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The Illuminati, the French Revolution, and British paranoia, 1797-1801

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The Illuminati have often been represented as a dastardly and all-powerful secret society, hell-bent on world domination, and given starring roles in such inexpressibly awful trash as “Angels and Demons” and “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider”. In reality, they were an eighteenth-century society of reform-minded deists who existed only for a decade between 1776 and 1786. Yet, in the aftermath of the French Revolution of 1789, the conspiracy theory that the Illuminati, in league with freemasons and French philosophers, had in fact caused the Revolution took hold of the British conservative imagination. Historians, perhaps because of the Illuminati’s association with nonsensical fiction and conspiracy junkies, have tended to ignore this reality. My paper seeks to correct that oversight, to explain why the Illuminati theory was so popular in the 1790s, and then to demonstrate briefly how accepting the popularity of this conspiracy theory will allow historians to reconstruct what British conservatives thought about what the Illuminati represented: the Enlightenment.

This talk is part of the Caius MCR/SCR research talks series.

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