If the internet is to be believed, the Illuminati are everywhere, controlling everything. They killed JFK and Tupac, they made Lindsay Lohan famous, they stole antimatter and blew up the Vatican, they run McDonalds, and of course, they started the French Revolution. Well, the internet is not to be believed, and here to the rescue are your historian heroes – Robert Langdon, Alex Yarbrough, Averill Earls, and Sarah Handley-Cousins, on conspiracy theories, the Illuminati, and the French Revolution.

The Owl of Minerva perched on a book was an emblem used by the Bavarian Illuminati in their "Minerval" degree.
The Owl of Minerva perched on a book was an emblem used by the Bavarian Illuminati in their “Minerval” degree.

Sarah: In Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons, the protagonist, art historian Robert Langdon is called on to investigate a secret society called the Illuminati, allegedly responsible for planting an antimatter bomb in the Vatican and, in keeping with the modus operandi of the illusive Illuminati, trying to bring down the Catholic Church. Like all of the Robert Langdon series, Brown dives deep into various occult and religious symbology, while selecting the more interesting threads of art, science, and Christianity histories. In the opening scenes of the book, and its film adaptation, the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN)’s director finds one of its key researchers dead, with an ambigram of Illuminati branded on his chest. (An ambigram is a word or phrase that is illustrated so that it reads as itself if you’re holding it rightside up or upside down). Langdon is, of course, the world’s foremost scholar on the Illuminati (though as a timeline, this book takes place before The Davinci Code). It appears that whoever killed the scientist and branded him stole some antimatter, which, without its special containment field, will come in contact with the matter of the canister and unleash a nuclear-level explosion in 24 hours. It is somewhere in Vatican City, and only Langdon, with his superior ability to decode the mysteries and riddles of the Illuminati, can save the day.


Averill: While completely ridiculous and reliant on the most obscure and fantastical of conspiracy theories, the Langdon books have a lot of wonderful things going for them. For one, of course, the hero is a historian, and yes, we are all heroes, and don’t you fucking forget it. For another, Langdon is firm about one thing: that this plot cannot be Illuminati-driven because 1) the true Illuminati was disbanded in the 18th century (true), and 2) the 18th century Illuminati wouldn’t kill a scientist, because they were themselves scientists committed to reason and inquiry (partially true). Spoiler alert, the true perpetrator of the entire thing is revealed to be the camerlengo, who works for the Pope. So when the “Illuminati plot” turns out to be a cover story orchestrated by a sanctimonious priest who is trying to remake the Church in his own narrow vision of Catholicism, Dan Brown gets at the heart of all Illuminati conspiracy theories. They are smoke and mirrors, myths and whispers used by (mostly, and we’ll discuss how/why today) conservative leaders to mislead, frazzle, and/or rile up the public. But it’s also a scapegoat. A global conspiracy or a secret cabal like the Illuminati is a seductive, exciting, and simple answer to complicated moments. So today’s episode is about the history of the organization known as the Bavarian Illuminati, and their imagined role in the French Revolution. This is a story about Enlightenment, feminism, absolute monarchism, conspiracy theories, and weirdo boys clubs who dream of a better world. The full package.


I’m Averill Earls

And I’m Sarah Handley-Cousins

And we’re your historians in this episode of Dig.


Averill: Before we dig in (winky face), I want to thank Alex Yarbrough, friend of the show and historian of early modern France who answered my text about any reading recs for the connections between the Illuminati and French Revolution with a spectacular and long email about the persecution of Jesuits, the French absolute monarchy, Freemasons, and conspiracy theories in and around the French Rev, because there’s apparently not much by way of English-language sources on these topics. There’s a good amount in French and German, but alas, those are a bit beyond me. So a lot of the stuff for today, especially the Freemasons and Jesuits stuff, is actually adapted from his email. Thanks Alex, for your help!! And to the English-language sources that do exist, some of it is really, really, really old – the most recent monographical scholarly work on the Illuminati that I could find is from the 1970s, and before that is a book from 1918. Even the more recent articles I read, like Michael Taylor’s work on 18th century British conservative’s Illuminati conspiracies, reference the 1972 and 1918 texts as the key ones for the field, so I don’t think this is just a limit of our library. (Conversely, there is a TON on the Freemasons – I included a bunch of the ones I looked at while writing this episode in the Biblio). When and where I could find English translations of primary source texts, I consulted those. With an episode like this, there is a lot out there on the web, but not a ton of scholarly (English language) sources, so when I consulted Nat Geo or BBC or NPR stories, I tried to find what they were referencing in the scholarly texts, and then tried to cross reference that where possible with primary sources. Regrettably even those more reputable sources don’t footnote or list bibliographies, which is really a problem that I think gets to the core of conspiracy theories more generally in our digital age. We can’t just take every facebook story or google search result we find at face value. We all need to dig deeper.


