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User Name Thread Name Subject Posted
GUEST,josepp BS: A concise history of Freemasonry (18) BS: A concise history of Freemasonry 04 Jul 12


[This is a another chapter I've been working on (you may have read some earlier ones such as the Salem Witch Trials). This one deals with the 18th century. My sources are non-Masonic and therfore may be flawed. I would appreciate feedback from any Masons here if such is the case. I'm not asking you to spill your secrets, which I don't care about. There is a bit about Masonic ritual and a few passwords and such are given but I can't state that they are correct. I don't feel I'm exposing Freemasonry or anything like that since my sources are non-Masonic meaning that they are also common public knowledge. I have tried to be as impartial as I can. This is just a rough draft and I will likely add some more to it but here it is so far.]

The 18th Century

The eighteenth century is not called the Age of Enlightenment for nothing. This was a century of remarkable and sweeping change and occultism played no small role in this. Let us start off with what was without a doubt the most extensive accomplishment in this era: Freemasonry. To do it justice, we will have to devote some time and space to it.

The History and Background of Freemasonry

Freemasonry, as we know it, is truly an eighteenth century development. It could never have flourished that way in earlier bygone centuries when superstition and fear would have forced it into deep secrecy. But despite its largely eighteenth century cosmopolitan genesis, Freemasonry does have a more ancient lineage. This lineage, however, does not extend back into the third century BCE in Ancient Greece or Persia as some would have us believe. Masonry did not start with Pythagoras, the Pyramid-builders, the cabalists, the Rosicrucians, the alchemists, astrology, the druids, the Sufis, the Mayan priesthood, Hashishim, Mithraists, the Knights-Templars or any of the countless other theories that have arisen over the centuries—many started by Masons themselves. Masonry, to some extent, is modeled on or borrows from all those just as they were modeled on and borrowed from one another but Masonry's origins are somewhat more recent, somewhat less esoteric, and its purpose wholly different. H. L. Haywood puts it best: "Freemasonry was founded by the Freemasons." Their purposes have always been totally Masonic and never, say, druidic or cabalistic. That the Masons borrowed a bit from the druidic system (three-degree initiation) and from the Mithraic system (lambskin apron) or from Pythagoras (the phrase "Great Architect of the Universe") in order to give a body to their principles is beyond dispute, but those very principles are wholly their own not being found in any of the other systems.

The oldest known Masonic document comes from about 1395 and is called the Regius MS. Written on 64 vellum pages in doggerel verse, fourteen lines to a page, the manuscript is truly Freemasonic and not some earlier or similar system and hence proves Freemasonry was existent in the fourteenth century. The "old book" as it is now called is chock-full of Masonic principles and terminology and was obviously composed by and for some old European lodge.

The next oldest Masonic document dates from about 1415 and is called the Cooke MS. but is more famously known as the Old Charges but is also called the Ancient MS., the Old Constitutions, etc. Masonic historians consider the Cooke MS. to be more important than the Regius MS. because the evidence shows that the content of the Cooke MS. to be older even though the manuscript itself is younger. The content probably comes from an older manuscript from about 1350. But the true importance of the Cooke MS. is that it marks the emergence of Freemasonry out of the earlier belief system of the stonemason occupation (called Operative Masonry). This emergence marked the beginning of Speculative Masonry. There would have been no Speculative Masonry had not the Old Charges defined the difference between the two systems.

We today tend to think of Speculative Masonry and Freemasonry as one in the same. This is not true strictly speaking. There were Freemasons before there was Speculative Masonry. Freemasons in the fourteenth century were still of the stonemason guilds. They were still members of Operative Masonry. By "operative" we mean that their lodges formed strictly for an operation, that is, to build something such as a church or other stone structure. Once the operation was complete, the lodge disbanded and the members split up to find employment elsewhere. If one looks at old books of Operative Masonry, one will find little difference between the doctrines expressed in it and those expressed in Freemasonry (e.g. the Three Pillars of Wisdom, Strength and Beauty). Operative Masons were Freemasons. What the Old Charges did, however, was to establish permanent lodges rather than temporary ones. So, we would be more correct to say that Speculative Masonry is synonymous with modern Freemasonry.

The Old Charges represent a charter. We know from our history then that the oldest Speculative lodges sprang up in the London, York and Westminster areas which required by law a charter for any lodge seeking to become permanent. Any permanent lodge was, by medieval English law, a corporation and any and all corporations had to apply for permanency via charter. The intent was that the authorities would know who belonged to the corporation and for what purpose it met so as to prevent insurrection or any other illegal activity. A charter could be issued by a number of civil authorities or by the king and this included guilds. So the Old Charges were written in order that a charter be issued because the lodge in question was seeking to become permanent. The face of Freemasonry changed with the founding of Speculative Masonry.

The interesting thing about the Old Charges is that it does not request a new charter but asks for recognition of an old Royal Charter granted to Freemasons by King Aethelstan in the tenth century. This old charter was, in fact, recognized. Aethelstan, according to the Old Charges, was a Freemason himself and called together an assembly of them in York and presented them with the Royal Charter still active today and any lodge of Freemasons anywhere can act under it. The Old Charges also spell out the offices and rules of the lodge, that is, how the lodge is constituted and governed and hence the title Old Constitutions. Whether King Aethelstan was really a Freemason or whether Freemasonry really existed in his day is still the subject of much debate but the Masons of the fourteenth century certainly believed so.

Freemasonry today, however, certainly cannot be traced back much further than the fourteenth century. The reason is that the Old Charges was a document intended for initiation. It contains a great deal of the mythical history of the book of Genesis but also incorporates a large helping of a work called the Polychronicon of the Benedictine monk named Higdon practically word-for-word. There were many works floating around at that time called Polychronicon, which functioned as a medieval encyclopedia and were quite popular among the literate even if they weren't particularly reliable as fact or history (the very title implies a mish-mash of writings from every possible age). When Speculative Masonry began to catch on, much information of the initiatory degrees had to be abbreviated to make the initiations move faster. They were abbreviated in the form of emblems and chalk (or tracing-board) drawings. This included the two pillars of Jachin and Boaz, the letter G, the Ark, the Mosaic-tiled floor, Euclid's 47th Proposition, etc. All of these were explained by word only in the Old Charges because the emblems did not exist back then and the author's source was Higdon's Polychronicon. Hence, without this Higdon's fourteenth century work, much of Freemasonry's most treasured emblems would not exist. Hence, much of Freemasonry is quite new and completely unique to Freemasonry rather than a continuation of ancient traditions.


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