This week’s issue of French newsweekly Marianne has a cover story on conspiracy theories (No. 932, February 27 – March 5, 2015).
One of the articles (pp 16-17) traces the origins of the modern conspiracy theory all the way back to the 16th century.
Intrigued, I did more research and came across an essay from 2013 by German historian Cornel Zwierlein, ‘Security Politics and Conspiracy Theories in the Emerging European State System (15th/16th c.)’.
Renaissance priorities and plots
The Renaissance, to borrow Dickens’s words, was the best of times and the worst of times. On the one hand, Europe was able to revisit philosophy, recapture classical styles of sculpture and develop the arts in a highly sophisticated manner. Commerce flourished as a new merchant class arose.
The new availability of paper and the printing press made the Reformation possible. Protestants were finally able to hear the Bible in their own tongue. The wealthier ones could read Scripture for themselves.
On the other hand, international political plots saw the light of day as did religious conspiracies against the state.
Cornel Zwierlein tells us that the overriding priority of European rulers in the Middle Ages was peace (p. 68). Nobles, princes and kings sought agreement with each other. Safety was also a concern but was more concerned with that of the highways and byways which existed at that time as well as in maritime transport.
During the Renaissance, priorities of those in power changed. Reviving the notion of state security, or securitas — reminiscent of the ancient Roman Empire — was seen as a political aim and virtue.
Zwierlein’s essay highlights Italy’s various nation-states of that era. What went on there, he says, was a ‘laboratory’ of political development.
Lorenzo de’ Medici was instrumental in emphasising the importance of bringing these states together as allies in the 15th century (p. 67).
In order to do this, state and papal officials began an informal intelligence service, tracking who might be on their side and who might be forming different alliances. Roads were improving, allowing couriers to deliver messages more quickly. Thanks to the export of paper from Aragon to Italy, not only were notes and letters more convenient to compose but political diaries were also made possible. This was the era when communication flow began in earnest (p. 73) and has continued ever since.
Political written communication evolved during this time to incorporate what Zwierlein calls ‘hard’ things ( e.g. institutions) with ‘soft’ things, such as semantics and narrative. He explains (p. 74):
The controlling of a network of office holders “inside” and “outside” the state from a center is one of the most important features – possible only with the help of paper-based communication.
The steady creation and influx of written communication became state business in and of itself. Comparatively ‘live’ information became highly important in immediate decision-making or adopting a ‘wait-and-see’ approach. Officials knew their subject and analysed it minutely. They created written archives. All of this led to (p. 74):
distinctions between “internal” and “external” affairs, between “internal”and “external” security, between an emerging public sphere and the secrecy of arcane politics, between simulation, dissimulation and real actions appear as well as those concepts that refer to the above-mentioned interdependency of states, foremost the famous “equilibrium”, measurement of alliances and allies, neutrality (Zwierlein 2006b).
Lorenzo de’ Medici died in the year Columbus discovered America. He was known as ‘The Magnificent’, il Magnifico (p. 75). Arts students think of him as Florence’s great patron. However, he was also the power behind Italian rulers and thinkers of his time. He could be considered as the father of balance-to-power politics.
He promoted state ‘equilibrium’ (contrapeso), ‘common security’ and ‘tranquillity’ (p. 76). Our present-day ‘international security’ evolved from his concepts. With regard to Italy, he wanted to create an interdependence among the various states that existed on the peninsula at the time. However, he was keenly aware that the most powerful ones — Venice, Naples and Milan — preferred to remain apart. His concern for the economic prosperity of the day was of paramount importance along with a wish to avoid regional war.
In order to achieve his aims, updated written intelligence was essential. Any uncertainties needed clarification, therefore, ‘avvisi’ — news — became a priority (p. 79). Another consideration was that rulers might change their minds on political matters (p. 80):
it is hard to “read” their hidden intentions; there are hidden secrets, things that Lorenzo is not able to know; and that stimulates his “fantasia”.
Consequently, he, other rulers, ambassadors and officials began to draw their own conclusions about certain plans, projects and motivations. Whilst fact was involved, there was also conjecture and supposition.
It would be wrong to say that de’ Medici and other information-gatherers promoted conspiracy theories. They assessed their intelligence diligently, however, they knew they did not always have the facts.
By the 1530s, those gathering intelligence information and avvisi (news) were able to assemble general regional newsletters (p. 82), the forerunner of early newspapers.
It is interesting to note that these early journalists wrote anonymously to protect their sources and themselves. Thanks to a more organised courier system, these printed sheets of paper carried the narratives of the day. Kings, princes and nobles were delighted to see their names in print: the more frequently, the better.
This system of frequently printed and delivered news spread across Europe by the end of the 16th century. The first formal newspapers appeared in the 17th century.
Wars of Religion and Counter-Reformation
Less scrupulous and more emotional men later began adopting this same information-sifting process and drew premature or wild conclusions. Often, they were from religious or political minorities.
