Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The History of Freemasonry by Lewis Spence 1920


The History of Freemasonry by Lewis Spence 1920

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Though it would not be exactly correct to say that the history of Freemasonry was lost in the mists of antiquity, it is competent to remark that although to a certain degree traceable, its records are of a scanty nature, and so crossed by the trails of other mystical brotherhoods, that disentanglement is an extremely difficult process. The ancient legend of its foundation at the time of the building of the Temple at Jerusalem is manifestly traditional. If one might hazard an opinion, it would seem that at a very early epoch in the history of civilization, a caste of builders in stone arose, who jealously guarded the secret of their craft. In all probability this caste was prehistoric. It is not unreasonable to assume this when we possess plenty of proof that an ancient caste of bronze-workers flourished in every country in Europe and Asia; and if this be admitted, and it cannot well be refuted in the light of recent researches,—(see Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society for 1913)—there is nothing absurd or impossible in the contention that a similar school of workers in stone should have arisen at a like early period. We know that it is probable that the old caste of bronze-workers had an esoteric language of their own, which has come down to us as the Shelta Thari spoken generally by the tinkler people of Great Britain and Ireland. If such a caste can elaborate a secret language and cling jealously to the "mysteries" of metal-working, there is no reason to doubt the existence of a similar caste of masons. We tender this theory for what it is worth, as it is unsupported by any great authority on the subject. Where such a caste of operative masons arose is altogether a separate question, and cannot be dealt with here; but it must obviously have been in a country where working in stone was one of the principal arts. It is also almost certain that this early brotherhood must have been hierophantic. Its principal work to begin with would undoubtedly consist in the raising of temples and similar structures, and as such it would come into very close contact with the priesthood, if indeed it was not wholly directed by it. In early civilization but two classes of dwelling receive the attention of the architect,—the temple and the palace. For example, among the ruins of Egypt and Babylon, remains of the private house are rare, but the temple and the royal residence are everywhere conspicuous, and we know that among the ruins of Central America temples and palaces alone remain—the huts of the surrounding dwellers having long ago disappeared. The temple is the nucleus of the early city. Around the worship of the gods crystallises commerce, agriculture, and all the affairs of life. All roads lead to the temple. Striding for a moment over the gap of years between early Babylon and Egypt and mediaeval Britain, we find the priesthood in close touch with the masons. A mediaeval cathedral took more than one generation to erect, and in that time many masons came and went around the fane. The lodge was invariably founded hard by the rising cathedral or abbey, and apprentices and others were entered as opportunity offered: indeed a man might serve his apprenticeship and labour all through his life upon the one building, without ever seeing any work elsewhere. The evidence as to whether the master-masons were also architects is very conflicting, and it has been held that the priests were the architects of the British cathedrals,—the master-masons and operatives merely carrying out their designs. There is good evidence however that this is not wholly true. Authorities are at one in declaring that of all arts architecture is by far the most intricate. It is undoubtedly the one which requires a long and specific training. Questions of stress and strain of the most difficult description arise, and it seems incredible that anyone with the most superficial knowledge of the subject should believe that ecclesiastics, who had not undergone any special training should be qualified to compose plans of the most perfect and intricate description for the most noble and remarkable edifices ever raised in this country.

