It is a disturbing truth, as Jonathan Clark has pointed out in Revolution and Rebellion: State and Society in England in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (1986), that academics promoting a view of the 18th century as predominantly "rational" and "enlightened" have underestimated or ignored the continuous influence of religion in both the UK and on the European continent. That lacuna is even more obvious in debates about the present day. Then there are the attitudes of those who disapprove of Freemasonry, and feel that the best way of dealing with what they regard as a dodgy subject is to forget it: this is a disreputable, even shameful stance, for if historians only bothered to investigate things of which they approve, history would be hopelessly distorted.
To give but one example of this reluctance, the architect Sir John Soane was not only a convinced Mason but had his portrait painted in 1828 showing him wearing Masonic regalia. Yet few commentators whisper Soane's affiliations, despite the realities that the picture hangs in his museum in London, and that some of his finest work was for the Craft.
There can be no doubt that Freemasonry played a central role in the Enlightenment, so the fact that so many academics have avoided the issue is odd. It should be remembered that a figure as revered as Sir Isaac Newton was interested in alchemy, and collected a huge library dealing with the subject. Newton was fascinated by arcane matters, and was by no means alone in his obsessions: he was absorbed by the problem of the Temple of Solomon as a lost ideal, and in 1728 published A Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms Amended in which topics far removed from Reason were dominant.
Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) is usually thought of as a scientist, natural philosopher and theologian, interested in mathematics, anatomy, physiology, physics, mechanics and astronomy. But in his accounts of spiritual matters, he strayed into strange realms. The choice of the title Daedalus Hyperboreus for his periodical, published in 1716-18, is significant, for Daedalus was the cunning artificer, an accomplished architect and inventor, revered by the artists' guilds of the ancient world, and especially by the Masons of the Middle Ages and by subsequent "speculative" Freemasons. In this huge study, the University of Texas at Austin scholar Martha Keith Schuchard continues her work on 17th- and 18th-century esoteric and political Freemasonry, revealing the clandestine military and Masonic links between pro-French, pro-Jacobite parties in Sweden and convoluted attempts to restore the son of the deposed James II and VII, James Francis Edward Stuart, to the thrones of England, Scotland and Ireland, and the exiled father-in-law of Louis XV, King Stanislaw Leszczynski, to the throne of Poland.
James Francis Edward Stuart married Maria Clementina Sobieska, granddaughter of King Jan III Sobieski of Poland, and sired both Bonnie Prince Charlie and Henry, Cardinal Duke of York, so the Polish/Scots connections were clear. Swedenborg was deeply involved in the troubled Northern world of Sweden and Scotland and concerned to rebuild lost ideals in the hearts and minds of men, and he was a leading figure in the political and diplomatic contexts that evolved in the wake of the "Glorious Revolution" and Hanoverian designs on Swedish territories: indeed, he was probably a spy. That Freemasonry permeated Jacobite society - despite the dismissals of English Freemasons steeped in Whiggery - cannot be denied in the light of recent research, and it seemed there were plenty of aristocratic families in the British Isles who hedged their bets in case the Stuarts returned (Lord Burlington, the hero of Palladianism, was probably one of many in this respect).
Schuchard has been assiduous in delving, which makes it disappointing that the proofreading of her book is appalling. On the jacket Swedenborg's date of death is given as 1722, and where, one wonders, is "Griefswald". For such a big book, the index is so rudimentary it is almost useless. Furthermore, although the book brings a wealth of hitherto obscure material into the light, it has not been put over with much of an ear for literary style: Schuchard should perhaps re-read Edward Gibbon. It is also difficult to extract information from this tome, not least because the index is simply not up to it: at the price one would have expected a more professional job.
Nevertheless, Schuchard deserves our thanks for helping to lift the veil from a world steeped in ideas that, just because they are not widely held today, does not mean they were not significant then.
Emanuel Swedenborg, Secret Agent on Earth and in Heaven: Jacobites, Jews, and Freemasons in Early Modern Sweden
By Marsha Keith Schuchard. Brill, 832pp, €217.00. ISBN 9789004183124. Published 1 October 2011.