Secret Societies of the Middle Ages - Thomas Keightly


If we had the means of investigating historically the origin of Secret Societies, we should probably find that they began to be formed almost as soon as any knowledge had been accumulated by particular individuals beyond what constituted the common stock. The same thing has happened to knowledge that has happened to all other human possessions,—its actual holders have striven to keep it to themselves. It is true that in this case the possessor of the advantage does not seem to have the same reason for being averse to share it with others which naturally operates in regard to many good things of a different kind; he does not, by imparting it to those around him, diminish his own store. This is true, in so far as regards the possession of knowledge considered in its character of a real good; the owner of the treasure does not impoverish himself by giving it away, as he would by giving away his money, but remains as rich as ever, even after he has made ever so many others as rich as himself. But still there is one thing that he loses, and a thing upon which the human mind is apt to set a very high value; he loses the distinction which he derived from his knowledge. This distinction really serves, in many respects, the same purpose that money itself does. Like money, it brings observation and worship. Like money, it is the dearest of all things, power. Knowledge, however held, is indeed essentially power; to ken, that is, to know, is the same word and the same thing with to can, that is, to be able. But there is an additional and a different species of power conferred by knowledge when it exists as the distinction of a few individuals in the midst of general ignorance. Here it is power not only to do those things the methods of doing which it teaches; it is, besides, the power of governing other men through your comparative strength and their weakness.

So strong is the motive thus prompting the possessor of knowledge to the exclusive retention of his acquisitions, that unless it had been met by another motive appealing in like manner directly to our self-interest, it appears probable that scarcely any general dissemination of knowledge would ever have taken place. The powerful counteracting motive in question is derived from the consideration that in most cases one of the most effective ways which the possessor of knowledge can take of exciting the admiration of others, is to communicate what he knows. The light must give itself forth, and illuminate the world, even that it may be itself seen and admired. In the very darkest times, the scholar or philosopher may find his ambition sufficiently gratified by the mere reputation of superior attainments, and the stupid wonder, or it may be superstitious terror, of the uninquiring multitude. But as soon as any thing like a spirit of intelligence or of curiosity has sprung up in the general mind, all who aspire to fame or consideration from their learning, their discoveries, or their intellectual powers, address themselves to awaken the admiration of their fellow-men, not by concealing, but by displaying their knowledge—not by sealing up the precious fountain, but by allowing its waters to flow freely forth, that all who choose may drink of them. From this time science ceases almost to have any secrets; and, all the influences to which it is exposed acting in the same direction, the tendency of knowledge becomes wholly diffusive.

But in the preceding state of things the case was altogether the reverse. Then there was little or no inducement to the communication of knowledge, and every motive for those who were in possession of it to keep it to themselves. There was not intelligence enough abroad to appreciate, or even to understand, the truths of philosophy if they had been announced in their simplicity, and explained according to their principles; all that was cared for, all that was capable of arousing the vulgar attention, was some display, made as surprising and mysterious as possible, of their practical application. It would even have been attended with danger in many cases to attempt to teach true philosophy openly, or to make open profession of it; it was too much in opposition to some of the strongest prejudices which everywhere held sway. It is not, then, to be wondered at, that its cultivators should have sought to guard and preserve it by means of secret associations, which, besides excluding the multitude from a participation in the thing thus fenced round and hidden, answered also divers other convenient purposes. They afforded opportunities of free conference, which could not otherwise have been obtained. There was much in the very forms of mystery and concealment thus adopted calculated to impress the popular imagination, and to excite its reverence and awe. Finally, the veil which they drew around their proceedings enabled the members of these secret societies to combine their efforts, and arrange their plans, in security and without interruption, whenever they cherished any designs of political innovation, or other projects, the open avowal and prosecution of which the established authorities would not have tolerated.

The facilities afforded by the system of secret association, and it may even be said the temptations which it presents, to the pursuit of political objects forbidden by the laws, are so great as to justify all governments in prohibiting it, under whatever pretence it may be attempted to be introduced. It is nothing to the purpose to argue that under bad governments valuable political reforms have sometimes been effected by such secret associations which would not otherwise have been attained. The same mode of proceeding, in the nature of the thing, is equally efficacious for the overthrow of a good government. Bad men are as likely to combine in the dark for their objects as good men are for theirs. In any circumstances, a secret association is an imperium in imperio, a power separate from, and independent of, that which is recognized as the supreme power in the state, and therefore something essentially disorganizing, and which it is contrary to the first principles of all government for any state to tolerate. In the case of a bad government, indeed, all means are fairly available for its overthrow which are not morally objectionable, the simple rule for their application being that it shall be directed by considerations of prudence and discretion. In such a case a secret association of the friends of reform may sometimes be found to supply the most effective means for accomplishing the desired end; but that end, however desirable it may be, is not one which the constitution of the state itself can rationally contemplate. The constitution cannot be founded upon the supposition that even necessary alterations of it are to be brought about through agencies out of itself, and forming no part of its regular mechanism. Whenever such agencies are successfully brought into operation, there is a revolution, and the constitution is at an end. Even the amendment of the constitution so effected is its destruction.

