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A Basic Historico-Chronological Model of the
Western Hermetic Tradition



The topic which I have been assigned resolves into a question: ‘What part, if any, does speculative Freemasonry have within the western Hermetic tradition?’ There are two contrasting ways of trying to answer that question:

  • that which uses a historico-chronological model which represents the present prevailing orthodoxy in Masonic historiography and
  • that which uses a symbolic or thematic model.

Viewed in a chronological sequence, according to Antoine Faivre, the main currents or components in the western ‘Mystery’ tradition are

    1. neo-Alexandrian Hermeticism;
    2. Christian Kabbalah;
    3. Paracelsianism (or the observation of Nature as a Divinely authored ‘text’ permeated by decipherable ‘signatures’);
    4. Philosophia occulta (the magical vision of the cosmos which unifies Nature and religion theurgically);
    5. Alchemy;
    6. Rosicrucianism;
    7. Bohemian theosophy;
    8. Martinism and
    9. The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn

Since speculative Freemasonry, in the form which would be recognised most widely these days, first became manifest in London in 1717, I suppose that the Masonic phenomenon could be added into that chronological listing perhaps somewhere between, say, 7 and 8. However, I want to reject that approach in the present context not because of anything faulty in its basic rationale but because it leads to the restrictions of a largely unspoken assumption: that there must have been a definite, identifiable time (and perhaps even a precise location) prior to which Freemasonry did not exist and after which it did. That underlying assumption has led Masonic writers to conjure up some remarkable and diverse theories as to Freemasonry's origins. Amongst the more questionable of these (in alphabetical order only) have been:

  • the Culdees or Colidei or Keledei (the remote religious communities which existed in 7th – 12th centuries in Ireland and Scotland;
  • the Comancine builders (located at Como in Lombardy);
  • the Compagnonnage (the medieval French association of workmen);
  • Oliver Cromwell;
  • the Dionysian artificers (c. 1000 BC in Asia Minor);
  • the Druids;
  • the Essenes;
  • the Gnostic teachers of 1st and 2nd century Alexandria;
  • the Jesuits;
  • the Noachidae (legendary descendants of Noah);
  • the Pythagoreans (at Crotona, southern Italy);
  • the Rosicrucians;
  • the Royal Society;
  • the Socinians (a widespread late 16th century heretical sect from Vicenza, led by Fausto Paolo Sozzini);
  • the medieval operative stonemasons;
  • the Royal House of Stuart and, of course
  • the Knights Templar.

If any one of these were valid then the Masonic phenomenon might be fitted comfortably within Faivre’s list. However, there are some major obstacles to using that historiographical model.

The task of tracing ever earlier origins has been made almost impossible because not only are there huge gaps in the sequences of evidence which mean that whole centuries cannot be accounted for, all of the available earliest evidence is extremely fragmentary and scattered. Consequently, much has been made of very little indeed! The evidence, such as it is, hardly presents a clear, complete or general picture. After more than 110 years of exhaustive investigating Masonic writers are no nearer to finding the missing evidence that would help them to prove clear origins for the Masonic phenomenon and so draw up a continuous narrative. Many have been keen to establish reputations and to sell their books but they may be mistaken in assuming that speculative Freemasonry had only one origin and, crucially, they have tended to ignore its wholly syncretistic nature – a nature which is shown clearly in that published evidence(e.g., in Knoop, Jones and Hamer’s Early Masonic Catechisms and their Early Masonic Pamphlets). More will be said about Freemasonry’s characteristic syncretistic borrowing later.

This deficiency in the evidence was identified by the indefatigable Rev. Dr. James Anderson DD (1680?-1739) as early as 1723 when he was commissioned by the nascent Premier Grand Lodge in London to compose a book of Constitutions for it. He was not a reliable historian, even within the standards of mere antiquarianism of those credulous times, and he invented most of his Masonic history according to his whim. However, he recognised that there were big gaps in his narrative and explained them by stating that zealous freemasons wanted to protect their secrets. They had declined to surrender their precious MSS to his well-intentioned inquiries and had burned them. He claimed that

… many of the Fraternity’s Records of this [i.e., Charles II’s] reign and former Reigns [my emphasis] were lost in the next [i.e., James II’s] and at the Revolution [1688]; and many of ‘em were too hastily burnt in our Time from a Fear of making Discoveries; so that we have not so ample an account as would be wish’d…

Later in the same ‘history’, he expanded that claim thus:

This year [1720], at some private Lodges, several very valuable Manuscripts (for they had nothing yet in Print) concerning the Fraternity, their Lodges, Regulations, Charges, Secrets, and Usages … were too hastily burnt by some scrupulous Brothers that those Papers might not fall into strange Hands.

