Thursday, May 26, 2011

Medieval Secret Societies

For reasons I will explain in due course, I'm trying to come up with a solid list of historical or semi-historical groups from the European Middle Ages (specifically no later than the  mid-13th century) that might reasonably be called "secret societies." So, I'm thinking of groups like the Assassins or the Knights Templar, though, in a pinch, I'd probably be willing to accept purely fictitious groups like the Priory of Zion, since it's well enough established in nutcase conspiracy lore that to exclude it might almost require an explanation in itself.

Toss your suggestions into the comments and we'll see what we can come up with. Thanks!

EDIT: To clarify, I am not looking for groups that actually were conspiratorial secret societies in the Middle Ages. I am looking for groups that could be called such if one were of a mind to do so, as in, say, an over-the-top historical fantasy setting with demons and vampires and the like. The only historical accuracy I care about is whether a given organization actually existed or could have existed in the period, not whether they really worshiped a brazen head or were plotting the overthrow of Capetian dynasty.

56 comments:

  1. Vehmic courts (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vehmic_court) would be an obvious option.

    Also, I wouldn't know how historic/semi-historic it is, but Bernard Cornwell in his Warlord trilogy presents a late, degenerated Cult of Mithras as a sort of secret religious warrior society during the Early Middle Ages - it's certainly a good enough idea, and one that could be used as a replacement for the tired old "Adventurer's Guild" trope.

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  2. i can't think of any, as that concept seems pretty foreign to the European Middle Ages prior to 1250. Even the two you mention are hardly Secret Societies of the sort meant by modern commentators (although they have come to be seen as such). If the Templars count, then probably every monastic order would count too. One possibility could be religious confraternities, which, IIRC, got started in Italy by 1250 and which tended to embrace community and class interests as much as religious devotion. Guilds are another obvious choice, but again, are they secret? By 1250 lots of minor trades had their own guilds.

    The age of chivalric orders is still far off (14th c).

    There is a fair amount of legislation (famously from Carolingian capitularies) that prohibit 'conspiracies' and groups formed by common oaths. For the carolingian period this is usually understood as drinking societies or politically-motivated sworn associations of the disgruntled. By the 11th century you can see urban elites forming communes, which used oaths to both delimit membership and form bonds of solidarity. Not sure if they could be considered 'secret', but they were certainly exclusive.

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  3. I wouldn't actually call the Knights Templar a secret society, at least not at the height of their power - they operated openly after all.

    The Vehmic Courts were active since at least 1251 and probably earlier, and were arguably at least semi-secret - their existence was known, and they were apparently working with the sanction of the authorities, but the actual membership of the courts was not common knowledge and their proceedings were carried out in secret.

    But beyond them and the Assassins there aren't as many known as the Dan Browns of this world would like us to think. Doubtless various networks of secret informers were cultivated by the powerful or the influential, doubtless you had various clubs out there, but for the most part the golden age of European secret societies kicked in with the Renaissance.

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  4. Andreas Capellanus (late 12th) mentions 'courts of love' presided over by ladies, but there is no 'historical' evidence of such courts, only mentions in epic and romance. Still, that might count ... although they are still pretty general

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  5. one could easily argue that heresies were also quasi-secret societies (e.g. the Cathari), as they allegedly had their own initiation rites, hierarchical membership, etc. But there were relatively few other heresies that were as well-organized as the cathars were alleged to be.

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  6. Cathar's, Bogomils, the Vehmic Courts started towards the end of that period IIRC and might meet your definition. "European" might include a whole range of Middle-Eastern esoteric/mystery sects as well.

    The Garduna is too late I think.

    D.

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  7. The Garduna is too late I think.

    Unfortunately so.

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  8. The Hanseatic League had (or so I'm led to believe) overtones of a secret society that operated in the open, much like the Templars and the modern masons.

    Other knightly orders included the Knights Hospitillar, the Knights of Santiago, the Knights of the Sword and the Teutonic Knights.

    Many Kings and Princes operated their own spy networks, usually with a trusted clergman or knight at their head.

    There is evidence to suggest that Mithric cults continued on for a long time.

    The Christian faith is an example of an appolonian style faith but may Dionysian style faiths (typically called Mystery Cults) continued to exist into the late dark ages/early medieval period. These later faiths include the Mithrans. Generally Apollonian religions were organised heirarchies while Dionysian faiths tend to operate in loosely connected "cell" structures.

    The church of Isis is a similar mystery cult that was very popular with medieval woman who sought to empower themselves.

