Skip to content

Tobias Churton

Occult Paris – Tobias Churton (2016)

Another Churton. This time about Paris during the “Belle Epoque”. According to the author an unexposed part of esoteric history, at least in the English language.

As you may know, the late 19th century had an ‘occult revival’. Movements such as Theosophy rose, different systems of ‘high grade’ Freemasonry came into being. Martinism, neo-Rosicrucianity. Much of this can in one way of another be traced back to “Belle Epoque” (“Beautiful Epoch”) Paris.

Eliphas Levi (1810-1875) lived just before this time, but he was one of the inspirators. What Churton mostly concerns is the “Symbolist” movement. Painters, poets, composers, etc. apparently longed back to a time of magic. Bookshop, meetings, groups and movements were formed by people with similar interests where they met, discussed, inspired each other and indeed, held seances too.

In Churton’s book you will not only meet Edmond Bailly, Fabre d’Olivet, Saint-Yves d’Alveydre, Stanislas de Guaita, Lady Caithness, but most of all Joséphin Péladan and Papus. (And many others.)

The movement oddly went from a more occult orientation to a more artistic one and back. Of course there were several big egos, clashes, schisms and the like, so you will learn about Rosicrucian movements that were basically magical organisations, while others appear to be more art-movements. Or were they? Gnosticism, Cathars, Martinism, Freemasonry, magicians and philosophers all these things oddly ran through each other with Paris as focal point, also when we are talking North America and Russia.

Churton has presented another interesting book about a interesting part of history. I do not know if it was a story formerly untold, but it sure was a nice read with here and there some subjects to dive into deeper.

2016 Inner Traditions, isbn 162055545X

The Invisible History Of The Rosicrucians – Tobias Churton (2009)

Another Churton, and I have bought yet more. Obviously, in this book Churton takes a look at the Rosicrucians, a history often told.

As in his other works, Churton used recent (and less recent) scholarly publications, especially those of Carlos Gilly and Susanna Åkerman. He frequently refers to the Ritman Library (aka Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica aka Embassy Of The Free Mind). Churton is connected to the Exeter University where there is a seat for Western Esotericism. Still Churton does not read ‘dry scholarly’, quite the contrary actually. I have just started a very recent academic publication about the Rosicrucians and Churton does not even seem to be a source there. Does he move just outside the usual suspects of Rosicrucian scholars?

It is not like his book is one of those popular ‘alternative history’ books with much spectacle and little substantiation. And even though -more than in his other books- he uses other publications for his information, there is also again his own information and approach.

Churton puts the Rosicrucian furore in a bit of a cadre. astronomy (supernovas), upcoming science, radical individuals and groups, etc. Even though he looks at people and how they relate to each other his conclusion is that there was no Rosicrucian brotherhood. This is somewhat annoyingly repeatedly stressed towards the end.

What there was were people with ideals, certain interests, people who saw that the world was running in the wrong direction. Not even central among them was Johan Valentin Andreae, the author of the Fama, the Chemical Wedding, perhaps also of the Confessio, but also of a load of other writings that are often left aside by authors on Rosicrucian history. Churton does look at Andreae’s other writings and thus paints an interesting picture in which the Rosicrucian craze is a bit of an embarrassment for Andreae. The manifestoes were not published at Andreae’s wish, but because somebody got hold of a copy and took it to a publishing house. What Andreae was really after and what the publication of the manifestoes thwarted rather than helped is something you get an idea of reading Churton’s book.

Of course there was more to the Rusicrucian furore than Andreae and there was much more to Andreae than Rocrucianism. Churton describes how thinkers such as Andreae, but also Jan Amos Comenius and others saw the need of a reformation much wider than the Reformation, a development that just may have influenced the ‘start’ of early Freemasonry.

Towards the end of the book the author starts describing ‘neo-Rosicrucian’ organisations and people. This is a bit of a history of Western esotericism after 1730. “Fringe” Freemasonry (Churton seems to see ‘high grade’ Freemasonry as “fringe”), famous esotericists, Rosicrucian groups, Crowley, all things mildly related and yet very much unrelated as there was no historical Rosicrucian brotherhood, fills the last chapters of the book.

Churton paints a bit of a larger picture than what you are often presented. Especially more of the person of Andreae was an interesting read. All in all, I do not think I learned a whole lot of things new. Churton’s book is a bit of an ‘easy read’ about the subject, a bit of an updated Frances Yates so to say. If you want a not too dry book about the subject with fairly updated information, scholarly in background and easier to get than academic publications, this could be a title to look at.

2009 Inner Traditions, isbn 159477255X

The Magus Of Freemasonry – Tobias Churton (2004)

Here we have Churtons biography of Elias Ashmole (1617-1692) “Scientist, Alchemist, and Founder of the Royal Society”. Both Ashmole and Churton have lived in the city of Lichfield and Churton took it upon himself to not only clear the name of Ashmole of centuries of misinformation, but also to sift through archives for new information. The result is the interesting story of an interesting man.

After an introduction, we start in Ashmole’s early years of course. He had an overly stern father and a mother who tried to help him become an independent thinker within the range of her possibilities. Ashmole left his parental house as soon as he could (with a little help from his mother) only to loose his mother to the plague shortly after. This sets the tone of a life with highs and lows.

