In it, several elements coalesce: the writings’ esoteric, scientific, as well as their philosophical character. This perspective also does the most justice to the era in which the tracts appeared; when Europe was subject to major religious, scientific, academic, and political changes. The Rosicrucian brethren definitely weren’t the only ones advocating for reformation during this era. Think of Comenius for example, whom we mostly know as a pedagogical reformer, but who was also a proponent of universal change of science and politics, although he didn’t appreciate the esoteric character of the Rosicrucians. So the elements that made up the various calls for reform, varied from one reformer to the next.
‘To the Rosicrucian brothers, human beings relate to the universe like microcosm to macrocosm.’
Many of them however, were fully convinced that the dawn of a new era was near; this was perhaps what surprised me the most during my PhD research. According to Luther there wasn’t much that mankind could do while awaiting the end times, they could only prepare themselves for the New Jerusalem individually. Moreover, Luther argued that the new world was completely dependent on intervention from Christ. The Rosicrucians on the other hand, thought that humans did in fact play an important role in the transition to a new, blissful world. This provoked a heated response, from Andreas Libavius for instance, author of one of the very first chemistry books. He rejected the idea of the arrival of a new, earthly era as well as the need for universal reform. However progressive Libavius may have been as a scientist, as a Lutheran he stuck to his beliefs.
Despite the Rosicrucian brothers’ immense popularity and their considerable influence on other reformists during the seventeenth century, no major reforms have been attributed to them. They aren’t known for their religious Reformation like Luther and Calvin, or the kind of scientific breakthrough people like Galilei brought on. You can give various explanations for this fact. Firstly, the Rosicrucians resisted any form of authority. They were opposed to the Aristotelian philosophy and Galenic medicine – the late medieval standard for academic thinking and medical science respectively – as well as against the authority of the pope. Secondly: they may have spread a hopeful message, they didn’t offer a clear alternative for the state of affairs at the time. Thirdly: they were invisible, which – considering the persecution of their supporters, some of whom were imprisoned or even tortured – was understandable. So if you sympathized with their ideas you couldn’t simply contact them or join any organization.
Both then and now, the very existence of a secret Rosicrucian brotherhood is being questioned. As far as the Fama and the Confessio are concerned, those were most likely written by the theologian Johann Valentin Andreae, helped in his endeavor by a group of friends from Tübingen, most prominently the lawyer and Paracelsian physician Tobias Hess.
To what extent the contemporary Rosicrucians have anything to do with the early-modern age is difficult for me to answer since I myself am not one of them. What I can say is that both early-modern and contemporary Rosicrucianism believe that human beings relate to the universe like microcosm to macrocosm.”