    Many Chritian "heresies" continued into the late middle ages, often acting in secret in ways similar to a secret society. The Arian heresy is one such example. henry V of England had sixty Lollards executed in England as late as 1413.

    The embryonic protestant faiths are another excellent example of secret medieval (albiet late medieval) secret societies.

    Islam had the cult of dervishes who worshipped Allah through dance and odd (to muslim and christian eyes) rituals.

    And then of course you had the covens of country folk (pagans means "country folk') who continued to worship the old Gods in secret.

    Thats not an exhaustive list by any means. Hope it helps.

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  9. Oh and I almost forgot. Jewish moneylenders would usually honour one anothers letters of credit and therefore had a wide reaching information network of their own. To medieval christian eyes, medieval jews could qualify as a s ecret society since they practiced strange (ie: non-christian) rituals, spoke their own language and generally kept themselves apart (or more usually, were kept apart from) mainstream medieval society.

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  10. Free-masons mythology claims middle-age origins among cathedral builders, so it fits your frame.

    Same thing for Carbonari (charcoal burners : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carbonari), which could provide an intersting forest-dwellers underground society.

    In the same mood, nowadays druids claim a transmission from antiquity, so druids secret societies fits as well (Greyhawk old faith!).

    If you're using Templars, Hospitalers are the classical rival order - in the Muskeeters vs Cardinal guards mood.

    Hooded congregations with more or less discrete membership were common in the late middle-age. By the way, i wrote a small piece on congregations in the borderlands : http://awizardinabottle.blogspot.com/2011/02/congregations-of-borderlands.html

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  11. I can't think of much, prior to the Renaissance. The Troubador's (tying in with the Courtly Love thing, mentioned above.) You could also do something with some of the Kabbalistic circles of the period, if you're willing to stretch things. Mary Magdalene cults and the Black Madonna's. Might as well throw in the Knights Hospitaller, as a possible "society with secrets," or one which might have had an inner secret circle.

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  12. Okay, so too early and not-so-secret, but more of an autocratic/devious bunch, the Merovingians. Dan Brown and the Wachowski brothers seem to find them interesting enough....

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  13. I don't have any specific recommendations, but Umberto Eco's novels, especially Foucault's Pendulum, would be an excellent source for compiling a list.

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  14. Thinking about societies that operated more or less openly but could at least hide a secret society, how about every single monastic order? The Knights Templar were, after all, technically a bunch of monks in armour. Many monastic orders started with a few people disgruntled with the way the church and/or the current monastic orders were doing things and went off and did their own thing, and it was not uncommon for accusations of heresy to be levelled against them until they became sufficiently embedded in the body of the church that the clerical establishment stopped feeling threatened by them (because it had absorbed them).

    Wandering monks drift from settlement to settlement, seeing and hearing all sorts of things. Monasteries are basically foreign soil, places where the secular authorities often lack jurisdiction, where the brothers/sisters perform their own rituals and live according to their own code. The scope for secret society shenanigans is very much present, especially when they schism - look at the different factions that developed within the Franciscans after St. Francis died.

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  16. I made up a secret society of monster hunters that dated back to the middle ages, back in the days of X-Files and suchlike. The Hieronymus Society , named after its founding member, Hieronymus of Augsberg, a German knight errant and former crusader who fought all manner of fell beings in the 13th. century.

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  17. Off the top of my head:

    The Pythagoreans
    Knights Templar
    The Assassins
    The Waldensians
    Manichaeism
    The Cathars
    The Rosicrucians
    Cabalists

    Some of the above are probably out of the Medieval and into the renaissance, or too early (in the case of Pythagoras and his group of loonies). Any self-respecting secret society can (ostensibly) trace its roots back to the dawn of time, though, so it wouldn't be much to make them work.

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  18. Arthur said: "Thinking about societies that operated more or less openly but could at least hide a secret society, how about every single monastic order?" Ditto, as I said above.

    If you aren't looking for historicity, James, then why look for historicity? Just make something up!

    Otherwise any medieval group that featured oaths and limited memberships (monastic orders, guilds, confraternities, some heresies, lordships, etc) could be imputed with 'secret' and possibly conspiratorial motives.

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  19. Nobody has mentioned the idea, and I doubt it's based on any factual group, but when you mentioned Assassins and Templars it made me think of Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood.
    In the game there's a cult of pagans living underneath Roma who dress in wolf hides and worship Romulus. It turns out their leaders are secretly funded by the Templars though, so in the course of the game once you finish those leaders off the cult presumably dies out and disappears.

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  20. If you aren't looking for historicity, James, then why look for historicity? Just make something up!