Sarah: We also want to thank all of our Patreon supporters! We are over halfway to our goal of $300/month. When we hit that, we’ll be getting new recording equipment, woohoo! So thank you, to you generous souls who are already giving, and particularly our Auger and Excavator level patrons: a very special thanks to our newest EXCAVATOR LEVEL patron, Danielle! Thank you, thank you, thank you! Your generosity will go down in history. Listener, if you are not yet a patron, you can be – just go to patreon.com/digpodcast to learn more.


Averill: When a way of thinking or believing or living is considered so untraditional or dangerous that it is prohibited through legal or social sanctions, the people who want to think or believe or live that way do so in secret. Secret societies were really common in the Enlightenment era in Europe. According to John Roberts, historian of the mythology surrounding secret groups in Europe, “In sheer numbers, there have probably never been so many secret sects and societies in Europe as between 1750 and 1789.”[1] Between absolute monarchies, religious persecution emanating from both states and churches, and expanding imperial borders challenging and redefining national and regional identity, the people of Europe had a lot to be frustrated with and to think about. In this period, which was also the height of the circulation of Enlightenment philosophies, there arose Rosicrucianism, Martinism, and of course, the Freemasons, who’d been around a bit longer, but who started to really spread on the continent in the 18th century.


Sarah: The Freemasons and the Illuminati are regularly discussed in conjunction, because the founder of the Illuminati movement sort of incorporated under the Freemason organization. Today the Freemasons are a global fraternal order, still mostly men-only orders, and their designation as a “secret” society is much diminished since the 19th century; now they’re as much a regular civic organization as the Moose or Elks clubs. The Freemasons were, more than anything, an elite intellectual gentlemen’s club, with rituals and rules intended to foster community and in-group loyalty. The Freemasons trace their roots back to the medieval English and Scottish stonemasons who built the great cathedrals of the UK. They’d erect lodges on building sites, and those lodges eventually became significant meeting places for the men of the stonecutter guilds. They were dedicated to supporting members’ various business and political interests, in masonry and beyond.



Averill: Much has been made of the Freemasons role in the founding of the United States, because 13 of 39 signers of the Constitution were members of Freemason lodges. As Andrew Burt notes, the Masonic lodges of the 19th century attempted to influence American politics regularly. But pump the brakes, conspiracy theorists. 28 of those signers were Episcopalian/Anglican, and nobody is going around saying that the Anglican bishops or whatever orchestrated the American independence movement, now are they.


Sarah: Because they were exclusive, secretive, had and sought members in high places, Freemasons were not always welcomed with open arms in places where they set up their little boys clubs. Masonic lodges spread throughout the world on the ships and settlers of the British Army, but also popped up on the European continent, much to kings’ and queens’ displeasure. But the Freemasons were actually part of a larger movement in European Enlightenment sociability and intellectualism. Philosophers like Jean Jacques Rousseau, Voltaire, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, John Locke, Montesquieue, Kant, etcetera, were discussed ad nauseum in the new social spaces of 18th century Europe. We had, of course, the salons and coffee houses of the British Isles and the continent, which were regular meetings where people ate, drank, played cards, flirted, and also talked about Enlightenment ideas. Masonic lodges served much the same intellectual purpose, where advanced ideas circulated among men of power and influence, particularly in the more elite lodges. And along with ideas, Masons built community through complex rituals and by supporting each other in their business ventures and political endeavors. 


Averill: These secret societies had some high falutin members on their secret lists – including, for example, the French king Louis XVI’s brother! In France, Masonic Lodges were most popular and at their peak in the 1750s. Like a lot of elites, noble or not, they embrace liberal ideas, deism, claims of equality, and opposed the Old Regime’s society of orders (but in practice, they were usually not radical). This was mostly talk. Freemasons enjoyed the conversation and debate, but rarely was a Lodge actually vested in any kind of reform or revolution.


Sarah: When the Revolution spread across France in 1789, starting in Paris, Masonic Lodges were already in decline. During the Revolution, most Masons stayed out of the action. Some were actually prominent counter-revolutionaries, like Joseph de Maistre, a Savoyard who regarded monarchy as both a divinely sanctioned institution and as the only stable form of government. One lodge, however, the “nine sisters lodge,” furnished many major revolutionaries. The Nine Sisters was founded in paris in 1776, primarily to support the American Revolution. Voltaire, Ben Franklin, Jean-Nicolas Démeunier (elected (16 May 1789) by the Third Estate of the city of Paris to the Estates General), and many supporters of the French Revolution were members of the Nine Sisters Lodge, which was a patron of the arts and sciences, and deeply invested in philosophical discourse. When contemporary conspiracy theorists wrote about the Masons or the Illuminati as being the originators of the French Revolution, they probably had these folks in mind.


