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Frances A. Yates (1899–1981)

Author of The Art of Memory

26+ Works 4,031 Members 55 Reviews 20 Favorited

About the Author

Image credit: Warburg Institute


Works by Frances A. Yates

The Art of Memory (1966) — Author — 1,472 copies
Theatre of the World (1969) 126 copies
Lull & Bruno (1982) 52 copies
The Valois tapestries (1707) 27 copies

Associated Works


Common Knowledge

Canonical name
Yates, Frances A.
Legal name
Yates, Frances Amelia
Date of death
Burial location
Claygate Churchyard, Claygate, Surrey, UK
Portsmouth, Hampshire, England, UK
Place of death
Claygate, Surrey, England, UK
Places of residence
London, England, UK
University College London (BA | 1924 | MA | 1926 | D.Litt | 1965)
Warburg Institute
Warburg Institute, University of London
Awards and honors
Dame Commander, Order of the British Empire (1977)
Fellow, British Academy (1967)
Wolfson History Award (1973)
Member, Order of the British Empire (1972)
Foreign Member, Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (1980)
Mary Crawshaw Prize (1935) (show all 11)
Marion Reilly Award (1943)
Foreign Honorary Member, American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1975)
Premio Galilio Galilie (1978)
Fellow, Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford
Fellow, Warburg Institute
Short biography
Frances A. Yates received a master's degree in French theatre from London University in 1926. She taught at North London Collegiate School until 1939. A small inheritance from her father gave her the freedom to conduct some independent study and at some point she discovered forgotten documents in the London Public Records Office about the late 16th-century linguist and translator John Florio. In 1934, she published her first book, John Florio: the Life of an Italian in Shakespeare's England, which laid the groundwork for the rest of her prize-winning career as a scholar of the Renaissance. She also taught at the Warburg Institute of the University of London for many years.



While I learned bits of history that I had been unaware of it is difficult to fully comprehend this work without more background in the traditions referenced.
ritaer | 11 other reviews | Aug 23, 2023 |
16. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition by Frances A. Yates
published: 1964
format: 461-page paperback
acquired: 2013
read: Dec 15, 2021 – Apr 19, 2022
time reading: 33:01, 4.3 mpp
rating: 5
locations: Bruno lived in Nola, Naples, Paris, London (with a stop in Oxford), Wittenberg, Prague, Helmstadt, Frankfurt, Padua, Venice (where we was arrested) and Rome (where he was imprisoned and executed), 1548-1600.
about the author: English Historian associated with the Warburg Institute, University of London: 1899 –1981

Giordano Bruno is famous for fully embracing Copernicus's uncentering of the earth and taking it one step beyond - arguing for infinite universe, the earth just one object in this vast space; and that there was no center. No one else was arguing this. He was arrested in 1592 in Venice, interrogated by the church for 8 years and on February 17, 1600, with his tongue physically muffled, he was hung upside and burned in Rome. Among the intellectually swirling early years of the 17th century and later enlightenment, he was viewed as a martyr to science and as an exemplum of the muffling by the church of free exploration.

Yates book is a targeted correction of the myth. Bruno was no scientist. He was deeply religious and his entire outlook was spiritual. The infinite universe was, to him, kind of a reflection of the infinite thinking-space in our own minds, one which he made an active effort to cram, in memory, everything important (in order to better link in with god). But Yates goes one step further herself, arguing that Giordano Bruno was pursuing a Hermitic religion - that is he took the so called Hermetic writings, roughly discovered by Europe in the mid 15th century, as an ancient source of truth, more ancient than Christianity or its Judaic parent or any known ancient religion. These are very spiritual writings with a striking creation story, and full gnostic ideas related to Egyptian mythology, and full of magic, even providing instructions on how to create magical talismans and statues.

While I can't speak for how original her idea was in 1964, I think she could make her case in a short scholarly article. It's not doubtful. So while this book is thematically all about this argument, it's also a whole lot more: a background, biography and exploration of who Bruno was and what his influence was. The first half is an explanation of these Hermetic writings and what they were. The second half is the life of Bruno and an overview of his constant ferocious writing he continually published until his arrest. Then she ends with a look at how European scientific thought developed after Bruno. The scientific perspective began to dominate the intellectual world a few decades after Bruno's execution, led especially by Rene Descartes. The age of enlightenment did not look back on Bruno's ideas, but marched ahead as if it was always there. And Yates asks, what changed? What allowed the intellectual community to make the shift from religion, and spiritual ideas, and magic and alchemy, to, as Yates put it, "mechanical" sciences? And why is Bruno hanging out in between these two states of mind?