    Mostly because I prefer my historical fantasies grounded in history but not bound by it.

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  21. Pedantry: They're called The Priory of Sion rather than ...Zion.

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  22. I'd imagine most secret societies would have been persecuted religions: Catholics in England, Jews in Spain who had pretended to convert to Christianity, Cathars in France, Christians in Japan, and so on. If you wanted something more fantastical, add satanists, Cthulhu-worshippers and pagans.

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  23. Secret societies could be a way to introduce extra classes into a setting without disrupting it too much. For example all illusionists are members of a secret hermetic order. That 'explains' why the characters haven't seen or heard of illusion spells before.

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  24. OK, here are few:

    Everyone knows knights Templar, there were also Orders of Knights Hospitaliers and Teutonic knights. The Alawite sect in Syria and the Ismailis of the Middle East were the historical ecvts on which the assassins myths were founded. In Japan, 12 Century Shugendo folk religion was another movement that was the foundation of the modern Ninja myth. This one leads directly to a fantasy setting: At around 12th century Japan, it was popular amiong the people to make pilgrimages to the Mountain tops. Yamabushi, Shugendo priests, Mountain Warriors, would guide the Pilgrims to and from the mountain tops and help protect them from the blizzards, other foul weather, bndits, and wild beasts. Yamabushi traditionally lived with the ladies of the night, ho owned roadside tea houses. They would offer strangers shelter from the cold and also these women were witches, who could read your fortune for a fee, and for a fee, keep you warm at night. To ghat list might add early Dravidian religions of the Indian sub-continent, also look into the concept of Titular Deities used by Tibetan Buddhism, and that would also constitute a secret society as the Tibetan monks had political power and ruled through terror and by exercise of a demionically esoteric religion. All of the secret societies of antiquty were religious in nature, but held commercial, social, spiritual and political power over the world at large. Hope this helps!

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  25. I just thought of an idea: illusionists are members of a secret Platonic order who have learned how to bring forth visions of the Heaven of Perfect Forms. Their spells have power, despite being only visions, because even as visions they are actually more real than anything in 'reality'.

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  26. Platonicians could also plot against the use of d10. Because he's a not platonic solid: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Platonic_solid

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  27. Underground covens of pagans has been mentioned, but you could take the idea further and tap into the conspiracies described in Margaret Murray's Witch-Cult in Western Europe.

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  28. Order of St. Lazarus. A knightly order in the Holy Land made up of lepers, many drawn from afflicted members of other knightly orders.

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  29. Oh, and the Order of the Hatchet, a knightly order made up of women.
    http://genreauthor.blogspot.com/2011/05/medieval-mondays-female-knights-in.html

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  30. That mid-1300's is killing me - the Order of the Dragon was founded in 1408, so that's out. How about the Order of the Garter? That's barely the time frame if you are looking for something that was just created.

    D.

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  31. James -
    Google books has Heckthorn's "Secret Societies of all ages and countries". It was written in the late 19th century and has the 'loose' scholarship that allows for creative misreadings.
    Though much of it is outside this specific time period, your can easily extend out the antique societies or back story some of the later.

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  32. It's too bad your cutoff date excludes the Accademia dei Lincei (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Accademia_dei_Lincei) -- how many secret societies can legitimately claim Galileo as a member?

    Someone above mentions Mithraic cults -- John M. Ford does some neat stuff with this in his alternate history _The Dragon Waiting_.

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  33. Some historical organisations that could possible fit:

    The Freemasons (although it's difficult to say how far back they go, they are the best known real secret society)

    and similarly the Rosicrucians.

    Also, The Invisible College. Not that secret, but some of their work would have been frowned upon by the church and public so was kept between themselves. I find the idea pretty exciting even before you add conspiracy theories.

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  34. There's the Luciferarians http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luciferians

    There are the Druze
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Druze

    The Order of the Garter is probably too late for you.

    There's another monastic knightly group called the Order of Christ which sprang up in Portugal after the Templars were disbanded.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Order_of_Christ_%28Portugal%29

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  35. You could always include the other Military Orders (the Teutonic Knights, the Hospitallers, etc.). I'd also like to second -- or third or whatever -- the Cathar and Bogomil suggestions.

    Due to your cut off date the Mendicant orders are just starting, so you could portray them as sort of weird and sinister, but I'd hesitate to do that for obvious reasons.

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  36. The Thieves' Guild of Paris.

    They trained their members in oratory, so if they were caught, they could speechify before being hanged and give their fellows more time to pick pockets in the crowd. What else could such devious minds be plotting?