We know that professional architects existed at a very early period; and why the priesthood should be credited with their work, it is difficult to understand; but instances are on record where the priests of a certain locality have taken to themselves the credit of planning the cathedral of the diocese. Be this as it may, the "mystery" of building was sufficiently deep to require extensive knowledge and experience and to a great extent this justifies the jealousy with which the early masons regarded its secrets. Again, this jealousy with which it was kept from the vulgar gaze may have been racial in its origin, and may have arisen from such considerations as the following: "Let no stranger understand this craft of ours. Why should we make it free to the heathen and the foreigner?" This also smacks of priestcraft; but if masonry originated hierophantically, it certainly did not continue a preserve of any religion, and is nowadays probably the chiefest abomination of the Roman Catholic hierarchy, which has not hesitated to publish and disseminate the grossest libels regarding it. It is to Britain that we must look for evidence as to the evolutionary line of masonry. Before the founding of the Grand Lodge, we find that York and the North of England in general was regarded as the most ancient seat of the fraternity in this island. Indeed without stretching probabilities too far, the line of evolution so far as York is concerned is quite remarkable. We know for example that in the early days of that city a temple of Serapis existed there, which was afterwards a monastery of the Begging Friars, and the mysteries of this god existed beside the Roman Collegia or Craftsmen's Society. It is also considered that the crypt of York Minster affords evidence of the progress of masonry from Roman to Saxon times. It is stated that it has a mosaic pavement of blue and white tiles laid in the form employed in the first degree of masonry, and is said to show the sites of three seats used by the master and his wardens during the construction of the building. It is also an undoubted fact that the craft occasionally-met in this crypt during last century. There is thus reason to believe even though the evidence be of a scanty nature (but the foregoing does not embrace all of it) that the early masons of Britain were probably influenced by Romano-Egyptian mystical societies, and that their own craft societies drew some of their practices and constitutions from these alien schools. Masonic tradition goes to show that even in the beginning of the fourteenth century masonry in Britain was then regarded as a thing of great antiquity. Lodge records for the most part only date back to the sixteenth century in the oldest instances, but ancient manuscripts are extant which undoubtedly relate to masonry. Thus the old charges embodied in the Regius MS. which was unearthed in 1839 by Mr, Halliwell Phillips are dated at 1390, and contain a curious legend of the craft, which tells how the necessity of finding work of some description drove men to consult Euclid, who recommended masonry as a craft to them. It goes on to tell how masonry was founded in Egypt, and how it entered England in the time of Athelstan. The necessity for keeping close counsel as regards the secrets of the craft is insisted upon in rude verse. The Cooke MS. dates from the first part of the fifteenth century, and likewise contains versions of the old charges. Egypt is also regarded here as the mother-land of masonry, and Athelstan is the medium for the introduction of the craft into the island of Britain. But that this manuscript was used among masons at a later date was proved by the discovery of a more modern version dated about 1687, in 1890, and known as the William Watson MS. In all about seventy of these old charges and pseudo-histories have been discovered since 1860. They have all much in common and are of English origin.

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A great deal has been written to attempt to prove that British Freemasonry borrowed extensively from continental secret societies, such as the Steinmetzin of Germany, the Rosicrucians and similar fellowships. The truth probablv lies however in the circumstance that the coming and going of students of occultism throughout Europe was so constant, and so frequent were their communications that practically all those societies were in touch with one another. Again many persons belonged to several of them at once, and imported the rules and constitution of one body into another. No student of occultism can fail to be struck with the close resemblance of the constitutions of nearly all the mystical fellowships of the middle ages, and the resemblance of the verbiage employed by their founders and protagonists. It must also be insisted that the speculative or mystic part of masonry was in the middle ages merely a tradition with the brotherhood, whatever it may have been in earlier times, and whatever close connection the craft may have had with hierophantic or mystic philosophy. The speculative element, we repeat, was merely traditional and symbolical as at present, and not practical; but this tradition was to serve to keep alight the flame of speculative mysticism which was to be aroused again at the end of the mediaeval period. When political freedom awoke in Europe, the necessity for the existence of secret societies vanished, but the persons who delighted in their formation and management still remained. The raison d'etre of these fellowships had disappeared, but the love of mysticism, not to say the mysterious, was perhaps stronger than ever. What then occurred? Simply this: that all those persons who found the occupation of floating and managing real secret societies gone, cast about for anything in the shape of a mystical fellowship that they could find. They soon discovered the craft of masonry which although operative possessed mystical traditions. The attraction was mutual, and astrologers, alchemists and others soon crowded the lodges, to such purpose that at the lodge held in 1646 in London, there was not an operative mason present, and at that held in 1682, the speculative branch was overwhelming in its numbers. Harking back a little, it is noteworthy that the freemasons in medieval times formed a fellowship or guild closely resembling in its constitution that of similar trade guilds both in Britain and the continent; such as the Weavers, Tailors, Fishmongers, and so forth. But although these guilds preserved their "mysteries," where they possessed them, with considerable jealousy, they do not appear to have embedded in their constitutions the same ancient practices and ritual which go to show so strongly that masonry is undoubtedly an institution of great antiquity.

It has also been suggested that freemasonry was introduced into Europe by the Knights Templar. It would be difficult to discover a similar institution which in the opinion of some authorities had not been founded by that order; and it is difficult to believe that the haughty chivalry of Norman times would have claimed any connection whatsoever with an operative craft. There are, however, many connections between alchemy and masonry. For example in the Ordinall of Alchymy compiled by Thomas Norton, the freemasons are alluded to as workers in it. In 1630, we find Fludd using language which smacks strongly of freemasonry. His society was divided into degrees, and the Masons' Company of London had a copy of the masonic charges presented by him. Vaughan also appears to have been a freemason, and many masons of the middle of the seventeenth century, such as Robert Moray and Elias Ashmole, were diligent students of occult science, and Sir Christopher Wren was a student of hermetic art.