This type of fractured narrative holds true of today’s conspiracy theories. Fact is accompanied by an additional and new narrative which turns the original version on its head. Those who feel marginalised or under-represented latch onto it.
Zwierlein tells us that the process for the modern conspiracy theory did not evolve until the Wars of Religion in France and the Counter-Reformation in Europe. The Protestants in Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland and France feared Catholic dominance. Persecution of Protestants took place in the Netherlands and France in the 16th century.
Protestants considered pamphlet writing (anonymously), printing (or copying by hand) and distribution as important for their fellow men (p. 82). However, some of these contained unfounded projections about (p. 83):
the international state system and the politico-religious competition within and between the states of that system. 12
The best example of this, Zwierlein says, was a Protestant newsletter explaining a 17-point pan-European conspiracy on the part of Catholic rulers, with the help of papal funding, to depose Protestant ones and ensure that Catholicism was the only form of Christianity. The pamphlet minutely detailed how this would come about. The supposed plan involved Germany, Spain, Scotland, England, France and influential nobility of the day (pp. 83-84).
Whilst the author’s knowledge of the personalities and past politics of the major players was exceptional, Zwierlein says the conclusions were less plausible (p. 84). Anyone who has studied history will know that one cannot have a notional secret alliance involving too many parties. Furthermore, each of the nations involved would have had particular political or territorial interests which would have made it unlikely that a common cause, even Catholicism, could bring them together in concert, especially for such a huge undertaking.
Not surprisingly, a few years later, the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre of Huguenots in France engendered a number of printed and handwritten pamphlets which circulated all over Europe (p. 84). These brought conspiracy theories to a wider audience.
However, this bloody day in French history also brought about an early propaganda narrative. The first of the pamphlets appeared ten days after news reached Rome of the massacre. Its author was Camillo Capilupi who not only was a secret chamberlain of the Pope but also an agent of the Duke of Nantua, who was one of the masterminds behind the massacre and a Franco-Italian of the house of Gonzaga. Capilupi entitled his work ‘Stratagem’ and used terms such as astuzia and prudenza in his elaborate description of the French king Charles IX’s brilliance in bringing this deadly plan to fruition (p. 85). In reality, Charles IX was a young king considered to be weak, relying on his mother and powerful advisers.
However successful Capilupi thought his pamphlet was, the Huguenots and other European Protestants seized on the information therein to detail how dastardly and scheming the French king and his advisers were (p. 87). Furthermore, whatever embellishments the Protestants might have added, they could always say that the ‘facts’ of the matter, such as they were, came from one of the Pope’s insiders himself.
Zwierlein concludes that fact took second place to an overall objective of careful construction of narrative to support one’s own version of a story. The powers that be and dissenters could weave fact with fantasy to suit their own purposes.
However, what had to engage the reader and keep him interested was an emotional appeal. The word ‘truth’ was often used as well as a mention of God or Providence.
Combining a narrative with emotion has continued to engage men and women with conspiracy theories from the Renaissance onward.
In England during this time, Elizabeth I was under threat:
After Henry VIII’s death, England endured the Western Rebellion of 1549; during Elizabeth’s reign, there occurred the Rebellion of 1569, as well as plots against the queen’s life, notably the Babington Plot, which led to the trial, conviction, and execution of Mary, Queen of Scots. Throughout the century and beyond, England had reason to fear an invasion and the uprising of native Catholics. The danger was by no means restricted to the year 1588, when Philip II of Spain sent his Armada to subdue England.
The court had to develop state narratives of what the Queen was doing and why. Pamphlets, tracts, plays, poetry and the Bible were part of the rhetorical devices used:
Every Englishman was required to hear the sermons on obedience three times during the year. The gist of the doctrine was this: The ruler was God’s lieutenant on earth; no subject, however exalted, had the right to actively oppose him. To do so was a sin against religion, punishable by suffering here and now and by eternal damnation after death. Even if the ruler were a tyrant, the subject had no right to oppose him, for the head of state ruled with God’s sufferance. In support of this doctrine, appeals were made primarily to biblical authority. Texts such as Romans 13 and Proverbs 8, as well as ones in Matthew, were cited repeatedly.
A new element was added to Elizabeth’s government: a spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham:
Born to a well-connected family of gentry, Walsingham travelled in continental Europe after leaving university before embarking at the age of twenty on a career in law. A committed Protestant, during the reign of the Catholic Queen Mary I of England he joined other expatriates in exile in Switzerland and northern Italy until Mary’s death and the accession of her Protestant half-sister, Elizabeth.
Walsingham rose from relative obscurity to become one of the small coterie who directed the Elizabethan state, overseeing foreign, domestic and religious policy. He served as English ambassador to France in the early 1570s and witnessed the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre. As principal secretary, he supported exploration, colonization, the use of England’s maritime strength and the plantation of Ireland. He worked to bring Scotland and England together. Overall, his foreign policy demonstrated a new understanding of the role of England as a maritime, Protestant power in an increasingly global economy. He oversaw operations that penetrated Spanish military preparation, gathered intelligence from across Europe, disrupted a range of plots against Elizabeth and secured the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots.