One of the most important of these missing sources was a MS which had been compiled by Nicholas Stone (1586-1647), the King’s Master Mason during the lifetime of Inigo Jones. He had been a Master of the famous London Company of [Operative] Masons in 1633 but even he, prestigious as he was among other architects, was not admitted into membership of the more exclusive, hidden inner association, or ‘Acceptioun’ within that Company until 1639. Anderson knew of the existence of that MS which was generally esteemed. It had been of some significance for speculative freemasons generally so its loss was therefore even more to be regretted.

The second quotation from Anderson above would seem to imply that the earliest Lodges had already got some corporate form (a collectivity) and some kind of organisation because it uses the words ‘Fraternity’ and ‘Regulations’. Clearly speculative Freemasonry did not spring into being ex nihilo in June 1717. Only four London Lodges, which had existed ‘from Time Immemorial’, bothered to meet then in order, inter alia, to revive the ancient custom of Lodges meeting together in ‘Quarterly Communication’. The likelihood is the English freemasons were reacting as Scots did later in Scotland in 1736 when a general invitation was sent out by a few enthusiastic Edinburgh freemasons to all of the 100+ Lodges known to exist in various parts of Scotland then. The idea was for them to establish their own Grand Lodge (to match the London and Dublin ventures?). However, representatives of only 11 of the Lodges bothered to attend so it can be said that the Grand Lodge of Scotland and the Grand Lodge of England were founded by a minority of the Lodges then existing. In any case, by the time the first Engraved List of Lodges was published by the Premier Grand Lodge in 1723, there were no less than 51 Lodges meeting in London alone. By 1725, when the next such List was published, there were at least 13 more Lodges either near London or in the provinces. The existence of a total of 64 Lodges is confirmed by the Minutes of the Premier Grand Lodge. Only 16 of these did not bother to return lists of their members but, allowing for a few dual memberships, it seems that 48 of the Lodges then had about 730 members between them. The point is that there cannot have been a such a huge expansion of the numbers of Lodges or of their members in only five years (1717-1723). The Masonic phenomenon must have pre-existed 1717.

This deficiency in the range and number of the earliest primary sources did not deter Anderson nor has it deterred others since. ‘Whistling in the dark’, some Masonic historiographers claim that there must be hitherto untapped, hidden MSS which will provide the missing vital evidence of much earlier Masonic activities and thereby help to establish clear connection between the Masonic phenomenon as manifested in London in 1717 and earlier generations, perhaps even with the famed medieval operative stonemasons (the obvious originators in view of the rituals’ emphases on King Solomon’s Temple, construction work and Working Tools) or even other, earlier originators. However, these writers tend to ignore the real possibility that the field has been fully ploughed by now. They ignore, for instance, the meticulous work done by two renowned Victorian historiographical projects that

  • are still on-going;
  • employ armies of professional historians of various specialisms and
  • are independent of any Masonic wishful-thinking and/or prejudices.

The Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts (HMC) was established in 1869 to enquire and report on collections of MSS of value for the study of British history in private hands: i.e., its job was to locate and catalogue all British historical non-governmental records of all subjects wherever situated and not in deposit in the Public Record Office. Since its inception it has published 239 volumes of its catalogue and created 41,000 unpublished catalogues as well as 150,000 separate minor listings which together form the National Register of Archives. It also maintains the Manorial Documents Register and ARCHON, the archives register for all UK statutory depositories. The resulting enormous database is now available for on-line searches. An enquiry on ‘Freemasons’ was made by the present writer to reveal that there are only 11 such deposits registered nationally – apart from the annual returns required to be made to the County Clerks of the Peace (under the Secret Societies Act of 1799 until 1967). All of these are small, none are earlier than 1794 and only one, the records of the short-lived Scottish Lodge in Rome in the 1730's, remains in a private collection in Scotland.

The Victoria County Histories were started in 1899 and aimed at providing an encyclopaedic, multi-volumed history of every English county and of their constituent cities, towns and parishes. All of these volumes have been characterised by rigorous, original research. This huge project enjoys, therefore, an international reputation as a standard work of reference for English local history. So far 200+ volumes have been published. Each county set has

  • general volumes, that deal with administrative history, , local history and archaeology;
  • topographical volumes, that deal with geography, geology and the detailed histories of all of the settlements, churches, educational and charitable institutions.

No accumulated index is complied yet However, the present writer has checked each of the county sets published to date and none of them have any references to pre-1717 Freemasonry other than those well-known from elsewhere (e.g., Dr Robert Plot’s allusion in his Natural History of Staffordshire, 1686).

