Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Origin of Freemasonry--Does It Really Matter?

In my own Masonic experience, I have heard only a few speeches postulating the source of origin of our fraternity. Most Masons I have met seem comfortable with the rather simple but improbable possibility that we evolved from the operative guilds of the Middle Ages. There is a persistent and attractive attachment to the building trades since so much of our symbolism seems connected to the tools and mathematics of construction.

Yet, the city guild system of 16th century England and Scotland was very different from what survived into the 18th century. It was a system specifically designed to prevent travel and to exclude craftsmen from out of town to break into a closed shop. Our ritual emphasis on travel rights comes from a much earlier era, when craft guilds were tied to religious houses, a tie which gave men the right to travel because they were sponsored by the church. To look into origins, one may well need to look well before the English transition era.

Besides, there are a number of other possibilities which seem equally compelling and deserve our attention.

In addition to those who subscribe to the suggestion that we are a product of the operative guilds of Scotland, which can date us to the 1500’s, and from which our catechisms and obligations seem to derive; there are those who just as firmly believe we descend from the merchants guilds of London through the London Mason’s company—a sort of transitional group that rescued the operatives after the economic breakdown of the English guilds. Sadly, its records were lost in 1621 so we can’t really say for sure.

Then there is the chivalric 13th century Knights Templar theory, which contributed significantly to our hierarchical form and added knightly virtues to our heritage. But a three hundred year gap between the last templar records and early speculative Freemasonry makes a shared adventure seem romantic at best.

Perhaps we shouldn’t totally discount Prince Edwin’s famous Articles of Fraternity. He was the son of the tenth century Saxon king Athelstan, and assembled the first general meeting of Masons. If it is true that his constitutions were approved by the aristocracy as law for lodges from that time hence (and there is not a shred of evidence that it is), we can add another 300 years to our source of origin; making us a whopping 1,000 years old!

Then we have the German College of architects who claim an association with continental lodges as early as 1745. But the historic problem of kingly sanction between Germany and England wields an unlikely provable association. Of course, there is the much older Roman College of architects who supposedly were the original source of all guilds, and in which a lineage can hypothetically be traced up through the speculative Masonry period. The problem with this association is that the organization was forced out of business in the 5th century so it may be difficult to prove an unbroken chain.

Moving into an entirely different arena of origin, we also have the mystical and eccentric esoteric theories which center our beginnings among the alchemists, Rosicrucians, the Illuminati, and the hermeticists; and from which our allegorical forms were undoubtedly sired. But why would groups whose adherents swore to secrecy and who refused to claim any form of organizational structure suddenly align themselves with an organization which was clearly social and civic in nature?

Perhaps our mystical side grew out of the purported Masonic search of perfection; that the ensuing intellectual aspects of our fraternity date no earlier than the Scottish Masonic reformers of the 17th century. Those fellows rather liked the Rosicrucian form of universal education and could well have wanted to duplicate this Renaissance theme in the Mason lodges.

What about the confraternities, such as the Star and Garter, the Golden Buckle, the Hanseatic League of Eagle, all medieval fraternities which can be traced from the 12th to the 17th centuries, providing charitable benefits to their members? And while we’re on the topic of confraternities, it can rather convincingly be suggested we are the product of a monastic order of the Protestant Reformation, organized in secret defiance to established church authority. There is little doubt that many of our Masonic emblems can also be found in early medieval church iconography. All of these pertain to saints who lived prior to 1300. Most Masonic/Biblical historians can show the legend of the third degree itself represents a confluence of two Biblical stories which were well known during the Middle Ages.

However, setting these earlier traditions aside to collect archival dust, and moving forward in time, let us not discount the possibility that we are really not so ancient after all; that we may have derived from the gentlemen’s clubs of London—a group of good ole boys who wanted to secure economic connections through the legal obligations of fraternity. Such an ambition certainly sounds like a useful and practical fraternal idea.

Finally, who’s to say that we really have any origins at all which were not always Masonic? Why can’t we accept the possibility that the fraternal government invented by Drs’ Anderson and Desaguliers in 1723 had a purpose not attached to any prior group. That our connection to the guilds was all myth after all; as these two men just happened to have as their hobby the study of the medieval guilds? If one is authoring a constitution, he can pretty well choose whatever antiquarian interest he dreams up and attach it to his new form of government.

The bottom line is that we may never know from whence we came. And it may not be important.

