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Masonic essays (1998)


In operative lodges, history was a key element used to illustrate the moral teachings of masonry. Tradition also was an essential component in the instruction of apprentices and craftsmen at all levels of competence. Although the details differ and the English language has changed, the charges and traditional histories of modern speculative freemasonry are derived from the Old Constitutions of the lodges of operative masons in medieval England, from when the craft guilds were established during the reign of Henry I around 1153, until during the Reformation when all lodges were prohibited by Henry VIII's Act of 1547 disendowing all religious fraternities. In operative practice the Old Constitutions, usually referred to as the Ancient Charges or Old Charges, were a central part of the ceremonial and the basis of moral instruction in lodges. An authentic copy of the Old Constitutions was the authority under which operative lodges worked. They included the Traditional History, the Charges of Nimrod and the Ancient Charges, which admonished candidates to behave in an appropriate manner, cautioned them to preserve the rights and privileges of their craft and warned them not to reveal their trade secrets and modes of recognition to strangers not entitled to receive them.

No other medieval craft or religious body is known to have possessed documents similar to the Old Constitutions. Their content and character differed greatly from the Guild ordinances of other trades and clearly reflected the moralising influence of the ecclesiastical environment in which most operative masons worked and lived. A fundamental part of the Old Constitutions was the traditional history, which recounted the development of civilisation and highlighted the important part played by masonry in the improvement of mankind. Although some of the anecdotes were allegorical, most were based on biblical history. The ancient charges and traditional histories were not identical in all copies of the Old Constitutions, nor were they handed down in unvarying form, but they did have a common theme. The standardised lectures and traditional histories that are used in modern speculative lodges do not include all of the material incorporated in the Old Constitutions.

The oldest known copy of the Old Constitutions is a document written by a priest, comprising thirty-three vellum sheets entitled the "Poem of the Craft of Masonry". It is believed to have been based on a much older document and is known as the Regius or Halliwell MS. It was discovered in 1839 and was thought to have been written in about 1390, which was later revised to 1410. In modern terminology it is classified as dating "from the first quarter of the fifteenth century". The rules and regulations set out in the Regius MS are arranged under fifteen "Articles" for ye maystur mason and fifteen "Points" for felows and prentes. They are stated to have been established at a great assemblage of masons ordered by King Athelstan, reputedly held at York in 926, though there is no known record of the event. The Regius MS and the Cooke MS, which was written about fifty years later, are both held in the British Museum. A later copy is The Grand Lodge No. 1 MS held by the United Grand Lodge of England and dated 1583, after Henry VIII had prohibited all lodges. Probably transcribed in secret to preserve the old traditions, it reveals a distinct transition from earlier copies of the Old Constitutions, because it includes much of a purely speculative nature.


The Old Charges were voluminous documents. Some of the older as well as a few of the more recent copies are in book form, but many are written on skins and stitched end to end to form rolls. The text is usually in three parts. The first part is a prayer invoking a blessing, usually of the Holy Trinity, but El Shaddai and other appellations also are used when referring to God, though mainly in obligations and charges. The second part is an extended historical statement which usually culminates with the requirement for the candidate to take an obligation on the Holy Book, sometimes in Latin. The final part comprises the actual Charges, which are very comprehensive. They were rehearsed to the candidate, who was then required to take a vow to keep them well and truly and to the utmost of his knowledge and ability, which he ratified by saluting the Holy Book. As the prayer, the actual Charges and the associated obligations are not historical in character, they are not relevant to this discussion. Aspects of the traditional history will now be examined in respect of their historical content without referring to any specific copy of the Old Charges, but having regard to the usual context in which they are used.


It is not known when the seven liberal arts and sciences were first incorporated into the Old Charges, but they are an important component in nearly all of the known copies. A discourse on the characteristics of the arts and sciences and how they are utilised by the various crafts may be given in the opening statement, but it usually appears later in the traditional history following the legend relating to their preservation on two pillars that together would resist the ravages of fire and water. This discourse concludes by emphasising that, in reality, all of the arts and sciences are dependant in some way upon measurement and therefore that they are all founded on the one science, that is called Geometry, which in medieval days was synonymous with masonry. The references to the liberal arts and sciences included in the rituals of the Second Degree of modern speculative freemasonry clearly evolved from the discourse in the Old Charges. As the liberal arts and sciences were the foundation of the curricula in all institutions of advanced learning in medieval times, their inclusion in the Old Charges is to be expected and confirms that the medieval master masons were men of considerable learning and skill. They proved their ability by transforming the visions of their employers into the glorious cathedrals and other stately edifices they designed and constructed. This knowledge was regarded as an essential part of a craftsman's training, especially geometry, because measurement is the foundation of a mason's work. The history proper begins with the biblical story of how the various crafts came into existence, which is paralleled in the legends of other peoples and has been confirmed by archaeological investigations.