Then there are the other distinguished associations, like the Camden, Dugdale and Surtees Societies, which are dedicated to the authoritative transcription and publication of hitherto unknown MSS of local historical value. Furthermore, almost very English county has at least one society of enthusiastic scholars who publish their own local history transactions.

None of this remarkable, if slow, accumulation of original data has any trace of pre-1717 Freemasonry. If there are still any undetected MSS not in Masonic archives then they must be very well hidden. It seems reasonable to say that it is unlikely that any family or county archives in England will yield any more substantial traces of pre-1717 activities. If there had been such MSS then they would have been revealed by now in these national trawls. Perhaps it is time to draw a line under the historico-chronological approach to providing an answer about ever earlier origins of speculative Freemasonry. Obviously, individual researchers will continue to make genuine discoveries in the course of their work in archives, some of them will be non-Masonic archives, but these will be of minor interest. It is probable now that no major archival findings relating generally to the nature of pre-1717 Freemasonry will be made. Of course, one should never discount serendipity entirely but the chances of anything substantial being discovered which would prove a direct, general connection between the Masonic phenomenon and early Hermetic ventures of whatever nature seem to be slim indeed.

Consider the theory that speculative Freemasonry originated from the English medieval stonemasons’ trade guilds. If that were so, then it would be crucial to support that proposition by examining the nature of the earliest available evidence relating to those guilds’ activities. The most relevant of this would be the so-called ‘Old Charges’, 113 of which have survived (though there are hints of 14 others that are now missing). Nearly two-thirds of them are pre-1717; 55 are pre-1700; 4 dated from c. 1600; 1 is dated precisely ‘Christmas Day 1583’; another is dated c. 1400-140 and the earliest available comes from 1390. These MSS were intended to regulate the operative stonemasons’ work and 25 of them are entitled ‘Constitution’ or ‘Constitutions’. Two others are bound in with the printed text of the 1723 book of Constitutions; four others were written out in Lodges’ Minute Books and another in a Lodge’s register of members’ mason marks. Sometimes, as in the records of the Lodge at Stirling, the Old Charges were hand written, mounted and then framed. There the Lodge members believed that their meetings would not be legal unless the precious MS was displayed in the room where they were meeting. Another MS, from Aberdeen, is entitled ‘The Mason Charter’. In a Lodge in Bradford the members regarded their copy of the Old Charges as the authority for them to confer the Degrees. Furthermore, as these MSS describe at least some of the procedures that had to be followed when any man was made a mason and even include small extracts of the prescribed ritual, it is clear that they were used in some way at Lodges’ meetings as guides to the ceremonies. For example, one MS describes a meeting which took place in Scarborough in 1705. Another, dated 1693 and from York, includes a list of the Lodge members. A third was written expressly on 16 October 1646 at Warrington for the Initiation of the alchemist, antiquary, astrologer and Fellow of the Royal Society, Elias Ashmole (1617-1692). Hence, it has been established fairly well that these very old MSS provided the earliest freemasons with their ordinances and their Lodges with their authority, respectability and (partial) ritual).

One important feature of them all is the remarkable degree of their uniformity of content and expression. They all say the same things in more or less the same ways. The only possible explanation for this consistency is that they are all related and are descended from an ur-text that is now lost but which was evidently edited and revised many times and recopied hundreds of times in the period 1390-1717 all over England and Scotland. Those that have survived represent only a small proportion of these copies

The MSS seem to be prima facie evidence of the descent of the speculative Freemasonry (which began to emerge in the latter half of the 17th century in England) from the medieval operative stonemasons’ trade guilds with their craft secrets, traditions and ‘doctrines’. However, careful examination of their contents for possible Hermetic features has revealed no such characteristics. In summary form the running order of their content is as follows:

  • An invocation to the Holy Trinity;
  • Announcements as to the purpose and the contents;
  • A brief description of the Seven Liberal Sciences – Geometry being regarded as synonymous with ‘Masonry’;
  • A proof of the fundamental nature of Geometry;
  • An extended traditional history of Geometry, Masonry and Architecture based wholly on the Bible;
  • The method of taking the mason’s oath;
  • An admonition to remain true to that oath;
  • Some detailed regulations regarding the masons’ trade and personal conduct and
  • A concluding obligation to remain true to the oath.