It has often been put forward that Scotland was the original home of freemasonry in these islands, but although the craft was undoubtedly ancient in that country, there does not appear to be any adequate proof that it was older than in England. Some of the Scottish lodges, such as No. 1 Edinburgh, Kilwinning, and Aberdeen, possess very ancient records, and it is probable that this has led to the assumption that the brotherhood was of greater antiquity in North Britain than in England. But the circumstance that the craft was probably introduced into England in Roman times, where it has in all likelihood flourished ever since, tends to dispose of such a theory. The history of modern freemasonry begins with the formation of the Grand Lodge of England, which was inaugurated on St. John the Baptist's Day 1717 by several old lodges. This represented the first central governing body of the fraternity, and before this time each lodge had been self-governing. Many lodges speedily came under its aegis, and Ireland formed a Grand lodge of her own in 1725 but Scotland did not follow till 1736, and even then many lodges held aloof from the central body, only 33 out of 100 falling into line. From one or other of these three governing bodies all the regular lodges throughout the world have arisen, so that modern masonry may truthfully be said to be of entirely British origin. This is not the place to enter into an elaborate discussion of the history and affairs of modern masonry, and we are chiefly exercised regarding its mystical position and tendencies. Regarding these we must be brief. As regards the lower ranks of the craft, it consists almost entirely in these islands at least of persons who have in great measure treated it as a mere friendly society, and it is only in the higher ranks that any real idea of the true significance of the mystical tenets preserved and taught is retained. The ordinary mason, who preserves a cryptic and mysterious silence when the affairs of his craft are alluded to, merely serves as a laughing-stock to the modern well-equipped mystic. Certain signs and handgrips are in use amongst masons, and the possession of these, and of a ritual the significance of which he rarely comprehends, the average brother fondly imagines, renders him somewhat superior to the layman. It is extremely doubtful if among even the higher ranks of masonry, the deepest significance of the tradition of the craft is thoroughly revised, and if the absurd works which every now and then emanate from eminent masons regarding the history of their craft be accepted as criteria of their higher knowledge, it must indeed be of slight proportions. Regarding the grand secret, or secrets, of masonry, the layman may rest comfortably assured that if he has failed to join the brotherhood, he has missed no fact of supreme importance by so doing. There is no "secret" at all. The original secrets in connection with the craft were those of operative masons, who were jealous of their position as workmen, and who rightly enough did not believe in giving away business secrets to all and sundry; but the so-called "secrets" of modern speculative masonry are merely such as have brought alchemy, astrology, and the kindred sciences into unthinking disrepute among those who do not recognise their significance in the history of human thought. This is not to say that masonry as a whole consists of mere claptrap. The trend of its entire constitution is nowadays frankly mystical, but it is a mysticism which is only half understood by the lower ranks of the craft, and which is imperfectly recognised by its higher officers. Its tenets are unquestionably mystic and lofty, but masonic transcendentalism has scarcely kept in line with the more modern forms of mysticism. From time to time new degrees have been formed which have in some measure rectified this, but the number of masons qualified to understand the nature of the vast and mighty truths conveyed in these, is naturally extremely small, and it is as a friendly society that the brotherhood effects its greatest good.

As has been said, continental masonry is undoubtedly the offspring of British systems. This is not to say that in France and Germany there were no masonic lodges in existence before the formation of the English Grand Lodge; but all modern lodges in these countries undoubtedly date from the inception of the English central body. French masonry possessed and possesses many rites which differ entirely from those accepted by the British craft. We find the beginnings of modern French masonry in the labours of Martinez Pasqually, St. Martin, and perhaps to a great extent in those of Cagliostro who toiled greatly to found his Egyptian rite in France. It is noticeable, however, that he had become a member of a London lodge before attempting this. In France, masonry has always had more or less a political complexion, and nowadays the extreme enmity existing between it and the Roman Catholic church in that country favours the inclusion in its ranks of persons possessing ideals by no means in consonance with the very upright standard of British masonry. In Germany, it has been said that the Steinmetzin approximated very strongly in mediaeval times to the British Masons, if they were not originally one and the same; but the later lodges in Germany all date from that founded in 1733.

The entrance of masons into the various degrees involves an elaborate system of symbolic ritual, of which the essence is uniform throughout all lodges. The members are classified in numerous degrees, of which the first three are entered apprentice, fellow-craft, and master-mason. Each lodge possesses its own byclaws, subject to the Book of Constitution of the Grand Lodge.

Wild stories have been circulated, chiefly by the Roman Catholic enemies of masonry, regarding the practice of diabolic occultism in the higher ranks of the craft. To begin with, it is extremely unlikely that more than three or four persons connected with it possess the requisite knowledge to thus offend against the Christian proprieties, and the childish asseverations of French writers on the subject may be dismissed with a smile. The "occultism" and "transcendentalism" of the majority of zealous brethren are usually of the wildest character possible, and are in some measure related to the mysterious attitude of the average Mason, when dark hints as to lodge doings are whispered of among his admiring relatives.

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