Shortly after arriving at Bearsted station in Kent, I found my way to a picturesque village green, bordered by Tudor houses and Oast kilns. Peeking over the roofs on the other side was the tower of Holy Cross Church. I’d taken two trains to get here under the assurance it would be open.
I headed up a lane that wound gently uphill, and the church disappeared from view entirely. After a few minutes, I was starting to wonder if I’d taken the wrong road. Then I turned a corner, and suddenly I was right upon it.
The first door I came to was locked. Continuing round, I found the southern porch, which was clearly the main entrance. The interior was fairly typical for a parish church. I was alone.
I checked my phone for the email describing the location of the door I needed, and where the key was kept. I found the latter on a large bunch, with a fearsomely long, medieval-looking companion.
The bell tower was locked, I’d been told, to prevent the public going up into the ringing chamber. No matter: I wasn’t interested in bells today. Feeling a bit like a man on a mission, I slowly opened the door into darkness. I turned on my phone torch to find the light switch, and the beam flashed across a pale face. This was who I had come to see.
Lights on, and he was brightly revealed: presiding like a judge over an open book, with large moustache and ruff. But this was also a mundane scene of casual storage – odds and ends cluttered a bench constructed around his pedestal. An undignified state, for one of Bearsted’s most illustrious sons.
I carefully shifted a few things aside (I would put them back before I left). I could now see the lengthy Latin inscription. In the recesses on either side, running up from the floor, were faintly etched staffs with winding snakes: the Rod of Asclepius, ancient symbol of medicine. And in the left-hand recess were two smaller books with words inscribed. Looking closely, one was marked ‘Misterium Cabalisticum’, the other ‘Philosophia Sacra’.
This was the monument to Robert Fludd, born in nearby Milgate House, and buried in Holy Cross after his death in 1637. The inscription tells us that he travelled abroad, ad recipiendum ingenii cultum – ‘to receive the cult of genius’ – before returning home and being elected to the London College of Physicians.
Fludd was a doctor, but those two books of ‘cabbalistic mystery’ and ‘sacred philosophy’ suggest what he is best remembered for today: publications of occult science. In particular, his magnum opus Utriusque Cosmi, Maioris scilicet et Minoris, metaphysica, physica, atque technica Historia – ‘the metaphysical, physical, and technical history of the two worlds, namely the greater and the lesser’.
Those ‘two worlds’ are the macrocosm and microcosm, as expressed by the Hermetic principle of correspondences between man and the universe: ‘as above, so below’. Utriusque Cosmi combines influences of Hermes Trismegistus with Christian Caballah, Astrology, and Alchemy, and includes a range of practical topics, from mathematics to optics, military strategy, and music.
Music, in fact, was particularly important to Fludd’s occult worldview, as can be seen in some of the sumptuous engravings that accompany his work. These visions, rich in wonder and mystery, have an enduring fascination – with tongues of flame, billowing clouds, and lines of radiating energy in geometric frameworks. And among them we find depictions of the monochord: a single-stringed instrument used to show the proportions of consonances, and a representation of universal harmony, or musica mundana.
For Fludd, in fact, the octave divisions of the string were a crucial metaphor for the universe. He positions the monochord at the centre of diagrams, running the scale from earth to God, matter to light, through the spheres of the elements, planets and angelic hierarchies. It also runs through the microcosm of man, representing the descent and re-ascent of the divine soul. In one engraving, a Monty Python-esque hand emerges from a cloud to adjust its tuning peg.
Another part of the Utriusque Cosmi covers practical music theory. For this, Fludd constructed a fantastical memory palace, a ‘Temple of Music’ festooned with musical symbols around its columns, walls and towers. Its scheme is populated by legendary figures – the muse Thalia gives a music lesson in an alcove, Pythagoras listens to the hammers of the smithy in another. Apollo sits with his lyre, representing harmony, while Saturn stands on an hour-glass for rhythm. Two doors symbolise the ears, a spiral the motions of the air. Fludd’s introduction invites us to imagine the setting as Mount Parnassus, surrounded by woods, fields and fountains, and filled with dancing shepherds, satyrs and nymphs.
This delightfully realised image showcases the Renaissance penchant for mnemonic devices. And in the final chapter of the treatise, Fludd turns to another intellectual fascination of his era: automata. He gives detailed instructions for building a mechanical psaltery, an instrument that can be hidden behind a curtain or a wall and play pavanes or galliards by itself, for the delight of dinner guests.
Fanciful as all this may seem, Fludd’s ambitious publications, and the wondrous engravings that accompany them, have ensured him a place in intellectual history. In popular culture, he has also appeared in works of conspiracist fiction such as The Da Vinci Code, thanks to his association with the Rosicrucians. He wrote a defence of the two anonymous manifestos credited to that supposed secret society – the Order of the Rosy Cross – manifestos which were published to widespread consternation, promising great advancements of human knowledge for those worthy to receive their truths.
Whatever the origins of those cultish documents, Fludd has perhaps inevitably been conflated with the Order, and assumed to have been a member. No doubt, the manifestos suggest an occult worldview very much in tune with his own. Among the Rosicrucian claims was a kind of singing, which could gather precious stones and move the princes of the world. In Fludd’s defence of the Fraternity, he writes of ‘wonderful music of true and mysterious power in every creature both animate and inanimate’.
Much of Fludd’s work envisioned hidden forces behind observable reality, and so it seems somewhat fitting that this occultist’s monument is now locked away, sealed in Hermetic secrecy. I find his philosophy fascinating, partly because there is an appealing completeness to it, an audacious wholeness that opens up a different mental space to modern science, with its separate specialisms and materialist assumptions.
And what, more precisely, is the nature of that appeal? As I’ve looked at the news this summer, with fires raging around the world, it’s been hard not to perceive a stark disconnect between the macro- and the micro-level events in our own time. We have highly developed and sophisticated science, the like of which Fludd could never have dreamed, informing us that our climate on which all earthly life depends is being systematically destabilised. But the microscopic trivia of the everyday still largely holds us in thrall, and enables its further destruction. For which you might ask: what is the point of all our intellectual progress? In four hundred years, it seems, we’ve travelled from universal harmony to universal cognitive dissonance.
I locked the door, put the key back, and left the church to have a look round the grounds. There are three carved beasts perched atop the tower, and on a cloudy day that threatened rain, the whole scene felt suitably gothic. But as I was about to leave to catch the train back to London the sun came out, and Holy Cross Bearsted stood bright against the dark sky.
Peter Ammann: The Musical Theory and Philosophy of Robert Fludd.
Dante Diotallevi: The Case of Robert Fludd
Urszula Szulakowska: Robert Fludd and His Images of The Divine
Frances Yates: The Rosicrucian Enlightenment