Averill: In reality, while significant actors in the Revolution were masons, Freemasons were not the only social groups discussing the social contract theory or debating the pros and cons of enlightened versus absolute monarchy. As Sarah said, Lodges were just like any of the other public intellectual spaces – like coffee houses and salons – that were extremely popular in Paris, London, New York, Amsterdam, etcetera. Most revolutionaries were not freemasons or, for that matter, Illuminati.


Sarah: The Bavarian Illuminati, which is the group that most people think they are talking about when they talk about the “Illuminati” today, were, like the Freemasons, a secret society of intellectuals. They were founded by Adam Weishaupt. Weishaupt was born in Ingolstadt, Bavaria, (which is now part of Germany) orphaned at a young age, educated at Jesuit schools and then the Jesuit-controlled University of Ingolstadt, from which he got a jurisdoctorate. Some sources say he was a priest himself, others that he was only a practicing Catholic who followed Jesuit doctrines, though he broke with the Jesuits even before Pope Clement XIV dissolved the order in 1773, which was also when Weishaupt started as a professor of ecclesiastical law at University of Ingolstadt. Though formally dissolved, the University remained in the control of Jesuits, who were quite distrustful of non-clerical faculty members, attempting to censor and undermine faculty who taught anything considered liberal or Protestant. By 1784, Weishaupt was the only member of his department who wasn’t also a Jesuit priest.


Averill: Notably, the Jesuits were a pretty controversial order in 18th century Europe. There was anti-Jesuit sentiment on all sides: the other Catholics were frustrated with what appeared to be the Jesuits’ hoarding of vast wealth with no clear material service delivered to their communities in proportion to their wealth, and then in places where reformist ideas about absolute monarchy were flourishing, the Jesuits were the religious mirror of absolute monarchy. In France, provincial judges were attempting to gain a foothold in the legislative process. The Jesuits ‘absolutist’ way of behaving made them targets for French parlements (these provincial judges). The Jesuits didn’t report to bishops, but directly to Rome — so there was no “intermediary bodies” to regulate them — and they cultivated ties with power, making sure to always supply the priest who served as the king’s confessors. Because the way their order operated mirrored the absolute monarchy, Jesuits served were an ideal target for the frustrated judges of the Parlements. The hatred that the felt for “absolutist” government officials, they directed against the Jesuits instead. Jesuits were expelled from France in 1763. They experienced less formal resistance in Bavaria, as obviated by their firm control of the University of Ingolstadt, which owned hundreds of farms and estates worth 3,000,000 florins in 1727. In Weishaupt’s time, then, the Jesuits were comfortable in Bavaria.


Sarah: After his parents died, Weishaupt was raised by his uncle, who bought bound editions of all the latest French philosophers’ writings for his library. Weishaupt was an avid reader. It was through these texts that he developed his liberal, anti-clerical, anti-monarchical ideas. He was increasingly drawn to deism, and believed in a society driven by science and reason rather than religion. But such thoughts were at odds with the strict and narrow worldview of the Jesuits. He was censored by his University, and forced to indulge his intellectual pursuits in secret.


Averill: Like the coffee house and salon patrons of Paris and London, though, Weishaupt wanted a community where he could discuss these philosophical tracts. According to Vernon Stauffer, who wrote his history  of the Illuminati in 1918, Weishaupt could not afford to join the Freemasons, who really only allowed members of good reputation and considerable wealth. So on  May 1, 1776 he started a reading group, which he dubbed the “Order of the Illuminati.” At that first meeting there were just five students, drawn from his past and current students at the University, and they had to meet in secret, as Weishaupt had created quite a few Jesuit enemies at his workplace. Their goals were to oppose superstition, obscurantism, religious influence in public life, and abuses of state power. “The order of the day,” they wrote in their general statutes, “is to put an end to the machinations of the purveyors of injustice, to control them without dominating them.”[2] That would have been, admittedly, a terrifying though to the purveyors of injustice. Weishaupt was the teacher, as he had been in his day job, and had students read the latest tracts from French philosophers, and then journal about what they read, and discussed it “in class.”


Sarah: Weishaupt invented three levels of membership, as there were in other secret societies of the day, including the Freemasons: Novice, Minerval, and Illuminated Minerval. Minerva, Roman goddess of wisdom, was the symbol of their organization. They used her owl on their seal, and imagined her wisdom their enlightened goal. Notably, in that first year, Weishaupt forbade the recruiting of women, Jews, pagans, monks, and members of other secret organizations. He also preferred the enrollment of men who were between the ages of 18 and 30. Though Weishaupt’s members recruited others, their numbers remained small through early 1780.


Averill: Stauffer assembled from Weishaupt’s writings descriptions of the three grades of membership, which I will recount for you now some of those ramblings:

To the grade of Novice youths of promise were to be admitted, particularly those who were rich, eager to learn, virtuous, and docile, though firm and persevering.