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    Replies
    1. Hello! Is this a fictional group or a real/mythical one ? I have found references on the web to Cour des miracles, but nothing else.Cheers

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  37. This is a good project. Thumbs-up.

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  38. I'd recommend the Brethren of the Sword, the only Holy Order of the crusades that operated in what we know call the Baltic States (primarily Latvia). They were short lived, but were organized in a similar fashion to the Templars. I think there's accounts of them fighting werewolves in Montague Summer's book on the subject. Bullshit, of course, but intriguing grist for the mill! Check out THE NORTHERN CRUSADE or the section on them in Desmond Seward's THE HOLY ORDERS for more specs. Operated at the start of the 13th C.

    Good luck with the project and thanks for this site. Tons of great stuff and loved your analysis of Powers and Perils, one of the most memorable and rotten RPGs I ever played!

    Jay Ridler

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  39. The filidh of Ireland, with their secret language, secret writing and gesture spelling systems, border-crossing intermarried clans, frequent long-distance travels, and amazing Church-approved powers of prophecy. And a poetic license for wordplay and subtle references, that they weren't afraid to use.

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  40. And their own school system and bizarre legal rights and duties, of course. Plus tons of relatives and friends and acquaintances in influential positions, and the power to get invited in to dinner just about anywhere.

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  41. Whilst not a secret society proper. I have always like incorporating the Black Friars or Dominicans, a sort of witch hunting, demon exorcising, atheist hating order, into many of my campaigns. Though I'm sure the truth differs significantly form the legend with these fellows.

    Basically a whole bunch of Arneson inspired Clerics!!

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  42. i can't think of things that haven't already been listed, but it made me think of guild leaders, sort of a cabal, and the same with the scientific community of Europe. Literary societies (late period, evolve toward salon culture), associations that formed from freemen that frequented the same tavern, etc.

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  43. What about looking at:

    http://www.archive.org/details/secretsocieties01keiggoog

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  44. While the previous e-book refers to at least three secret societies: The Assassins, The Knights Templar and the Westphalian Trials (there is a mention in the introduction of Pythagoreanism). This book at least outlines some additional secret societies and "ancient mysteries" - I love the "adverts" for other books in the end pages.

    http://ia600300.us.archive.org/28/items/mysteriahistoryo00hennuoft/mysteriahistoryo00hennuoft.pdf

    The website for these free e-books is:

    http://www.digitalbookindex.com/_search/search010areamedievalsecretsocietiesa.asp

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  45. How about a society of builders responsible for building, and keeping the secrets of, hidden rooms and passages in castles.

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  46. The mystery cults of Greco-Roman antiquity could work as hold overs of ancient religions. They would include the Eleusinian Mysteries, the Dionysian Mysteries, and the Orphic Mysteries.

    Some of the many divinities that the Romans nominally adopted from other cultures also came to be worshipped in Mysteries, so for instance Egyptian Isis, Persian Mithraic Mysteries, Thracian/Phrygian Sabazius, and Phrygian Cybele.

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  47. I once came up with the idea that there was a Eurasian Crime Syndicate known as 'Black Dog'.

    I based it in the existance of a Bandit King in China known as Black Dog, along with assorted Seedy little taverns known as the Black Dog where criminals hang out.

    Also I include Legends and Tales like The Hound of the Baskervilles, and The Brotherhood of the Wolves.

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  48. Horse whisperers!

    (The old meaning, with certain people allegedly knowing the Horseman's Word and thus able to control horses.)

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  49. What about Hermeticism? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hermeticism

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  50. The last book I read on the subject also involved gender studies: Gender & Fraternal Orders in Europe, 1300-2000, edited by Máire Fedelma Cross.

    http://mordicai.livejournal.com/1865644.html

    It has a few good places to start with-- a group of women, oppressed by cultural discrimination, who turn to a secret society & perhaps the occult?

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  51. The Celtic Church, with it's focus on monastic rather than diocesan structure (and at polite "odds" with the Church in Rome); especially with it's network(s) of scholars and daughter houses throughout Europe.

    It's been mentioned before, but the foundation of the Knights of the Garter (c. 1340s) kicks off the proliferation of secular knightly orders throughout Europe. There's also the suggestion that in founding the order, Edward III was trying to recreate the Knights of the Round Table (including a round hall and table purpose-built for one of the earliest gatherings). So ... perhaps the Knights of the Round Table existed in secret through the long centuries until Edward III decided it was time to bring them into the open again (albeit in disguise).

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  52. I've blogged about the leper Crusaders of the Order of St. lazarus here:
    http://blog.double-dragon-ebooks.com/?p=237

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