[Square & Compasses]

Letter of the month: January 1999

Message-Id: <3695791D.D873BE86@mlode.com>
Date: Thu, 07 Jan 1999 22:18:53 -0500
From: srdaley@mlode.com (Susan Daley)
Reply-To: srdaley@mlode.com
To: masonry-ask@MIT.EDU
Subject: What is the Origin of Freemasonary?


Just wondering what the origin, place,date, those involved in the "origin" of Freemasonary. Thanks for your help.


That'd take a pretty long answer. Isn't most of that already available in my web-site? Please poke around for more details.

Short answer: there were all kinds of professional tradesmen's guilds in middle ages Europe, including guilds of stone-masons and architects, who met in "lodges". These masons (sometimes called "freemasons" probably because they had freedom to travel in order to practice their trade) designed and built the beautiful gothic churches and cathedrals of Europe.

All of these guilds had their own ceremonies for bringing in new members ("initiation"), and the ceremonies included various legends and bible stories. Each guild used to perform or act out a particular saint's legend or bible story outside the town church during festivals and holidays. The masons, for instance, often acted out the story of Noah, and early masonic legends and rituals used to tell stories of Noah and his descendants in the post-flood days, rebuilding cities and creating stone pillars to store and protect learning and knowledge. These legends and others about the transmission of Masonry from biblical times to "our day" were the basis of early lodge ceremonies.

Also part of the ceremonies was the transmission of certain "tokens": words, signs, gestures that a travelling stone-mason could use to establish his professional credentials in another town in the days before modern instant communication. Upon proving his ability to do professional-quality work as a journeyman or "fellow craft" the apprentice would be promoted, and as part of that promotion, be taught the signs and tokens appropriate to his new degree. Since these tokens protected his livelihood, the mason protected them with strong oaths of secrecy. (Nowadays, our "tokens" have only symbolic meaning, and stand for our serious intention to keep private any heartfelt and honest discussions of personal matters that a brother may choose to confide in us.)

The masons guild was very important, influential, and active during the great age of cathedral building (from about 1100-1500) and after that went into decline.

By the 1600s, the surviving small guild remnants were still meeting as "operative" (working) lodges. As learned men around Europe began to be interested in the writings of Classical past (ancient Rome, Greece, etc) they thought they could find traces of ancient wisdom in the old lodge rituals and began to join the lodges as "speculative" or "accepted" (honorary) members. They began to infuse their various mystical and religious elements into the old ceremonies.

Another important intellectual current at the time was the "Enlightenment" which encouraged free-thinking, freedom from old dogmas, human rights, equality, etc. These also became an important element in the philosophy of the Mason's lodges. (Masonry, for instance, opened its membership all good men, of any religious opinion, long before any other organizations or even governments did so.)

In 1717, four old lodges meeting in London decided to form together as a Grand Lodge, with jurisdiction to govern Freemasonry. Modern Masonry traces its lineage to that first Grand Lodge, which survives today as the United Grand Lodge of England.

That's the short version. For the long version, join the rest of us at the libraries and web-sites and start reading and studying -- it's a great starting topic to kindle a real interest in history.

Up to the Letters: Main page
All the way UP to Freemasonry main page.