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Conspiracy Theories

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Julian Swann reviews real and imagined conspiracies in early modern Europe.

For the general public, Guy Fawkes and his gunpowder plot, the ‘Man in the Iron Mask’ and the Devils of Loudun offer some of the most compelling images of the early modern period. The cloak and dagger world of plots and conspiracies can, however, appear to be dangerous terrain for historians, fearful of being associated with those obsessively pondering the fate of John F. Kennedy, or the fantasy world of the X-Files. Yet conspiracies, real or imagined, were an essential feature of early modern life, offering a seemingly rational and convincing explanation for patterns of political and social behaviour. This theme has been chosen as the subject of the second annual conference of the School of History, Classics and Archaeology of Birkbeck College, University of London, to be held on July 13th-14th, 2001.

Attempting to explain the popularity of conspiracy theory as a mode of explanation requires a study of how early modern thinkers interpreted the world in which they lived, and of the methods and evidence they employed to reach their conclusions. Niccolò Machiavelli and the seventeenth-century French librarian Gabriel Naudé, the foci of David Wootton’s talk, were particularly influential both in terms of their own analysis and the uses to which their writings were subsequently put.


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