Wired Magazine has an interesting story on the deciphering of a manuscript left behind from a secret society called the Oculists. Some background:
Active in the mid-18th century, the Oculists fixated on both the anatomy and symbolism of the eye. They focused on sight as a metaphor for knowledge. And they performed surgery on the eye. “We exceed all other [healers] by being able to pierce all cataracts, whether they’re fully developed or not,” the group boasted in its public—and uncoded—bylaws.
Centered in the town of Wolfenbüttel, Germany, the Oculists, it was believed, played the role of gatekeepers to the burgeoning field of ophthalmology. They kept out the “charlatans” who could cause someone to “lose their eyesight forever.”
On their crest, the Oculists featured a cataract needle and three cats (which, of course, can see in near darkness). In their bylaws, the Oculists’ emphasis on the master’s “light hand” seemed to be a reference to members’ surgical skill. And they appeared to have a rather progressive attitude; women could be Oculists, just like men.
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Hundreds of thousands of Europeans belonged to secret societies in the 18th century, Önnerfors explained to Megyesi; in Sweden alone, there were more than a hundred orders. Though they were clandestine, they were often remarkably inclusive. Many welcomed noblemen and merchants alike—a rare egalitarian practice in an era of strict social hierarchies. That made the orders dangerous to the state. They also frequently didn’t care about their adherents’ Christian denomination, making these orders—especially the biggest of them, Freemasonry—an implicit threat to the authority of the Catholic Church. In 1738 Pope Clement XII forbade all Catholics from joining a Masonic lodge. Others implied that the male-only groups might be hotbeds of sodomy. Not long after, rumors started that members of these orders actually worshipped the devil.The story describes the history and steps taken to decipher a particular Oculists' text, and how the Oculists were a secret society within another secret society, the Freemasons. Read the whole thing.
These societies were the incubators of democracy, modern science, and ecumenical religion. They elected their own leaders and drew up constitutions to govern their operations. It wasn’t an accident that Voltaire, George Washington, and Ben Franklin were all active members. And just like today’s networked radicals, much of their power was wrapped up in their ability to stay anonymous and keep their communications secret.