Ashmole lived in troubled times. There was a political war in which he served what later turned out to be the losing side. The Reformation took hold of religious life and its churches. There was the mentioned plague. Last but not least, the witch-craze started to develop as well, which made it hazardous to be interested in things such as alchemy, Rosicrucianism and the like.

Ashmole was mostly an antiquarian. He gathered information and objects and initially gathered that in books, towards the end of his life, he was found the very first public museum. Especially his successful book about the Order of the Garter made his name. He was quite familiar with other antiquarians and intellectuals of his time and had a bunch of long time friends even though he lived across the country.

Ashmole married three times, two wives he outlived. He could not really be without a partner, both for emotional and for financial reasons. He remained on good standing with his families in law, especially the first. He was even initiated into “Free Masonry” in 1646 together with a nephew of his first wife who had long passed.

The author looks at people close to Ashmole painting an interesting picture of early Freemasonry, but also of other pursuits that Ashmole was involved in, such as the Royal Society. Later in his life his name of “magus” did not have the negative marking it was likely to have in his days and even resulted in him being given a large part of the diaries of his big hero John Dee (1527-1608).

The not-so-good name that Ashmole still has, mostly comes from unjust legal actions against him. Some of his former family in law kept coming with new lawsuits over things that had been settled, but worse for his name was the incident in which he was given a large collection of rarities of a fellow collector, while by the time the man had died, his widow would accuse Ashmole of theft and also sue him. This suggestion of unjustly having acquired a large part of what would later become the collection of the Ashmolean Museum still stains his name. Churton sheds more light on these events.

Elias Ashmole was an interesting man with ideas that our quite ‘far out’ in our own time, but were less so in his own days. Also he was ahead of his time in his capacity as antiquarian, scientist and scholar.

2004 Inner Traditions, isbn 1594771227

The Golden Builders – Tobias Churton (2004)

I saw this book referred to in the mildly interesting work about esoteric Freemason The Path Of Freemasonry. Especially references to Elias Ashmole caught my interest.

The Golden Builders is subtitled: “alchemists, Rosicrucians, first Freemasons” which spans a subject I am much interested in as I am curious to know how elements of the named ‘philosophies’ found their way into Masonic symbolism.

Just as the book I found this title in, Churton starts with a fairly general overview of Western esotericism. Hermetica, Alchemy, Renaissance, Hermetica, nothing new really. What is somewhat interesting is that Churton used the (then) latest investigations from academic circles, so he does refer to recent findings here and there.

Especially referring to recent findings of Carlos Gilly, with the part about the Rosicrucians the book starts to become a lot more interesting. Churton really dug in the persons involved in the Rosicrucian ‘movement’, looking at Andreae and his surroundings, the religious turmoil of these days, where inspiration came from, etc. A trace can even be followed to the Royal Society.

Via John Dee we come to Elias Ashmole (1617-1692), whom Ashmole admired greatly. Ashmole is often ‘used’ to make a link between “operative” and “speculative” Freemasonry, but Churton shows that there is much more to say than only referring to both of Ashmole’s diary entrances about Freemasonry, the suggestion that he might have been a Rosicrucian and the fact that he was involved on the early Royal Society, which -in turn- influenced the rising of the ‘premiere Grand Lodge’ of 1717.

Ashmole was initiated a Freemason in 1646, 70 years before the foundation of the first Grand Lodge. Much has been written about why and how a non-“operative” was initiated into an “operative” lodge. Was it an occasional lodge? Where there separate lodges to initiate the “gentry” or did these noblemen join lodges and slowly but surely take them over, reforming “operative” lodges into “speculative” ones? Churton has a thing or two to say about this.

Through his first marriage, Ashmole can be linked to a long tradition of “operative” Masons going back to the dawn of Cistercian cloister builders. Even after losing his first wife the the plague, Ashmole was initiated together with a nephew of his late wife. Churton also has a look at that good man. In this regard it is also interesting to note the suggestion that people adhering the ‘old religion’ (Catholicism) appeared to have played a big role in the Masonic transition.

What makes Ashmole interesting is that he compiled alchemical works, was interested in Hermeticism and he was known for that, even in times of the witch-craze. It could have been Ashmole and perhaps people ‘like him’ who introduced certain elements to Masonic symbolism.

A subject that I would have preferred to have been worked out is the interesting case of Sir William Wilson who was known to be an “operative” Mason who was (again?) initiated, while Churton suggests that there was no “operative” versus “speculative” Freemasonry in these days.

the term “speculative Freemasonry” has been used to make a spurious distinction between post-1717 ‘symbolic’ masonry and the old trade which ‘preceded’ it, in effect drawing a cautious (and unnecessary) veil over the movement’s genuine past.

The Golden Builders became a more interesting book than I expected in the first half. Unfortunately (and of course) not all questions are answered, but the interesting case of Ashmole is a lot more clear now. Churton also published a book solely about Ashmole two years after this one, which is the next title on my reading list. Churton has more titles that appear to be of interest. In The Golden Builders he is not too clear about it, but he seems to do a lot of research himself not only recapitulating what has been written before. He dove into archives, tried to find family information, etc. He may be an author I will read some more of.

2004 Weiser, isbn 157863329X