A powerful force in the European revolutionary struggles of the early nineteenth century, the Carbonari (“Charcoal Burners”) traced its roots back to southeastern France around the beginning of the French Revolution, where a fraternal association called la Charbonnerie was among the most popular social groups. La Charbonnerie claimed descent from medieval charcoal burners, but probably derived from the Order of Woodcutters (Ordre des Fendeurs), a fraternal secret society founded by Masons and their wives in the 1740s in Paris. See Order of Woodcutters.

One of the initiates of la Charbonnerie, Pierre Joseph Briot, ended up in Naples after the French conquest of Italy. Briot had been a member of the House of Five Hundred, the lower house of the French revolutionary parliament under the Directory, and remained faithful to the ideals of the Revolution even after Napoleon’s seizure of power. In Naples, along with other French Republicans opposed to the march toward empire, Briot blended the rituals and traditions of la Charbonnerie with elements from Masonic sources to create the Carbonari. See Freemasonry; French Revolution.

Members of the Carbonari called one another “good cousins” and pledged mutual support and protection on the blade of an ax. Their lodges were termed venditas, literally “shops.” They worked a system of two degrees, apprentice and master; in the latter, initiates were taught the legendary origin of the Carbonari, a long tale involving St Theobald, King Francis I of France, and poor but honest Scottish charcoal burners. Members took Carbonaro names drawn from the history of the Middle Ages, and had secret signs and passwords to identify themselves to other Carbonari. All this follows patterns shared with many other secret societies of the same time. Less standard was the requirement that each Carbonaro acquire a rifle, fifty cartridges, and a dagger immediately after initiation and be prepared to use them in the struggle for liberty.

During the first four decades of the nineteenth century, the Carbonari had a remarkable degree of success in organizing political pressure and revolutionary violence across Europe. The keys to the Carbonari achievement were twofold. First was its use of popular religious symbolism instead of the symbols of esoteric spirituality; these made it more acceptable in the devoutly Catholic and Eastern Orthodox countries where it flourished. Second was its deliberate strategy of recruiting from the middle classes, who provided most government functionaries and junior army officers for the European governments of the time. The Carbonari ideal of constitutional government appealed powerfully to these classes, since it offered them a voice in government and protection against the abuses of autocracy. Carbonari venditas built on this by recruiting bureaucrats, policemen, and soldiers, with dramatic results over the following decades as the rulers of Europe’s autocratic states found their own officers and civil servants on the other side of the barricades. This program of infiltration also made it easier for the Carbonari to counter the efforts made to suppress them, since the police and soldiers detailed to hunt them were as often as not members themselves.

Alongside this strategy ran an organizational flexibility that few other secret societies achieved. While a Supreme Vendita in Paris served as a central coordinating body, and High Venditas in each country had authority over venditas in their territories, the control exercised by these bodies over individual venditas was modest at best, and local venditas were, for most purposes, independent. Members of the Carbonari’s second degree were also free to establish groups of their own, called economias (“economies”), to pursue specific goals within the broad framework of the overall Carbonari agenda. Some of the major revolutionary secret societies of the early nineteenth century started out as Carbonari economias, and many stayed in close contact with the Carbonari throughout their existence.

The Carbonari first flexed their muscles in 1814, during the waning days of Napoleon’s power, when the order helped topple French puppet governments the length of the Italian peninsula. In 1820 and 1821, Carbonari revolts set up short-lived constitutional regimes in Spain and several Italian states, and a Greek branch of the order, the Philike Hetairia, launched a massive rising that won Greek independence after four centuries of Turkish rule. The Decembrist rising in St Petersburg and the Ukraine against Tsar Nicholas I of Russia in 1824 was largely inspired by the Carbonari example, and revolts in Paris in 1830 and central Italy in 1831 had strong backing from the Carbonari. Outside Greece, none of the Carbonari revolts succeeded in their immediate aims, as the conservative powers of Europe quickly sent troops to suppress any successful rising, but the constant threat of Carbonari risings played a large part in forcing governments across Europe to grant civil rights to their people. See Decembrists; Philike Hetairia.

Some of the most famous revolutionists of the age were members of the Carbonari at various points in their careers. The veteran conspirator Filippo Buonarroti, a tireless organizer of revolutionary secret societies, had close connections with the Carbonari during his years in Swiss exile, and made use of his Carbonaro connections in recruiting for his primary secret society, the Sublime Perfect Masters. Later in his career he reorganized the Carbonari in France in 1832 as the Reformed Carbonarism (Charbonnerie Réformée), renamed Universal Democratic Carbonarism (Charbonnerie Démocratique Universelle) the next year. Buonarroti’s great opponent in the revolutionary debates of the early nineteenth century, Giuseppe Mazzini (1805–72), shared his Carbonaro background; Mazzini’s main secret society, Young Italy, started out as a Carbonari economia. See Buonarroti, Filippo; Sublime Perfect Masters; Young Italy.


The Element Encyclopedia of Secret Societies : the ultimate a-z of ancient mysteries, lost civilizations and forgotten wisdom written by John Michael Greer – © John Michael Greer 2006