History of Freemasonry

IF the date assigned by scholarship is correct, the oldest
existing Masonic manuscript, the Regius poem, was penned
in the year 1390. In that year King Richard II was on the
throne of England; the battle of Agincourt had not yet been
fought; the War of the Roses as yet in the future and the first
voyage of Columbus to the New World was not to begin for
more than another century. Almost three-quarters of a
century were to pass before Martin Luther's birth. All over
Europe men were still building cathedrals in the Gothic style,
although that school of architecture had entered upon its
final phases of decline. The guild system was in its heyday in
England and on the continent. It had not yet become
fashionable - in England at least - to burn heretics at the
stake. Legal issues might still be decided in trial by combat.

The Regius manuscript contains a set of rules and
regulations for the government of what was obviously a guild
of craftsmen; in the light of modern research it is possible to
ascertain that the society was organized upon much the
same general plan as were the majority of operative guilds of
that day. But the Regius poem is of far greater importance
than that. It was a patent attempt to account to the English
members of an English institution for an antiquity of that
institution in which they already believed. Presumably it was
to be read to men whose fathers and grandfathers and
probably great grandfathers had belonged. It gave naive
credence to a tradition that the society had been in
continuous existence on English soil since the days of
Athelstan - which was to say since before the Norman
conquest. It is clear from the rhymed narrative itself that its
author had no real sense of the passage of time. What he
did know, however, was that the society was very old - or at
least so old that the traditions and memories of persons then
living did not run back to a time when it did not exist.

In some manner this particular manuscript was lost to sight,
to remain lost for some 450 years. At any rate when the first
Grand Lodge was formed, about 325 years after it was
penned, and diligent search was made for all the writings
having to do with Operative Masonry, this one for the time
escaped attention. There were other and later ones,
however, and these contained substantially the same
material, thus indicating the persistence of the Regius
tradition. At least six of these were in possession of the old
"immemorial" Lodge at York - a lodge which held itself out to
be the direct lineal descendant of the masonry of Athelstan's
day. Not a few such lodges were scattered about England
and Scotland at that time, unmistakable survivors of the guild
system of the Middle Ages. One of the first tasks the new
Grand Lodge set for itself was to gather, digest and publish
in literary form all that could be learned of the operative
guilds and particularly their legends, customs, laws and
regulations. More than a century after that had been done,
the Regius manuscript was rediscovered, to bear eloquent
testimony to the fact that there had been no great alteration
in the practices and beliefs of the operative masons between
the reign of Richard II and the reign of George I, a period of
more than three centuries.

Taking the year 1400 as a point of departure from which to
measure English Masonic history both forward and
backward, it is therefore clear: (1) that before that time, and
probably for a considerable period before it, operative
masonic guilds were in existence in England; that they had a
substantial literary tradition and customs established by
immemorial usage; (2) that they continued to exist for
another 300 years with relatively little change in either
customs or traditions; and (3) that surviving units or "lodges"
of them participated in the eighteenth-century movement
which centered on the formation of the first Grand Lodge,
from which Speculative Freemasonry dates its present form
of existence.

For purposes of discussion it may be assumed that even if
there had been no operative societies coming down from a
remoter antiquity, the guild system itself would have
produced them. When artisans of all other classes and
callings were uniting themselves into such groups, it would
have been strange indeed if the stone masons had not done
so also. If not a single record of their medieval existence
could be found, it still would be safe to infer they did exist. As
a matter of fact there are records of Masonic guilds both in
England and on the continent. The term Freemason occurs
in the fabric rolls of Exeter Cathedral in the year 1396. The
guild at London in 1537 called its members Freemasons; at
Norwich in 1375 masons appear to have been attached to
the guild of carpenters; whether that was a purely local or a
general arrangement at the time there is no way of knowing.

It is interesting to observe, however, that in the year 1350
two separate classes of masons were recognized. A statute
of that period describes a mestre mason de franche pere - a
master mason of free stone - as being different from other
masons and entitled to higher pay. That distinction is
maintained in a statute of 1360 except that in the later one
the preferred workman is called a "chief mestre" of masons.
The common mason appears to have been classified
generally with "carpenters, tilers, thatchers, daubers and all
other labourers." As late as 1604 an incorporation at Oxford
included freemasons, carpenters, joiners and slaters. It is
evident from the records of smaller towns that mason guilds
were not numerous or particularly important, a fact which in
itself is illuminating. It marks one great respect in which
these bodies differed from all other craft organizations, for
they were essentially local institutions, made up of workmen
who remained in one town and usually in one quarter of the
town, whereas the skilled masons who worked in the
building of the Gothic cathedrals had from the nature of their
calling to be more or less itinerant, moving about from place
to place as work was to be found.