The ceremony of initiation through which the Novice passed into the grade Minerval was expected to disabuse the mind of the candidate of any lingering suspicion that the order had as its supreme object the subjugation of the rich and powerful, or the overthrow of civil and ecclesiastical government. It also pledged the candidate to be useful to humanity; to maintain a silence eternal, a fidelity inviolable, and an obedience implicit with respect to all the superiors and rules of the order; and to sacrifice all personal interests to those of the society. Admitted to the rank of Minerval, the candidate received into his hands the printed statutes of the order, wherein he learned that in addition to the duties he had performed as novice, his obligations had been extended with special reference to his studies.


In the assemblies of this grade the Minerval for the first time came into contact with the members of the order. In other words, his life within the society actually began.


To the grade Illuminated Minerval were admitted those Minervals who, in the judgment of their superiors, were worthy of advancement. … the members of this grade came together once a month by themselves, to hear reports concerning their disciples, to discuss methods of accomplishing the best results in their work of direction and to solicit each other’s counsel in difficult and embarrassing cases


This was the vision of Weishaupt, who was clearly no revolutionary. Instead he spent his time shepherding passionate young men who probably joined the Illuminati thinking they’d overthrow something into philosophical debates. Wamp wamp. Though his focus in the secret society was education, it also maintained a hefty dose of anticlericalism – but not anti-Christianity. Instead, groups like the Illuminati took the “pure” religion of Jesus and declared it, devoid of its institutional affiliations, a religion of reason. As noted by Stauffer, “To love God and one’s neighbor was to follow in the way of redemption which Jesus of Nazareth, the grand master of the Illuminati, marked out as constituting the sole road which leads to liberty.”


Sarah: In late 1780 Weishaupt recruited Baron Adolph Freiherr Knigge, a nobleman, writer, and Freemason from lower Saxony, to join the Illuminati. Knigge took to the Illuminati mission, seeing it as a much-needed update to the medieval Freemason ideology. He was particularly well-connected, wealthy, with a “genius for organization.” Weishaupt and the original members turned the growth and defining of the Order of the Illuminati over to Knigge, who orchestrated an alliance between the Freemasons and the Illuminati, including Knigge getting the Bavarian Freemasons to allow the Illuminati group to open a Lodge of their own, which they named after Charles Theodore, ruler of Bavaria, in hopes of currying favor. Knigge gave all the members secret names tied to ancient Greek and Roman myths and histories. Weishaupt was “Spartacus,” Knigge was “Philo.” Then Knigge revamped the membership levels to incorporate masonic ideology, and expanded the numbers considerably. Within a few months of Knigge’s leadership, the order had three hundred members, including students, merchants, doctors, pharmacists, lawyers, judges, professors in gymnasia and universities, preceptors, civil officers, pastors, priests, from Bavaria to Franconia, Westphalia, Upper and Lower Saxony, and even outside Germany in Austria and Switzerland. “Only in France,” writes John Roberts, “did the Illuminati meet with no success success; the Grand Orient was wary of the mysterious new order, as it had been of the Strict Observance, and if, as was later alleged, an attempt was made to penetrate it, it certainly failed.”[3] According to Roberts 1972 estimation, at its peak in 1784, the Illuminati had only 685 members, though Stauffer estimates that they had between 2,000-3,000 members. Bizarrely, both historians relied on the writings of Rene Le Forestier, including Les Illuminé de Bavière et la Franc-Maçonnerie, which was published in 1915. So we’ll say that, according to Forestier, they had between 685 and 3000 members in 1784.


Averill: According to Stauffer, the new ranks of the Illuminati were three classes: the first included the grades of Novice, Minerval, and Illuminatus Minor; the second class included the core grades of masonry: Apprentice, Fellow, and Master, plus Illuminatus Major, and “Scottish Knight,”; and then a third class was of “Higher Mysteries,” with lesser mysteries – Priest and Prince – and greater mysteries – Magus and King. Basically, Knigge made a lot more rigamarole for members to aspire to in their Illuminati membership. (To me this sounds like the levels of Scientology, where “secrets” of the organization of revealed the higher you climb (which also depends on your wealth and influence status, etc).) This system also allowed existing members of the Masons to bypass the intro stages of the Illuminati and start at higher levels in the organization, which fit in with the wealth and influence system, because Freemasons, by design, had to already have wealth and influence to join in the first place.


Sarah: But Weishaupt, it turned out, was not actually content to let Knigge have complete control over the Illuminati. Knigge had always been more attracted to the occult and ritualistic opportunities afforded by a secret society, whereas Weishaupt reveled in the rationalism and fraternity. Weishaupt, according to Stauffer, had a pretty high opinion of himself. He was made Dean of Faculty at the University of Ingstodt at a very young 27, and generally advanced rapidly in his career, which may have made him a little big for his britches. Certainly his Jesuit colleagues, who regularly tried to railroad him and ruin his career, thought as much. But as soon as the Order started to grow, Weishaupt wanted the power back. He and Knigge would get into terrible fights, particularly,over the grade of “Priest” in the Lesser Mysteries. Weishaupt believed that Knigge had injected into the ritual of the order at that point expressions of radical religious sentiment which, if once discovered to the public, would be found extremely injurious to the order. But, as Stauffer notes, this was only one of many bones of contention. At bottom the two men were inordinately jealous, both as to their positions in the order and the systems which they had worked out. But the focus on the “grade” of membership is telling – in a lot of ways the order was overfocused in the rituals, on the elaborate membership initiations and levels of ascension, to the detriment of the actual goal of the Order: the discussion and promotion of Enlightenment philosophies.


