Yates, Frances Amelia

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YATES, FRANCES AMELIA was born on November 29, 1899, in Southsea, Hampshire, and died in Surbiton, Surrey, on September 29, 1981. By the time a brief illness ended a long life of intense and single-minded scholarly endeavor, her reputation had reached almost cult status.

Yates was the fourth and youngest child of James Alfred Yates and Hannah Eliza Malpas. Her father, having entered Portsmouth Naval Dockyard as an apprentice, had risen to chief constructor of the British navy. One of her elder sisters was a schoolteacher and novelist, the other an art-student-turned-missionary. On the death in action of her only brother in 1915, the ambitions of a close-knit family came to center on her. Hopes of following her brother to Oxford having been disappointed, partly because of interruptions to early formal schooling, she took a London first-class degree in French by correspondence, following it with a graduate thesis on French religious drama of the sixteenth century. She never married.

Yates would often later pay tribute to the material and intellectual support of her family and its tradition of what she called "effort." Observantly Anglican, liberal in their opinions, interested in ideas, devoted to Shakespeare, and sympathetic to matters French, they left their mark on her strongly individual mind and personality. They enabled her to begin the life of a modestly circumstanced private scholar; from a newly purchased family house in Claygate, in the countryside outside London, where she lived uninterruptedly from 1925 until almost the day of her death, she would go to read in the British Museum Library and the Public Record Office. The hallmark of her work was always firsthand acquaintance with her sources.

On those sources was based her first book: the prize-winning and still standard John Florio: The Life of an Italian in Shakespeare's England (1934). Here, as throughout her work, the religious dimensionthe Florios were Protestant refugeesis a major concern. A Study of Love's Labour's Lost (1936), her second book, explored Shakespeare's ideas about language. Less successful, it led her in 1937 to the Warburg Institute, then newly escaped to England from Nazi Germany, which became her intellectual second home. She began to use its excellent library and to learn from Fritz Saxl, Gertrud Bing, Edgar Wind, and Rudolf Wittkower how to apply an encyclopedic historical approach to the study of Giordano Bruno, which had led her there in the first place. When, in 1941, she was given a part-time place on the staff, it was virtually her first paid employment; she remained part of the institute until she died, bequeathing to it her residual estate to found research fellowships.

The new approach she learned there, combined with her innate intellectual courage, is already clear in her independent line on Giordano Bruno's religious and philosophical position in essays she wrote in 193738; it was consolidated in "Queen Elizabeth as Astraea" (1945), a ground-breaking inquiry into the messianic ideas behind the cult of the English ruler. The French Academies of the Sixteenth Century, which followed in 1947, was a remarkable, original, and wide-ranging investigation of how academic study had once been directed at promoting religious and civil harmony; it was also a demonstration of the historical significance of ideas and ideals judged worthless and ineffectual by progressist opinion. The power of heterodox thought, already a theme in her early work on Bruno, is again apparent in her pioneering essays of 1954 and 1959, for which she learned Catalan, on the universalist mystic Ramon Lull, whom she judged important for later philosophers, especially Bruno. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition, published in 1964 when she was in her mid-sixties, isalong with The Art of Memory of 1966the book for which she is best known. In each she argued at length for the importance of Hermeticism as the secret heart of Renaissance Neoplatonism, especially invoking Giulio Camillo Delminio in relation to the Renaissance transformation of artificial memory systems. Her opening for Anglophone scholars of Renaissance occult belief, studied historically and not from the believer"s point of view, as a legitimate subject for investigators of Renaissance thought in general has had a profound effect, not least in arousing the opposition of historians of science.

In the background of everything that Frances Yates wrote was a vision: peace and harmony denied by faction and fanaticism. The Valois Tapestries (1959) was a study of the politico-religious context and purpose of these great works of art; she republished it in 1975, at the same time as a collection of related essays, Astraea: The Imperial Theme in the Sixteenth Century. Shakespeare's Last Plays: A New Approach of the same year was the closest she came to the definitive work on the mind of Shakespeare she had always hoped to write. In her Theatre of the World (1969), the grand theme is hardly apparent; this book was rather aimed at showing influence from the Vitruvian tradition on the structure of Elizabethan public theaters. The magus figure of John Dee is, however, seen as important for the transmission of these ideas. In the politico-religious context of the age of James I and the Winter Queen of Bohemia, which is the subject of The Rosicrucian Enlightenment (1972), Dee plays an expanded role, which is further enlarged in Yates's final book, The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age (1979).

Frances Yates, it has been said, created her own discipline. She was widely honored for it by invitations, honorary degrees, and international prizes from universities, academies, and other bodies in Britain, Europe, and the United States, and by her appointments as OBE (Officer of the Order of the British Empire) in 1972 and DBE (Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire) in 1977; her writings have been translated into many languages. Despite a certain personal diffidence, she was undeterred by opposition, retaining a conviction that her approach was both right and fruitful.


Frances Yates's writings are listed in her posthumously published Ideas and Ideals in the North European Renaissance, volume 3 of her Collected Essays (London, 1984, pp. 325336); her books and articles have been many times reprinted in English and in translation. The most important are:

John Florio: The Life of an Italian in Shakespeare's England. Cambridge, England, 1934.

"Queen Elizabeth as Astraea." Journal of the Warburg & Courtauld Institutes 10 (1947): 2782; reprinted with other essays in Astraea: The Imperial Theme in the Sixteenth Century. London, 1975.

"The French Academies of the Sixteenth Century." In Studies of the Warburg Institute 15. London, 1947; reprinted London and New York, 1988.

"The Art of Ramon Lull." Journal of the Warburg & Courtauld Institutes 17 (1954): 115173; reprinted with other essays in Collected Essays, vol. 1. London, 1982.

"The Valois Tapestries." In Studies of the Warburg Institute 22. London, 1959; reprinted London, 1975.

Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition. London and Chicago, 1964.

The Art of Memory. London and Boston, 1966.

Theatre of the World. London and Chicago, 1969.

The Rosicrucian Enlightenment. London and Boston, 1972.

Shakespeare's Last Plays: A New Approach. London and Boulder, Colo., 1975 (published in Boulder as Majesty and Magic in Shakespeare's Last Plays ).

The Occult Philosophy in Elizabethan England. London, 1979.

Collected Essays, 3 vols. Lull and Bruno. London, 1982. Renaissance and Reform: The Italian Contribution. London, 1983. Ideas and Ideals in the North European Renaissance. London, 1984.

"Biography and Assessment: 'Autobiographical Fragments,'" in Collected Essays, vol. 3 (1984), pp. 272301; J. B. Trapp, "Frances Amelia Yates 18991981," Proceedings of the British Academy, 120, in Biographical Memoirs of Fellows, vol. 2 (2003), pp. 527554; Robert S. Westman and J. E. McGuire, Hermeticisn and the Scientific Revolution: Papers Read at a Clark Library Seminar March 9, 1974 (Los Angeles, 1977); Hilary Gatti, "Frances Yates's Hermetic Renaissance in the Documents Held in the Warburg Institute Archive," Aries, n.s., 2 (2002), pp. 193210; Hilary Gatti, "The Notes on Camillo and Hermes Trismegistus in the Yates Archive at the Warburg Institute in London," Annali della Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa: Classe di lettere e filosofia, Serie IV, 6, no. 1, 2001 (2004), pp. 171194.

J. B. Trapp (2005)