This section is about the beginnings of history, after the creation and before the flood, commencing with Lamech, a descendant of Adam through Cain. It is taken directly from the book of Genesis, chapter 4, verses 19-22, which in the New English Bible translation says: "Lamech married two wives, one named Adah and the other Zillah. Adah bore Jabal who was the ancestor of herdsmen who live in tents; and his brother's name was Jubal; he was the ancestor of those who play the harp and pipe. Zillah, the other wife, bore Tubal-cain, the master of all coppersmiths and blacksmiths, and Tubal-cain's sister was Naamah." The biblical exposition is amplified in the traditional history by including the Hebrew tradition that Jabal, while tending his sheep in the fields, was the first to construct walls and later houses of stone, thus founding the craft of masonry. It also ascribes the founding of the craft of weaving to Naamah, thus completing the requirements for the rise of civilisation and urban dwelling.

Until about a century ago chronologers calculated the Old Testament dates solely on the recorded genealogies, which do not provide all of the required details. It was on this basis that in 1650 Archbishop Ussher dated the creation of the world and the appearance of Adam at 4004 BC, from which the Year of Light in speculative freemasonry was derived and by adding 4,000 years to the Common Era date. Modern research, supported by archaeological discoveries, indicates that the earliest biblical records relate to man at about 10,000 BC or possibly earlier, with the flood probably before 5000 BC, the development of Noah's descendants into nations around 5000 BC, the erection of the tower of Babel around 4800 BC and the first great buildings in Babylonia very soon after. As writing was invented many centuries after the events and the genealogies were based on oral tradition, such differences in dating are to be expected. It is of particular interest to note that archaeological investigations reveal that stone fences and footings in houses were first used in Palestine, Syria and Mesopotamia about 12,000 years ago, when the domestication of wild sheep and goats also began, coinciding in place and time with those of Lamech and his children.


This section is the original legend of the pillars and deals with the preservation of the arts and sciences. The legend is not of masonic origin and bears no relation to the two pillars erected at the entrance to King Solomon's temple. The Greek historian Berosus transcribed the legend around 300 BC, reputedly from a Sumerian account that had been recorded in cuneiform around 1500 BC. Flavius Josephus, the eminent Jewish author who lived in the first century and wrote in Greek, also included the legend in his History of the Jews. Ranulf Higden, a monk of Chester who died about 1364, copied the legend from Josephus when he wrote his world history, Polychronicon. It is not known whether the legend was included in the Old Charges before then, but in view of masonry's close ecclesiastical connections in those days it seems likely. The legend is no longer referred to in speculative craft freemasonry, but it is still a part of the tradition in the Royal Ark Mariner and the Ancient and Accepted Rite.

The tradition records that Lamech's four children, who were the founders of the crafts, "knew well that God would do vengeance for sin, either by fire or water", thus foreseeing the flood of Noah's time. They therefore determined to preserve the seven liberal arts and sciences against such a calamity by inscribing them on two pillars, one which would survive a fire and the other which would survive a flood, although accounts of the two materials vary. Some say marble that cannot be burnt and laternes (laterite - a stone formed from clay) that cannot be destroyed by water, whilst others more correctly say that brick resists fire and either marble or brass resists water. Archaeological discoveries reveal that the smelting and casting of copper and the open hearth firing of earthenware were being used in the area by around 7,000 years ago, which is before what probably would be the earliest period of the flood, so that either method of preservation would have been possible. Tradition relates that the knowledge thus preserved was providentially recovered after the flood by Hermes, called the "father of wisdom" and reputedly a descendant of Noah through Shem, who applied it to the benefit of mankind. The moral of this ancient legend is that knowledge and truth must be preserved, but that corruption will be punished.

An apparent problem with this tradition is that the oldest cuneiform inscriptions presently known date from about 5,200 years ago and hieroglyphs from a century or so later, which is after the likely period of the flood. But some pre-flood inscriptions have been found, including a pictographic tablet found by Dr Langdon under the flood deposit at Kish, seals found by Dr Schmidt under the flood layer at Fara and pre-flood seals found by Dr Woolley at Ur. One of the ancient Babylonian kings, Hammurapi who promulgated the famous code of laws around 1750 BC, recorded that "he loved to read the writings of the age before the flood". Hammurapi was a contemporary of Abraham and is usually identified with Amraphel in Genesis 14. When Assur-ban-apli founded Nineveh's great library around 600 BC, he also referred to "inscriptions before the time of the flood". Around 300 BC, the Greek historian Berosus recorded a tradition from the Sumerian accounts, which said that before the flood Xisuthrus, the Babylonian equivalent of Noah, buried the Sacred Writings at Sippar on tablets of baked clay and dug them up afterwards. Finally, there is a tradition among Arabs and Jews that Enoch invented writing and left a number of records.