Averill: None of that would matter though, because in 1784, the Bavarian Illuminati were discovered. Joseph Utzschneider, an ex-member of the Illuminati who was apparently quite disgruntled after parting ways, wrote a letter detailing the subversive activity of the Illuminati to the Grand Duchess of Bavaria, wife of Charles Theodore, the Bavarian ruler. Naming their first Lodge after Theodore evidently had little effect. The Duke, heavily influenced by the Catholic Church, issued an edict on June 22, 1784, against all communities, societies, and brotherhoods in Bavaria which had been “established without due authorization and confirmation of the sovereign.” At first Weishaupt thought the Illuminati exempt from this edict, since they were under the Freemason umbrella, but a year later, Theodore issued a second edict, this time outlawing the Bavarian Illuminati specifically. They were banned.


Sarah: Weishaupt, his anti-Jesuit – and anti-monarchical, for that matter – club discovered, was fired from his job, though offered a pension, and had to flee his home city. He reportedly turned down the pension, and received asylum, undoubtedly through his Illuminati contacts, with Ernst II, the Duke of Saxe-Gotha Altenburg. He managed to land a new gig as a professor at the University of Gottingen, where he remained until his death in 1830. Must be nice, to be able to just find a job wherever you go.


Averill: In his exile, he wrote prolifically, ramblingly, about the Illuminati, at least four books that we know of. Just as a taste, he wrote in 1787:

Whoever does not close his ear to the lamentations of the miserable, nor his heart to gentle pity; whoever is the friend and brother of the unfortunate; whoever has a heart capable of love and friendship; whoever is steadfast in adversity, unwearied in the carrying out of whatever has been once engaged in, undaunted in the overcoming of difficulties; whoever does not mock and despise the weak; whose soul is susceptible of conceiving great designs, desirous of rising superior to all base motives, and of distinguishing himself by deeds of benevolence; whoever shuns idleness; whoever considers no knowledge as unessential which he may have the opportunity of acquiring, regarding the knowledge of mankind as his chief study; whoever, when truth and virtue are in question, despising the approbation of the multitude, is sufficiently courageous to follow the dictates of his own heart, – such a one is a proper candidate.[4]




“The tenor of my life has been the opposite of everything that is vile; and no man can lay any such thing to my charge.”[5]


Sarah: The Order, though, lost its base of operation. Even if it hadn’t been discovered and disbanded, the tension between Knigge and Weishaupt was untenable. Though Weishaupt described his vision for the world in his various publications, he was ultimately just another voice in a cacophony of Enlightenment era philosophers.


Averill: Though many groups have since pretended to descend directly from the original Bavarian Illuminati, there is no evidence to support that. But since they were discovered and disbanded, a great many things have been attributed to the German Illuminati. One of their first supposed accomplishments mobilized the people of France in 1789 to overthrow the monarchy, extricate French government from religious interference, and launch a (allegedly) international revolution.


Sarah: In 1797, the Revolution that had raged through French cities, towns, and villages, seizing the property of the nobility, executing clergy and Kings, and dismantling the whole social order, was actually spreading. Under the military leadership of Napoleon Bonaparte, the French army was taking its new world order to Italy and Germany, with sights set on Spain, Britain, and the Mediterranean.


Averill: In the wake of all this upheaval – from the women’s march of 1789, to the Great Terror of 1793-4, to the rise of Napoleon and the French Revolution Wars across the continent – certain counter-revolutionary intellectuals surveyed the ruins of their beloved Old Regime and tried to come to terms with what happened. Robison and Barruel, staunch believers in monarchical rule, put forth a conspiracy theory that attributed the entire revolution to the Illuminati. Barruel, a Jesuit writer, attributed the earthquake that was the Revolution to a conspiracy of a few evil people. Barruel argued that the revolution was the result of a plot carried out by philosophes and Illuminati-infiltrated Freemasons. Together, they gave birth to Jacobinism, and thence, the Revolution. This analysis allowed Barruel to avoid thinking critically about monarchical rule, social hierarchies, oppression, etc – things that he’d benefitted from in his life under the old order. It would have been much harder to admit that deep changes in society and in politics led to the collapse of the Old Regime. A deep-causes theory would be downright depressing for men like Barruel, as they would imply a difficulty of restoring the Old Regime.