Yet most of the more remarkable secret associations which have existed in different ages and countries have probably either been originally formed to accomplish some political end, or have come to contemplate such an object as their chief design. Even when nothing more than a reformation of the national religion has been, as far as can be discovered, the direct aim of the association, it may still be fairly considered as of a political character, from the manner in which religion has been mixed up in almost every country with the civil institutions of the state. The effect which it was desired to produce upon the government may in many cases have been very far from extending to its complete abolition, and the substitution of another form of polity; an alteration in some one particular may have been all that was sought, or the object of the association may even have been to support some original principle of the constitution against the influence of circumstances which threatened its subversion or modification. Whether directed to the alteration or to the maintenance of the existing order of things, the irregular and dangerous action of secret combinations is, as we have said, a species of force which no state can reasonably be expected to recognize. But it may nevertheless have happened at particular emergencies, and during times of very imperfect civilization, that valuable service has been rendered by such combinations to some of the most important interests of society, and that they have to a considerable extent supplied the defects of the rude and imperfect arrangements of the ordinary government.

The system of secret association is, indeed, the natural resource of the friends of political reform, in times when the general mind is not sufficiently enlightened to appreciate or to support their schemes for the improvement of the existing institutions and order of things. To proclaim their views openly in such circumstances would be of no more use than haranguing to the desert. They might even expose themselves to destruction by the attempt. But, united in a secret association, and availing themselves of all the advantages at once of their superior knowledge and intelligence, and of their opportunities of acting in concert, a very few individuals may work with an effect altogether out of proportion to their number. They may force in a wedge which in time shall even split and shiver into fragments the strength of the existing social system, no matter by how many ages of barbarism it may be consolidated. Or, in the absence of a more regular law and police, they may maintain the empire of justice by stretching forth the arm of their own authority in substitution for that of the state, which lies paralysed and powerless, and turning to account even the superstitions and terrors of the popular imagination by making these, as excited by their dark organization and mysterious forms of procedure, the chain whereby to secure the popular obedience.

On the whole, the system of secret association for political objects, even when there is no dispute about the desirableness of the ends sought to be accomplished, may be pronounced to be a corrective of which good men will avail themselves only in times of general ignorance, or under governments that sin against the first principles of all good government, by endeavouring to put a stop to the advancement of society through the prohibition of the open expression of opinion; but, in countries where the liberty of discussion exists, and where the public mind is tolerably enlightened, as entirely unsuited to the circumstances of the case as it is opposed to the rules and maxims on which every government must take its stand that would provide for its own preservation. In these happier circumstances the course for the friends of social improvement to follow is to come forward into the full light of day as the only place worthy of their mission, and to seek the realization of their views by directly appealing to the understandings of their fellow-citizens.

One evil to which secret societies are always exposed is the chance of the objects and principles of their members being misrepresented by those interested in resisting their power and influence. As the wakeful eyes of the government, and of those concerned in the maintenance of the actual system, will be ever upon them, they must strictly confine the knowledge of their real views and proceedings to the initiated, and as their meetings must for the same reason be held in retired places, and frequently by night, an opportunity, which is rarely neglected, is afforded to their enemies of spreading the most calumnious reports of their secret practices, which, though conscious of innocence, they may not venture openly to confute. By arts of this kind the suspicions and aversion of the people are excited, and they are often thus made to persecute their best friends, and still to bow beneath the yoke of their real foes. The similarity of the accusations made against secret associations in all parts of the world is a sufficient proof of their falsehood, and we should always listen to them with the utmost suspicion, recollecting the quarter from which they proceed. Of the spotless purity of the Christian religion when first promulgated through the Roman world no one can entertain a doubt; yet when persecution obliged its professors to form as it were a secret society, the same charges of Thyestian banquets, and of the promiscuous intercourse of the sexes, were made against them, which they themselves afterwards brought, and with probably as little truth, against the various sects of the Gnostic heresy. Wherever there is secrecy there will be suspicion, and charges of something unable to bear the light of day will be made.

The ancient world presents one secret society of a professedly political character—that of the Pythagoreans. Of religious ones it might be expected to yield a rich harvest to the inquirer, when we call to mind all that has been written in ancient and modern times concerning the celebrated mysteries. But the original Grecian mysteries, such as those of Eleusis, appear to have been nothing more than public services of the gods, with some peculiar ceremonies performed at the charge of the state, and presided over by the magistrates, in which there were no secrets communicated to the initiated, no revelation of knowledge beyond that which was generally attainable. The private mysteries, namely, the Orphic, Isiac, and Mithraic, which were introduced from the East, were merely modes employed by cunning and profligate impostors for taking advantage of the weakness and credulity of the sinful and the superstitious, by persuading them that by secret and peculiar rites, and the invocation of strange deities, the apprehended punishment of sin might be averted. The nocturnal assemblies for the celebration of these mysteries were but too often scenes of vice and debauchery, and they were discountenanced by all good governments. It is to these last, and not to the Eleusinian mysteries, that the severe strictures of the fathers of the church apply [See Lobeck's excellent work "Aglaophamus."].