In an enumeration of the guilds entitled to representation in
the Common Council of London in 1370, a Company of
Freemasons was listed and a Company of Masons, standing
respectively as No. 17 and No. 34 on a roll of forty-eight. The
Company of Masons appears to have been of greater
numerical strength than the Company of Freemasons, since
it had four representatives as against two for the other.
Whether, as Mackey's History of Freemasonry suggests, this
indicates that the Freemasons formed a smaller and more
select society, is pure speculation, since no proof one way or
the other has been found, but as a guess it is decidedly
plausible. In any event, the list establishes the existence of
two separate guilds. Ultimately they were merged, taking a
coat of arms which displayed three white castles with black
doors and windows on a black field, together with a silver or
scalloped chevron and on it a pair of black compasses.

It is therefore possible to be reasonably sure of the following
facts pertaining to the general situation of Operative
Masonry at the time the Regius manuscript was presumably
written, that is, in the year 1390:

I. That it was occasionally divided into two general classes
respectively mentioned as Freemasons and as Masons;

II. That town guilds of masons were small and relatively
unimportant as compared with town guilds of other kinds;

III. That town mason guilds frequently united with, or formed
parts of, guilds of other workers employed in the building

IV. That it is probable no wide gulf separated the two classes
of Masons, since separate guilds of them in London found
no insuperable obstacle in the way of union and particularly
since the Old Charges mention their common art as
Masonry, without drawing invidious distinctions between
Masons and Freemasons;

V. That the rules laid down for practical guidance of
members of the Craft corresponded in the main with similar
rules laid down in other craft guilds of that period.

But when the Regius poem was drafted, the active period of
Gothic architecture was already drawing to a close. That
period for centuries had given to the stone masons of
Northern and Western Europe their principal occupation. Its
work required a high degree of skill, which for the most part
could not be acquired except by actual practice in the labor
of building just such edifices as the great churches
themselves. The stonework of successive cathedrals
discloses that as fast as problems of construction were
solved, the solutions were passed along to succeeding
builders. From quarry to the finished task every stone had its
separate purpose, and preparation of every stone involved
conscious and more or less skilled direction at the hands of
every workman through whose hands it must pass.

When the curtain first rises on the stage of organize
Operative Masonry, it discloses a society proudly an
profoundly self-conscious. It is a society of aristocrat among
workmen, boasting of an ancestry of incredible age and
distinction. It has noble traditions, and it has dignity of a high
order to maintain. Moreover, it has secrets which at all costs
must be preserved, and a esoteric philosophy which is
rooted in the lore of the past. True, it is a guild and in many
respects like all the other guilds which then flourished as
such societies had not flourished before and as they have
not flourished since. But it is more than a guild; it is also a
cult, for it practices mystical rites which are now known to
have been survivals of magic rites and religious
observances, coming down from a past which was
indefinitely remote.

The Old Charges bear abundant witness to all these things.
Most of them prescribe the ritualistic manner in which oaths
of secrecy must be administered. One reveals that the
candidate was compelled to swear, "in the presence of
Almighty God and my Fellows and Brethren here present"
that he would not by any act or under any circumstance,
"publish, discover, reveal or make known any of the secrets,
privileges or counseIs of the fraternity or fellowship of Free
Masonry." (Harleian MSS.) Those secrets were indeed well
kept; so well, in fact, that the modern Freemason is much in
doubt as to what many of them were and can only suppose
that they had to do with the mechanical science of the
operative calling. As Operative Masonry fell into disuse,
some of them undoubtedly became imbedded in the
symbolism and allegory of rite and ritual, where they remain
to this day. Of their origin, practical use, and indeed of their
scope, the present day knows almost nothing. It is by no
means unlikely that as cathedral building masons merged
with the guild masons of the towns, they saw no reason to
impart to their less skilled companions more of their own
secret art than was necessary to give it symbolical or
emblematical preservation; and as "accepted," or non-
operative, masons came in time to outnumber them both, the
value of purely mechanical secrets naturally tended diminish
and ultimately to disappear.

The modern student must bear in mind also that from their
very nature it was unlawful for these things to be written,
carved or engraved upon any movable or immovable thing,
in such fashion that they might become legible or intelligible
to a "cowan," or outsider. The Old Charges must therefore
be studied for what they may suggest "between the lines" as
well as for what they openly say. In actual practice Masons
appear always to have been singularly tenacious of their
secret ritualistic "work." Although no particular care appears
to have been taken to keep the Old Manuscripts from public
inspection, secretaries of many immemorial lodges burned
their records rather than have them fall into the hands of
historians appointed by the first Grand Lodge. Even today
conservative brethren, fearing improper disclosures will be
made, look askance upon public discussions of esoteric
matters, and although various Monitors have been published
officially for guidance in the ritualistic labors of the Craft, by
far the greater part of modern ritual may not be lawfully
written even in cipher; Masons who compose ciphers for that
purpose or make use of them are subject to the severest
penalties. The only legal method of passing these secret
things from man to man and from generation to generation is
that of mouth-to-ear communication. It is truly astonishing
how accurate and uniform these oral transmissions have
been, and this accuracy is in itself the best justification of a
jealous zeal which forbids oral alteration or other innovation
upon the fundamentals of Craft Masonry.