Though sometimes amusing, it is always disturbing when intelligent people seriously talk nonsense. This is true even of the dead; we are always surprised at the credulity of our forebears. Sometimes it shocks us; they often held views that seem wicked as well as false, and they sometimes acted on them. It ought to be merely a truism that bad ideas can be as effective and influential as good, but obviously it is not, since we are so surprised by this. The hardest things to understand about much of the past are its errors and delusions. We are shut off from understanding them not only by the difficulties of research and by insensibility, for these are only general and preliminary obstacles to any discovery of the past, but also by the particular, anachronistic incredulity which we bring to anything which does not rest on our own intellectual assumptions.
“… The Scottish revolution of 1638 introduces a last group of provincial rebellions in which the external aspect was decisive. Despite their many differences, all shared the fundamental common property of originating in the grievances of subordinate or provincial kingdoms within dynastic unions. Either the absentee ruler and paramount state were guilty of unaccustomed demands and innovations that violated the autonomous liberties of the provincial kingdom, or they inflicted upon it an increasingly repressive government that finally became intolerable. Whether the one or the other, or some combination of the two, rebellion erupted.
“We see such cases in both the Spanish and the English monarchies. The revolt of Aragon in 1591 and the revolutions of Catalonia and Portugal in 1640 were alike a resistance to the pressures and intrusions of the central regime in Madrid. The several revolts of Ireland and the Scottish rebellion of 1638 were directed against subjugation or domination by England. We need pause for only a brief glance at the revolt of Aragon against Philip II to see how it fits into the picture of provincial rebellion. In its kingdom of Aragon, the Habsburg monarchy was confronted by a Cortes and other indigenous institutions that restricted its powers in considerable ways. With Aragon was also associated the famous (although historically fictitious) oath, according to which subjects were bound to render obedience only if their prince observed their privileges, otherwise not (si no, no).71 These privileges, or fueros, often served as a cover for local misgovernment and aristocratic oppression; however, they also stood as a real obstacle to royal absolutism.
Buonarroti’s last years blended the myth and the reality of the secret societies as never before. Each, too, was then at the peak of its strength. This book has been about the first; it has argued that though secret societies existed in large numbers in Western Europe between 1750 and 1830 and strove to influence events, their main importance was what people believed about them. This always mattered more than what they did and their numbers and practical effectiveness were in no way proportionate to the myth’s power. This is their true instrumental importance as well as their interest for the historian; what was believed about them was an important part of the information shaping men’s reactions to great events.If this is granted, then can we hope – ought we to try? – to understand any more about this fact than its historical context? The mythology is, after all, a historical artefact. It is one characteristic achievement and expression of a particular age, a collective dream of one particular culture. We feel able to understand quite a lot of the social context in which, over eighty years or so, it was born and grew to its full stature; we ought therefore to have a fair chance of discerning what there was in it that locks the mythology into that particular culture at that particular time. Most of what has gone before in this book perhaps expresses that view implicitly. Yet this does not seem to exhaust the matter. Although the mythology has its peculiar features it is also based on elements which recur in other historical situations and it has itself shown astonishing powers of survival and adaptation. Long after the years which saw its birth, these powers have renewed its life at many times and in many places.