Sarah: The Scottish writer John Robison took matters a step further. Writing at the same time as Barruel, more or less, Robison argued that far from being powerful plotters, Freemasons themselves were mere pawns, unwittingly under the influence of the Bavarian Illuminati. The implication of Robison’s theory was that if you could get the plotters, the Illuminati, out of the picture, you might be able to have a thorough Restoration of the monarchy later.


Averill: Historian Michael Taylor notes that while these tall tales were debunked numerous times over the decades since, the idea in 1797 was quite popular. Both books sold out their first printing, and the English translation of Barruel’s (four-volume manuscript!!) was reprinted three times in one year, Robison’s four times. The Robison/Barruel Illuminati theory was regurgitated in preachers’ sermons, in newspapers and pamphlets distributed throughout England and America’s cities and towns, works of reference, tracts, and even novels.[6] Particularly between 1797 and 1802, it was the conspiracy theory of the day, a simple way for conservative politicians to write-off the Revolution, to ignore the very real consequences of prolonged disenfranchisement, persecution, suffering, and oppression of the masses. If the French Revolution was merely the work of a small group of radical master manipulators, and not the will of the people, it could be ignored.


Adam Weishaupt (1748–1830), founder of the Bavarian Illuminati. Public Domain
Adam Weishaupt (1748–1830), founder of the Bavarian Illuminati. Public Domain

Sarah: But Robison and Barruel’s conspiracy theory gained traction because, as Taylor argues, they played up two key fears that British conservatives had in the 18th century: first, that the Illuminati had big plans to politically empower women (according to some Illuminati doctrines supposedly seized by the Bavarian government that uncovered a plot to educate, give votes to, and sexually liberate young women – Oh my!); and second, the universal mission of the French Revolution, most frightening to conservatives when it came from within the house, as it were. They weren’t so much worried about the revolutionaries forcing their new world order through conquest – the English were pretty confident they were the best military in the world, because Empire, after all – but what could they do to stop an unknown internal threat? What if revolution was catching like the plague? So Robison and Barruel published this conspiracy theory, a global conspiracy theory of anti-monarchical, anti-clerical revolutionaries, and then the United Irishmen did, indeed, attempt to launch a revolution from within the house. And yeah – that made the conspiracy theory make a lot of sense to a lot of people. Illuminati, man. They’re everywhere.

Averill: Of women, Barruel wrote that “Freemasonry had its female adepts, and the Illumines wished to have theirs. The plan is written in Xavier von Zwack’s own hand-writing, [Zwack was the Order’s second in command] and he was the most intimate friend and confidant of Weishaupt, in short, his incomparable man.” When the Bavarian government shutdown the Illuminati and drove Weishaupt out of the country, they seized the Order’s papers, and published them. These are the grounds upon which Barruel and Robison wove their narrative of a global conspiracy. While there’s no actual evidence of the Illuminati going underground, having connections to France, or even having more than the 685 to 3000 members at their height, the content of their thinking was so alarming to conservative, counter-revolutionaries, anti-Masonic individuals like Barruel and Robison that it was enough to convince them that the Illuminati must be behind the French Revolution. Barruel included excerpts from the aforementioned letter written by Zwack, who is known in the Order as “Hercules”:

Plan for an Order of Women — This Order shall be subdivided into two classes; the first shall be composed of virtuous women; the second, of the wild, the giddy, the voluptuous; Both classes are to be ignorant that they are under the direction of men. The Brethren who are intrusted with this superintendance shall forward their instructions without making themselves known. They shall conduct the first, by promoting the reading of good books, but shall form the latter to the arts of secretly gratifying their passions. … And this association might moreover serve to gratify those brethren who had a turn for sensual pleasure.

A list, according to Barruel, of eighty-five young ladies accompanied this project proposed by Zwack.

Sarah: Robison, also working from the Order of the Illuminati’s letters and papers, quotes from a letter between “Minos” to “Sebastian,” 1782 (remember, all the members got fake names, because secret identities etc).

The proposal of Hercules to establish a Minerval school for girls is excellent, but requires much circumspection. Philo [ and I have long conversed on this subject. We cannot improve the world without improving women, who have such a mighty influence on the men. But how shall we get hold of them? How will their relations, particularly their mothers, immersed in prejudices, consent that others shall influence their education? We must begin with grown girls…. We must always be at hand to prevent the introduction of any improper question. We must prepare themes for their discussion—thus we shall confess them, and inspire them with our sentiments. No man however must come near them. This will fire their roving fancies, and we may expect rare mysteries. But I am doubtful whether this Association will be durable. Women are fickle and impatient.

