Frances A. Yates

Frances A. Yates

Frances Yates
Professor Frances Yates
Born (1899-11-28)28 November 1899
Southsea, Hampshire
Died 29 September 1981(1981-09-29) (aged 81)
Surbiton, Surrey
Occupation historian, writer
Nationality British
Alma mater University College London, Warburg Institute
Subjects History of Western esotericism

Dame Frances Amelia Yates DBE (28 November 1899 – 29 September 1981) was an English historian who focused on the development of western esotericism. In an academic capacity, she taught at the Warburg Institute of the University of London for many years, and also wrote a number of seminal books on the subject of esoteric history.

She wrote extensively on the occult or Neoplatonic philosophies of the Renaissance. Her books Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (1964), The Art of Memory (1966), and The Rosicrucian Enlightenment (1972) are major works. She "dealt with traditions whose remoteness she could not eliminate, even while she made them more understandable."[1]


She was born in Southsea, Portsmouth, Hampshire. Her father, a devout Anglican, was a naval engineer who began working in the shipyards as a teenager and supervised the construction of British warships in the years leading up to World War I. The youngest of four children, she grew up in a middle class family whose Victorian worldview influenced her later scholarship. Although one of her older sisters attended Girton College, Cambridge, like many independent women scholars, Frances was educated at home by her mother, yet attended Birkenhead High School for some time. Through part-time correspondence study, she was granted degree in French at University College, London (UCL), achieving firsts, in 1924, and an MA at the same institution on French Theater in 1926.[2]

The death of her only brother in World War I, along with the ravages of World War II, underscored her disdain for rampant nationalism. She espoused interdisciplinary historiography, and for more than forty years she was affiliated with the Warburg Institute, University of London.

She died in Surbiton, Surrey after a brief illness, aged 81.

Scholarly writings

With the publication of Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition Yates highlighted the hermeticism within Renaissance culture, and spoke of the interest in mysticism, magic and Gnosticism of Late Antiquity that survived the Middle Ages. Yates suggested that the itinerant Catholic priest Giordano Bruno was executed in 1600 for espousing the Hermetic tradition rather than his affirmation of cosmic acentricity. Her works drew attention to the role played by magic in early modern science and philosophy, before scholars such as Keith Thomas brought this topic into the historiographical mainstream. Thomas references Yates alongside Piyo M. Rattansi for the basic point that hermetic thinking fed into the foundations of modern science, before being dispelled later.[3]


Some of her conclusions have later been challenged by other scholars.[4] Yates remains one of the major scholars of hermeticism in Renaissance Europe;[5] and her book The Art of Memory (1966) has been named one of the most significant non-fiction books of the 20th century. Paolo Rossi identified two key points in it: the past importance and later loss of mnemnotechnics as a human power, where (he feels) she overstated the occult or "Jungian" aspect; and the subsequent marginalization of the area, which he considers valid and of wider applicability.[6] Frances Yates and the Hermetic Tradition by Marjorie G. Jones, the first biography of Yates, was published in 2008 by Ibis Press.


It is now said that Yates founded a paradigm, or gave out a grand narrative. In those terms, a so-called Yates paradigm (sometimes Yates Thesis), her work is contested freely. This is a view that Wouter Hanegraaff has put forth, starting with Yates as the scholar first to treat Renaissance hermeticism, integrated with Rosicrucianism, as a coherent aspect of European culture. He has stated it as an attractive paradox, the autonomous esotericism helping give birth to the scientific mentality that will be dismissive of its parent. But, it is now said, there was no unitary esoteric tradition and that view is only tenable on a selective reading of the evidence. The arguments surrounding this questioning of Yates include Lodovico Lazzarelli as not included; and the rival views of Antoine Faivre, who has proposed a clearer definition of esotericism.[7]

Hanegraaff argued that the reception of Yates' work was coloured by the Zeitgeist. An extra assumption, that the magus had a point of view that could be recovered, was fashionably added. Further he argues that essentialist rather than nominalist use of the very term "esotericism" has vitiated succeeding work. The "Yates paradigm", in his view, dominated in the 1970s but fell by the wayside in the 1980s for scholars.[8] Hints on the "Yates thesis" were left as sketches in works of Yates herself (Francis Bacon in relation to hermeticism, and the Hartlib circle, in particular). These related to paths, and how actual influence on science was effected.

Brian Vickers identifies Rattansi, A. G. Debus and Peter J. French as on the side of the Yates thesis, with M. B. Hesse, Edward Rosen, Paolo Rossi, and Charles Trinkaus on the other side. He notes that the debate (up to 1984) was not conducted by close reading of texts and evidence; he himself is entirely unconvinced by the thesis.[9]

John Crowley drew extensively on Yates for the occult motifs in Little, Big (1981) and the Ægypt Sequence (1987-2007) in which she briefly appears as a character.

Awards and honours

Yates was recipient of numerous prizes and honorary degrees. She was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1972, and elevated to Dame Commander (DBE) in 1977.


  • John Florio: The Life of an Italian in Shakespeare's England (1934)
  • A study of Love's labour's lost (1936)
  • The French Academies of the Sixteenth Century (1947)
  • The Valois Tapestries (1959)
  • Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (1964) ISBN 9780226950075
  • The Art of Memory (1966) ISBN 9780226950013
  • Theatre of the World (1969)
  • The Rosicrucian Enlightenment (1972)
  • Astraea : The Imperial Theme in the Sixteenth Century (1975)
  • Shakespeare's Last Plays: A New Approach (1975)
  • The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age (1979)
  • Lull and Bruno (1982) Collected Essays I
  • Renaissance and Reform : The Italian Contribution (1983) Collected Essays II
  • Ideas and Ideals in the North European Renaissance (1984) Collected Essays III

See also




  • Margaret Jacob and Edward Gosselin, Eloge: Dame Frances Amelia Yates, 28 November 1899 – 29 September 1981, Isis, Vol. 73, No. 3 (Sep., 1982), pp. 424–426.
  • Jones, Marjorie G. Frances Yates & the Hermetic Tradition (Ibis Press, 2008, ISBN 978-0-89254-133-1)

External links

  • WorldCat catalog)
  • Warburg page