The writings of Hermes Trismegistus are a collection of Egyptian-influence Greek religious texts from the 2nd century. They are attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, but the true authors are unknown. In the 1460's they were translated from Greek into Latin by Marsilo Ficino for the Cosimo de' Medici. For roughly 150 years Ficino's Hermetica would heavily influence European religious and intellectual thought. They were considered nearly the oldest and most sacred texts available. They were seen to predict Christianity, and were also used to develop practical magic. Shortly after translation Giovanni Pico Della Mirandola merged the ideas in them with Hebrew Jewish Cabalism creating a religious magic philosophy - something not really at all Christian. But still Pope Alexander VI, of the Borgia family, blessed this work as if it were Christian. And this blessing allowed scholars throughout the western Christian world to openly study it. The text (mixed with some other key texts) formed the foundation of respectable occult thinking in Europe. This lasted until Isaac Casaubon, a scholar of Greek with a chip on his shoulder, attacked its age. The language of the work was not an ancient Greek, but a Greek from early Christian era. He published his attack in 1614, after Bruno's execution, effectively closing the Hermetic tradition (although the ideas would linger).


Giordano Bruno was a rejected Domincan. Born in Nola, near Naples, he was very religious but kicked out of his Dominican order. He left Italy looking for an audience for his ideas and some sponsorship. He went to Paris where he got some support from King Henry III, then to England where he lived with the French ambassador in London. He famously travelled to Oxford to lecture in what became a something of fantastic argument. Documents of the time point to English scholars slowly picking up on the Hermetic aspects of his Copernican ideas. (Apparently, they brought out their own copies of Ficino). Oddly Bruno was viewed as a papist by protestant Oxford. From England Bruno continued to wander - back to Paris, to Martin Luther's Wittenberg (where he was welcomed warmly), to Prague, Helmstadt, Frankfort, Switzerland, and fatefully to Venice. He had in mind a Giordanic religion. He was no charlatan. He was a sincere magus. Brunos ideas were all in the mind. He elaborated on the medieval memory systems, developing his own style with the goal that he could memorize all the occult information, hundreds and hundreds of facts, complete texts, and that if he could hold it all in his mind at once, he sort of become one with the universe, an all-knowing master. As Yates put it, "The possessor of this system {memorizing eveything} thus rose above time and reflected the whole universe of nature and of man in his mind." Or, as Bruno put it, "Unless you make yourself equal to God, you cannot understand God…If you embrace in your thought all things at once, times, places, substances, qualities, quantities, you may understand God." It's pretty cool stuff. It's also not Christian. Bruno was fearless. Other hermetic scholars tied the hermetica into Christianty. Bruno saw, correctly, they were independent (they are 2nd-century Egyptian gnostic ideas) and dove in. He always saw himself as Christian, but his ideas were truly heretical. This was why he was executed, not because of his patently non-scientific infinite universe.

In the odd swings of history, the documents from Bruno's trial were later carried to Paris and destroyed. But documents from his interrogation exist. And it seems Bruno stuck to his ideas faithfully to the bitter end.


I bought this in 2013 in an occult science phase (inspired a bit by Club Read's Poquette). I started it in December and finished last night. Pages of Hermetic magic, of Latin untranslated, and the writings G Bruno (in Italian and Latin), plus the French commentary, made for very slow reading. But after taking this all in, there is really a rich world to think about. And there is that science thing. The link between the drives of the metaphysical perspectives - those of religion, magic, and science - include a method of structured thinking, but also may be in their origins. Each demands a kind of enlightenment moment to start things off. Even science needs an inspiration. And here at that point of inspiration, Bruno fits all three ideas and makes a nice 3-point intersection. Recommended to anyone excited by these ideas.

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dchaikin | 9 other reviews | Apr 23, 2022 |
Very hard going for me. I'm sure there are many academics who would enjoy it. Knowledge of Latin needed.
MarkKeeffe | 14 other reviews | Mar 7, 2022 |
This was a very interesting book with curious subject matter. It allowed me to broach the subject of "The Art of Memory" and to explore it in depth. It is adequately written and I believe good reading for those interested in intellectual pursuits.

4 stars.
DanielSTJ | 14 other reviews | Feb 24, 2020 |



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