Averill: Robison goes on to say that “nothing in the whole constitution of the Illuminati that strikes me with more horror than the proposals of Hercules and Minos to enlist the women in this shocking warfare with all that “is good, and pure, and lovely, and of good report.”” He implores his “goodcountry women” reading his tract to do whatever necessary to reject the influences of the dangerous Illuminati. Very helpfully he remarks: “There is no deficiency in the female mind, either in talents or in dispositions; nor can we say with certainty that there is any subject of intellectual or moral discussion in which women have not excelled. If the delicacy of their constitution, and other physical causes, allow the female sex a smaller share of some mental powers, they possess others in a superior degree, which are no less respectable in their own nature, and of as great importance to society.”

Sarah: Robison, it appears, did not listen very closely to his countrywoman Mary Wollstonecraft, who most certainly would have punched him in the face – intellectually, of course – had she heard him suggest that the fair sex might be limited by ‘delicacy of constitution or physical causes’ to have a smaller share of mental power.

Averill: Indeed, in the second half of the 18th century the “British women increasingly imagined themselves as political subjects.” So too did French women – as in the example of Olympe de Gouges, political activist and playwright ultimately executed during the Reign of Terror, who wrote the 1791 tract Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen. According to Taylor, “There was furious patriarchal reaction against nascent feminist ideas, female debating societies blossomed but disappeared, and aristocratic women—who had previously exercised considerable influence—withdrew from the political frontlines.”[7] Barruel and Robison spoke to the conservatives who’d been deeply committed to shutting down female participation in the political sphere for the better part of the century, and those conservatives listened. The Society of United Irishmen, which initially sought parliamentary reform but then took inspiration from the American and French Revolutions and rose up against the British Crown in 1798, seemed to confirm Barruel and Robison as more than philosophers — they were prophets.

Sarah: So Barruel and Robison’s claim that the Illuminati went underground in 1784, rather than disbanding, and that they infected the French so effectively so as to launch a revolution, and that the revolution would spread if those arbiters of incendiary ideas were not hunted down and destroyed — that was eaten up. Priests, newspaper editors, publishers, politicians, and regular people seized on that conspiracy and called for justice, for the end of the Illuminati. But there was the problem – it was a global secret society now, at least according to Barruel and Robison, and one didn’t simply discover such a clever and insidious cabal. So instead they were a boogeyman to justify censorship, to validate persecution, to support the conservative agenda propping up monarchism and obstructing social justice endeavors. And since the feminists of the 18th century were conveniently aligned with the all powerful Illuminati, it was a great opportunity to shore up the patriarchy.

Averill: The Illuminati have, of course, been folded into our lexicon of pop culture conspiracy theory icons. In addition to playing a prominent role in the Langdon books, the Illuminati and Illuminati symbology were very popular in gothic literature. Several Mary Shelley scholars suggest that Frankenstein’s monster, which was created in Ingolstadt just like the Bavarian Illuminati, is an allegory for the Order. The Illuminati are in War in Peace, have a vampire fiction series written by Michael Romkey, a science fiction trilogy from the 1970s beloved by the hacker community, and more recently, Marvel has launched the “New Avengers Illuminati,” an “elite group of the planet’s most powerful guardians… who meet whenever the Earth faces its greatest threats,” including aliens. Though the back cover claims that nobody knows who they are, and that’s the way they want it, the front cover shows Iron Man, Professor Xavier, Mr. Fantastic, and Dr. Strange, among others… so not too secret, I guess. Who can forget the Illuminati’s role in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider the film, starring the timeless Angelina Jolie? The Illuminati star in tons of games, card and video.

Sarah: Certainly right now we are inundated by conspiracy theories coming out of the current White House administration. The liberal media is after me, Hilary’s emails, Ted Cruz’s father was involved in the assassination of JFK, voter fraud in states with majority black populations, vaccines cause autism — all complete and utter bullshit — are easy ways for the current administration to cause confusion and disorder, to undermine social justice initiatives, to shore up the patriarchy. Last year CNN put out a running list of conspiracy theories that Trump propagates, and we’ll link to it in the transcript. Robison and Barruel at least went to the effort of building their theory on the Illuminati papers. We rarely see that kind of effort these days. It’s a shame, really.

Averill: But conspiracy theories are not the sole domain of those in power. We don’t have time today to get into the role of conspiracy theories in black communities in America, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least send you to Patricia Turner’s book I Heard it Through the Grapevine: Rumor in African-American Culture to get started. The Illuminati conspiracy is also part of African-American culture – the Illuminati are credited with the success of hip hop, and artists like Jay Z, Nas, Public Enemy, and Kanye West have variously encouraged that theory. Many believe that the artists like Tupac and Biggie Smalls were murdered by Illuminati for one reason or another. These are powerful stories. They’re glamorous, exciting, scary – but often less frightening than thinking that we, as regular people, could have done something to change the outcome. Easier too, I think, to believe a secret society is out to get you, rather than the institution, systemic, and bold-faced racism and oppression our neighbors and countrymen and women protect.