It is enough to know that we have existed as a fraternity for at least 287 years. That’s long enough to say we have a legacy and a tradition which predates anything American. Our tenacious survivability attests to the truth of our endeavors. And, at least in my judgment, the fact that we have been around to serve more than 20 generations of men proves we have an appeal which transcends all generations.

Besides, every Mason knows that how we were established is not nearly as significant as why we came to be. Maybe this is the real reason there haven’t been many books penned about Masonic origins.


Justa Mason said...

In answer to your title question, Robert, it seems to matter a great deal to some. Endless theories (some of which you summarise) have been debated in Lodge Quatuor Coronati and other rarified circles. Endless argument ensues if you state category one theory HAS to be correct.

I'm sure just about every Grand Lodge gives material to new members wherein some kind of statement is made about our probable origin. If one checks enough Lodge web pages, they'll probably notice plenty of space given to origin. If it didn't "matter," would so much time be spent on it?

Perhaps a corollary question would be "Is it really relevant?" As Masons, we are on a journey .. one which takes us into a future of our own making (and with the help of our brothers), using the tenets, symbols and allegories of the Craft to help us on the way, to a Beyond as defined by our personal religious beliefs. In that light, how relevant is it that we came from a bunch of Scots shaping stones for a church or some English guys getting together on an ad hoc basis and performing some kind of ceremony on a buddy before opening the keg?

Robert G. Davis said...

well...while I agree almost every Grand Lodge has some kind of brochure, statement, etc., which suggests an origin, far and away the largest percentage tend to follow only the transitionist theory from the operative to the speculative fraternity. I also agree with you that the London Research Lodge has spent more time on the topic of origins than any other group in the world; primarily to defend their own historic leaning toward English origins.

I certainly agree with you that my title question might have been more on point if I had asked if our fraternal origin has any real relevance today.

It just didn't matter to me that much. :)

Jay Simser said...

Bob, I have heard that Prince Edwin was not the son of King Althestan and the myth perpetuated by the York Rite College of North America is untrue. In fact I blogged about it. Any rebuttal? http://baileysbuddy.blogspot.com/2008/01/york-college-real-story.html
By the way I agree with you. It doesn't really matter where we started - just what we do today. Oh and Congratulations on being the Grand Orator for the RCC. I look forward to your Oration next year. jcs

Masonic Central said...

Br. Robert,

I agree with you here. I think we to often get caught up in the question of where we came from and less in the question of where are we going.

Both questions I believe to be even less important than the what are we doing now.

I think we can debate ad nauseum our origin, and in that argument each say we are right in some small aspect. Perhaps as our nature of builder requires, we look for absolutes and perfection, when in fact we are dealing with philosophy and intangibles.

Robert G. Davis said...

Bro. Jay:

I'm sure you are correct. There is some myth in all theories. My purpose here was to simply list some of the previously published theories about our origins and to point out that, since we have not been able to prove any one of them with certainty, perhaps the focus should be on why we are still around. That has everything to do what and how we teach. Our long tenure and adherence to our foundational principles may suggest that we are dealing with certain truths which are reliable. And that is a fact. :)

Robert G. Davis said...

Bro. Masonic:

How right you are! My insight is that it is our study of philosophy and the intangibles that guide us along the path of perfection and knowledge of the Absolute.

Thank you for your comment!

Trancemutator said...

Reading through the posts, I wonder why the "Brethren of Purity" or "Ikhwan al-Safa" were never mentioned, or that of a Middle Eastern origin, rather than a European. As for my thoughts, I will say, that the past does matter, but the past does not necessarily define the present or the future.


Robert G. Davis said...

Bro. Q:

It was not my purpose to list every possible source of origin of speculative Freemasonry. That was not the real topic of my essay. Suffice it to say there are many such theories. I am much more aware of the western school of initiatory rites so I gave a few sources of orign from the European tradition as examples.

The intent of my musing was to suggest that the source of origin becomes less and less significant as time flows centuries past it. It is enough that Freemasonry has been around long enough to be an authentic spiritual center possessing a tradition of ritual which enables it to transmit to its initiates the spiritual and psychological archetypes of the mature masculine soul. You might find it interesting to note that those who specialize in the history of initiatory rites will argue that any initiatic order which grows itself from nothing is not considered a legitimate spiritual center.

This is the reason 20th century break away grand lodges and new age spiritual movements seldom work. The call to transformation is confused by the filter of its founders.

Thank you for pointing out there are other possible sources of origin.