The history of Pythagoras and his doctrines is extremely obscure. The accounts of this sage which have come down to us were not written till many centuries after his death, and but little reliance is to be placed on their details. Pythagoras was a Samian by birth; he flourished in the sixth century before Christ, at the time when Egypt exercised so much influence over Greece, and its sages sought the banks of the Nile in search of wisdom. There is, therefore, no improbability in the tradition of Pythagoras also having visited that land of mystery, and perhaps other parts of the East, and marked the tranquil order of things where those who were esteemed the wise ruled over the ignorant people. He may therefore have conceived the idea of uniting this sacerdotal system with the rigid morals and aristocratic constitution of the Dorian states of Greece. His native isle, which was then under the tyranny of Polycrates, not appearing to him suited for the introduction of his new system of government, he turned his eyes to the towns of Magna Graecia, or Southern Italy, which were at that time in a highly flourishing condition, whose inhabitants were eager in the pursuit of knowledge, and some of which already possessed written codes of law. He fixed his view on Croton, one of the wealthiest and most distinguished of those towns.

Aristocracy was the soul of the Dorian political constitutions, and the towns of Magna Graecia were all Dorian colonies; but in consequence of their extensive commerce the tendency of the people was at that time towards democracy. To preserve the aristocratic principle was the object of Pythagoras; but he wished to make the aristocracy not merely one of birth; he desired that, like the sacerdotal castes of the East, it should also have the supremacy in knowledge. As his system was contrary to the general feeling, Pythagoras saw that it was only by gaining the veneration of the people that he could carry it into effect; and by his personal advantages of beauty of form, skill in gymnastic exercises, eloquence, and dignity, he drew to himself the popular favour by casting the mantle of mystery over his doctrines. He thus at once inspired the people with awe for them, and the nobles with zeal to become initiated in his secrets.

The most perfect success, we are told, attended the project of the philosopher. A total change of manners took place in Croton; the constitution became nearly Spartan; a body of 300 nobles, rendered by the lessons of the sage as superior to the people in knowledge of every kind as they were in birth, ruled over it. The nobles of the other states flocked to Croton to learn how to govern by wisdom; Pythagorean missionaries went about everywhere preaching the new political creed; they inculcated on the people religion, humility, and obedience; such of the nobles as were deemed capable were initiated in the wisdom of the order, and taught its maxims and principles; a golden age, in which power was united with wisdom and virtue, seemed to have begun upon earth.

But, like every thing which struggles against the spirit of the age, such a political system was not fated to endure. While Croton was the chief seat of Pythagoreanism, luxury had fixed her throne in the neighbouring city of Sybaris. The towns were rivals: one or the other must fall. It was little more than thirty years after the arrival of Pythagoras in Croton that a furious war broke out between them. Led by Milo and other Pythagoreans, who were as expert in military affairs as skilled in philosophy, the Crotoniates utterly annihilated the power of their rivals, and Sybaris sank to rise no more. But with her sank the power of the Pythagoreans. They judged it inexpedient to give a large share of the booty to the people; the popular discontent rose; Cylon, a man who had been refused admittance into the order, took advantage of it, and urged the people on; the Pythagoreans were all massacred, and a democracy established. All the other towns took example by Croton, a general persecution of the order commenced, and Pythagoras himself was obliged to seek safety in flight, and died far away from the town which once had received him as a prophet. The Pythagoreans never made any further attempts at attaining political power, but became a mere sect of mystic philosophers, distinguished by peculiarities of food and dress.

Ancient times present us with no other society of any importance to which we can properly apply the term secret.

The different sects of the Gnostics, who are by the fathers of the church styled heretics, were to a certain extent secret societies, as they did not propound their doctrines openly and publicly; but their history is so scanty, and so devoid of interest, that an examination of it would offer little to detain ordinary readers.

The present volume is devoted to the history of three celebrated societies which flourished during the middle ages, and of which, as far as we know, no full and satisfactory account is to be found in English literature. These are the Assassins, or Ismailites, of the East, whose name has become in all the languages of Europe synonymous with murderer, who were a secret society, and of whom we have in general such vague and indistinct conceptions; the military order of the Knights Templars, who were most barbarously persecuted under the pretext of their holding a secret doctrine, and against whom the charge has been renewed at the present day; and, finally, the Secret Tribunals of Westphalia, in Germany, concerning which all our information has hitherto been derived from the incorrect statements of dramatists and romancers.

It is the simplicity of truth, and not the excitement of romance, that the reader is to expect to find in the following pages,—pictures of manners and modes of thinking different from our own,—knowledge, not mere entertainment, yet as large an infusion of the latter as is consistent with truth and instruction.