Sarah: For today, though, we want to close with the message Dan Brown – hopefully intentionally? – delivered in Angels and Demons. The imaginary Illuminati, and all conspiracy theories Schiller by those with power, are smoke and mirrors, misinformation, intended to keep the rest of us chasing an invisible foe. In truth, the person most responsible for the antimatter bomb is the creepy priest, played by Obi-Wan Kenobi, who can’t stand the thought of the Catholic Church changing with the times. Or it’s the king who wants to hold onto his crown, the billionaire invested in keeping the economic system benefitting the super rich, the politician who can build their platform on xenophobic, racist, misogynist, conspiracy theorist rhetoric.

Averill: The end.


Alexander Yarbrough, “a long email explaining (in mostly general summations) what has been written in French on the topic of the Jesuits, Freemason, and conspiracy theories, particularly in and around the French Revolution,” averill dot earls at gmail dot com, June 6, 2019. LOL. Alex is expert on censorship and religious tolerance in revolutionary France, and evidently there isn’t much on these topics written in English (which is what I found as I was researching) but there’s a good bit more in French. I don’t read French, so when I asked my friend Alex for recommendations on the topic, he very thoughtfully wrote me a fantastic email, much of which I incorporated directly into this episode – which is why I added him as a co-author on the transcript. For more on the Freemasons, if you read French!, check out this usefully bibliography, also provided by Alex, and Jacques François Lefranc, Le voile levé pour les curieux, ou Le secret de la Révolution de France révéle, à l’aide de la franc-maçonnerie, (Paris, Crapart, 1792). Thank you Alex!

Augustin Barruel, Memoirs Illustrating the History of Jacobinism, 1797

John Robison, Proofs of a Conspiracy Against all the Religions and Governments of Europe, 1797

Una Birch, Secret Societies and the French Revolution, (1911)

Vernon Stauffer, “The European Illuminati” (1918)

Janet Birk, “Leaving the Enlightenment: Women Freemasons after the Revolution,” Eighteenth-Century Studies, 33, no 2 (Winter 2000)

Kenneth Loiselle, Brotherly Love: Freemasonry and Male Friendships in Enlightenment France (Cornell University Press, 2014).

Margaret Jacob, Living the Enlightenment: Freemasonry and Politics in 18th-Century Europe (Oxford University Press, 1991).

Jonathan Israel, Democratic Enlightenment: Philosophy, Revolution, and Human Rights 1750-1790 (Oxford University Press, 2011)

James Allen Smith, “Sisters of Another Sort: Freemason Women in Modern France, 1725–1940,” The Journal of Modern History , Vol. 75, No. 4 (December 2003), pp. 783-835

J.M. Roberts, The Mythology of the Secret Societies (Secker & Warburg, London: 1972).

Alan Forrest, “The French and European Revolutions,” A companion to eighteenth-century Europe (Blackwell, 2008) 495-511.

Michael Taylor, “British Conservatism, the Illuminati, and the Conspiracy Theory of the French Revolution, 1797-1802,” Eighteenth-Century Studies, 47, no 3 (Spring 2014) 293-312.

Julius Haswell, “How the secret Illuminati society really did start in Germany,” The Local DE, 9 May 2017

Sophia Smith Galer, “The accidental invention of the Illuminati conspiracy,” BBC Future 9 August 2017

Isabel Hernandez, “Meet the Man Who Started the Illuminati, “History Magazine

“Illuminati,” Encylopaedia Britannica

Martin Kaste, “Freemasonry Still Alive And Well, And (Mostly) Men-Only,” All THings Considered (NPR) 27 Aug 2014

Andrew Burt, “The Mysteries of the Masons,” Slate, 15 May 2015

“Freemasons,” Encylopaedia Britannica

“The Illuminati: the secret society pulling the strings of every major organisation in the world,” The Guardian, 18 Dec 2013

Chris Cillizza, “A running list of Donald Trump’s conspiracy theories,” Cnn 13 Sep 2018

Jason Cortez, “How to overthrow the Illuminati,” libcom.org

Ridiculous things

Stuff They Don’t Want You To Know: The Illuminati: The Music Industry,” How Stuff Works

India Rakusen, “I investigated a conspiracy theory and weird things started happening to me,” BBC, 18 Jan 2018

Fritz Springmeier, “Bloodlines of Illuminati,” CIA 1995 report

[1] J.M. Roberts, The Mythology of the Secret Societies (Secker & Warburg, London: 1972), 90.

[2] Richard van Dülmen, The Society of Enlightenment (Polity Press, 1992) 110

[3] Roberts, 125.

[4] Adam Weishaupt, An Improved System of the Illuminati, Gotha: 1787.

[5] Adam Weishaupt (1748 – 1811), An Apology for the Illuminati, Gotha: 1787.

[6] Michael Taylor, “British Conservatism, the Illuminati, and the Conspiracy Theory of the French Revolution, 1797-1802,” Eighteenth-Century Studies, 47, no 3 (Spring 2014) 294.

[7] Taylor, 299.


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