Intelligence was highly important in England and continued to be so afterward. Walsingham had an extensive networks of informants, information gatherers, spies and forgers to foil various plots and intrigues against the Queen.
This worked to keep Elizabeth I safe and secure. She ruled from 1558 to 1603.
Speaking of religion and conspiracy theories, the Jews have been the object of suspicion since Old Testament days.
In the first centuries of Christianity, Church doctors and councils made various inflammatory pronouncements against them. Rulers, sometimes with help from clerics, devised anti-Semitic laws and decrees:
Jews were very often forbidden to own land, preventing them from farming. Because of their exclusion from guilds, most skilled trades were also closed to them, pushing them into marginal occupations considered socially inferior, such as tax- and rent-collecting or money lending. Catholic doctrine of the time held that money lending to one’s fellow Christian for interest was a sin, and thus Jews tended to dominate this business. This provided the foundation for stereotypical accusations that Jews are greedy and involved in usury. Natural tensions between Jewish creditors and Christian debtors were added to social, political, religious, and economic strains. Peasants, who were often forced to pay their taxes and rents through Jewish agents, could vilify them as the people taking their earnings while remaining loyal to the lords and rulers on whose behalf the Jews worked. The number of Jewish families permitted to reside in various places was limited; they were forcibly concentrated in ghettos; and they were subjected to discriminatory taxes on entering cities or districts other than their own.
Nearly every town in France has a thoroughfare called Rue des Juifs: Jews’ Street. It is no doubt similar in other European countries. In the City of London, now the financial district, but, until the Great Fire of 1666, the only densely populated part of the city, a street called Old Jewry still exists, although it has been centuries since it has been a Jewish ghetto.
Martin Luther comes under much criticism for his sometimes violent anti-Semitic writing. This is because he had initially hoped Germany’s Jews would join him in opposing the Catholic Church during the Reformation. That did not happen. Just before he died, Luther adopted a much more charitable outlook and said that his followers should pray for the Jews and show them brotherly love. However, some historians think that the bulk of what Luther had said and written helped to indirectly determine certain historic anti-Semitic events.
In the 16th century, a French writer and historian Etienne Pasquier targeted not only Jews but also the Jesuits, linking them together to cause deep suspicion and mistrust among his readers. French historian Léon Poliakov told Marianne (aforementioned issue, p. 17) that Pasquier wrote:
dans la jésuiterie, il y a beaucoup de juiverie.
Among the Jesuits, there is much Jewishness.
Cromwell’s kindness towards the Jews during the Interregnum in England and, later, the French Revolution, brought about their integration into European society. Many became highly successful and influential at local and national levels. Modern-day conspiracy theorists point to banking.
In Russia and other parts of Eastern Europe, violent pogroms took place in the 19th century. The poorest Jews were affected, being driven out of towns and villages. In 1901, members of the Tsarist police wrote The Protocols of Zion. Although the information therein is false, it was designed to arouse intense public suspicion and emotion. Its main themes were making Jewish people out to be universal plotters and conspirators, especially with Freemasons and Bolsheviks. Adolf Hitler read the book and referred to it in Mein Kampf.
The Jesuits have both created and been the subject of conspiracy theories.
Augustin Barruel, a French priest belonging to the Society of Jesus during the French Revolution, took refuge in Germany then in England. He accused the leaders of the Revolution of being in league with prominent Freemasons to bring about an ungodly fall of the French royal family and the Church. He dedicated his book Histoire du Clergé pendant la Revolution Française to the people of England in gratitude for the hospitality and graciousness they showed him during his stay. He ended up returning to France in 1802 and encouraged his fellow priests to accept the newly established order but to continue their defence of the Church.
John Robison, a Scot who was a contemporary of Barruel, popularised conspiracy theories involving Freemasons.
Robison was a scientist and an inventor who became disillusioned with the Enlightenment. He became an author, putting his belief into writing that the German secret society the Illuminati pursued links with British Masonic lodges in order to overthrow all European governments and religious practice.
One of Robison’s readers sent a copy of the book to George Washington, asking for the American president’s thoughts. Washington replied that although he did not believe that there was a wholesale Masonic plot against the United States or Europe, he did not doubt that certain lodge members had been working on such a plan.
Those who read Robison’s Proofs of a Conspiracy against all the Religions and Governments of Europe, carried on in the secret meetings of Freemasons, Illuminati and Reading Societies and Barruel’s books would have come to the same conclusion.
The same conspiracy theory narrative continues today, wrapped up in the same emotion and rhetoric used during the Renaissance.
How does one break one’s habit of reading these with avid interest? The closer one moves towards prayer and Bible reading, the less one needs half-baked factoids wrapped in sensationalism.