Remember, these are not public documents but were carefully kept from the eyes of non-masons. The phenomenon exhibited in the Old Charges is patently quite different from that which emerged in London in 1717. For one thing, there were no hermetic doctrines cherished among medieval operative stonemasons. This is confirmed by the overwhelming body of other documentary evidence that has been drawn from other sources by architectural historians. Apart from the analyses of the massive amounts of material on the activities of some 2000+ Gothic architects and stonemasons post-1200 AD (which includes their carefully drafted building contracts), there are at least 400 medieval architectural compendia, or treatises, on building techniques written by Master Masons. These began as small personal notebooks. Some ended eventually as published booklets and others were annotated and enlarged by later operative stonemasons. Many were reworked entirely by their authors in order to formulate definitive statements of their working practices and the underlying principles which they tried to apply in their daily work. Generally, these are infinitely more personal, tentative and experimental. They are repositories of the then existing practices and theorems and, since we can also detect architectural ideas and stylistic changes as they were formulated, they are also intimate reflections of the actual creative process. As such they served several related purposes:

  • to accumulate theoretical and practical data;
  • to create a file of designs and techniques to educate younger stonemasons;
  • to establish a base for discussion with peers and patrons;
  • to function as a kind of licence testifying to their compilers’ knowledge an skill as masons as well as attesting to their range of interests, breadth of travelling and the intensity of their aesthetic vision;
  • to prepare the accumulated wisdom for eventual publication and
  • to systematise the data for use by their successors.

Perhaps the most comprehensive of these useful didactic MSS is that compiled by the famous French Master Mason, Villard de Honnecourt (c.1175-1240) during the period c. 1215-1233. Even though his notebook reveals that he lacked original and creative design talent and that he was probably never given a major architectural commission, nevertheless it shows that his was a lively, versatile mind, delighting in machinery and gadgets. He emerges as a Master Craftsman, an intellectual with a keen sense of observation and a strong sense of his own role in posterity. Yet nowhere in Villard’s famous notebook nor in any of the extant writings of his European contemporaries (e.g., Jean de Liege, Hugues Libergier and Pierre de Monteuil) is there any Hermetic content. Much has been made, for instance, of the silver-point drawing of an adult clothed male figure (in f. 37) asserting that Villard must have been pondering the human form as a perfect harmonious piece of God’s handiwork – a sort of Vitruvian Man – thereby revealing himself to have been entertaining some appreciation of Hermetic cosmology. The truth is, however, more prosaic. His figural sketches (of which this was one) display a considerable lack of manual skill in their execution. Thus was why, to assist his making of these drawings, he used the technique of a mixture of solid and dotted lines to ensure that he got the proportions correct. This is confirmed by his own note (in f. 36) which alludes to this well-known and widely practised technique used by apprentice artists and employing ‘the discipline of geometry ‘por legierement ovrer’ (= ‘to facilitate the work’). There are similar geometric schemes imposed in his sketches of anila figures copied from a ‘Bestiary’ (similar to that in the Bodleian Library – ref. Ashmole MS 1511) but even the pentagrams included in his sketch of the heraldic eagle or the one used in his sketch of the two trumpeters seem gratutitous. It is clear from Francois Bucher’s close analysis of the notebook that, though Villard understood the tenents of Gothic architectural theory which were codified and generalised only after his death, the philosophical basis of the Gothic style of architecture (e.g., the theory of light of Dionysis the Areopagite) did not interest him nor did numerological details hold any fascination for him.

What is important, of course, is that Villard was the norm for his profession. A series of academic studies, dating from the late 19th century to the present day, has shown that the socially prominent and wealthy Master Masons were well-educated, powerful men in their day but they were hardly esoterists involved in any Hermetic enterprise. They were hard-headed businessmen, subject to all of the familiar restrictions imposed by the penalty clauses in their contracts that had been drawn up by demanding patrons. They were far too busy to meet deadlines and to keep down the costs to be preoccupied in trying to incorporate secret designs into their buildings. Some writers (like George Lesser) seek to establish that these medieval Master Masons were magi who designed their cathedrals according to a ‘sacred geometry’. They claim that the buildings contain Hermetic patterns in their plans and decorations. However, most reputable architectural historians have examined these claims and dismissed them. Such patterns are mere impositions of complex mathematics and geometry on perfectly logical, practical and self-contained structures derived once again from wishful thinking.

Finally, the historico-chronological model can be rejected for the present purpose because it ignores a more theoretical consideration. It focuses on the analysis of the masonic phenomenon as evidenced only by texts or similar artefacts and it neglects the defining characteristic of the Hermetic venture: that it is a ‘lived-through’ experience. While the history of the western Hermetic tradition can be charted using its own texts, the whole purpose of Hermeticism has not been merely to produce those fascinating documents but to inculcate practices that would generate ‘lived-through’ esoteric experience. I would suggest that this was precisely the aim of speculative Freemasonry – at least in its formative period – and has become one that is now largely and unfortunately unfulfilled in the English-speaking Masonic world for reasons which I hope will be made clear later.

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Last modified: March 22, 2014