This part of the traditional history is derived from the biblical account of events that took place in the first few hundred years after the flood, taken from two sections of the book of Genesis, chapter 10, verses 8-13 and chapter 11, verses 2-9, which in the New English Bible translation say: "Cush (who was a son of Ham and a grandson of Noah) was the father of Nimrod, who began to show himself a man of might on earth; and he was a mighty hunter before the Lord, . . . His kingdom in the beginning consisted of Babel, Erech and Accad, all of them in the land of Shinar. From that land he migrated to Asshur and built Nineveh, Rehoboth-Ir, Calah and Resen, a great city between Nineveh and Calah." "As men journeyed in the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. They said to one another, 'Come, let us make bricks and bake them hard'; they used the bricks for stone and bitumen for mortar. 'Come', they said, 'let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens and make a name for ourselves; or we shall be dispersed all over the earth.' . . . So the Lord dispersed them from there all over the earth and they left off building the city. That is why it is called Babel, because the Lord made there a babble of the language of all the world; from that place the Lord scattered men all over the face of the earth."

Archaeological investigations reveal that the ziggurat known as the Tower of Babel was constructed in the manner described in Genesis. Ziggurat is derived from the Assyro-Babylonian word ziqquratu which means a pinnacle or mountain top and denotes a sacred temple tower. The traditional site of the tower is one at Borsippa, about 15 kilometres south-west of the centre of Babylon (ancient Babel). An inscribed cylinder found by Sir Henry Rawlinson in a foundation corner states that a former king completed the tower to a height of 42 cubits, but that it fell into ruins in ancient times. It further states that the brickwork and roofing tiles were rebuilt as new at the behest of Marduk, restoring the tower as it was in remote days. Marduk or Merodach was the Babylonian God that Nimrod was said to be in human form. Tradition records that masons were first made much of at the building of the Tower of Babel and that Nimrod, the great King of Babylon, was himself a Master Mason who loved the craft and made the masons Free Men and Free Masons in his kingdom. Tradition also records that when Nimrod sent sixty lodges of masons to build Nineveh and the other cities of the east, he gave them a Charter and the Charges of Nimrod, which reputedly are those set out in the Old Charges. When an apprentice was indentured in an English operative lodge, his obligation traditionally was called the "oath of Nimrod".


The traditional history relates how Abraham, who was born at Ur of the Chaldees in southern Babylonia about 2160 BC, responded to the Lord's call recorded in the New English Bible translation of the book of Genesis, chapter 12, verses 1-4: "The Lord said to Abraham 'Leave your own country, your kinsmen and your father's house and go to a country that I will show you. I will make you into a great nation, I will bless you and make your name great . . .' And so Abraham set out . . ." Although he lived in a world of idolatry Abraham was not an idolater, but believed in one God. He set out from Ur in search of the land where he could build a nation free from idolatry, reaching the ancient caravan city of Haran 1,000 kilometres to the north-west about 2110 BC, where he stayed for many years. After the death of his father Terah, he travelled south-east and reached Shechem in Canaan about 2085 BC, where he built an altar to God as he did later at Bethel and also at Hebron. Because of the famine in Canaan he continued on into Egypt.

Tradition says the patriarchs taught the seven liberal arts and sciences in Egypt, where Euclid was a worthy scholar who subsequently was commissioned by the king to teach the sons of royalty the science of geometry and the practice of masonry and all manner of worthy works. This is entirely allegorical, because Euclid was not born until about 330 BC. In fact, one of the first Greek scholars to visit and study in Egypt was Thales of Miletus, who was born about 630 BC. When he returned from Egypt he was well versed in the techniques of Egyptian geometry. The Egyptians knew from their experience in building that a triangle with two sides of equal length also had two equal angles adjacent to them. They also knew that a triangle with sides three, four and five units long had a right angle opposite the long side. Thales devised a practical proof for the properties of an isosceles triangle, but it was Pythagoras, born about sixty years after Thales, who was credited with being the first to prove the famous theorem of a right angled triangle, that the square of the hypothenuse equals the sum of the squares of the other two sides. However it was Euclid who formulated the theorems, including his Forty-seventh Proposition for a right-angled triangle, which are still used as a basis for teaching classical geometry.


This major episode in the traditional history could be regarded as the culminating component, because it is a foundation for all instruction in moral precepts that were imparted in the degrees of operative masonry. To appreciate this section of the traditional history in its proper context, it would be pertinent to comment on the ceremonials within which the degrees of operative masonry were conferred. They were conducted in a specifically historical setting in which the candidate personified a "living stone" being wrought from the rough, as prepared in the quarry, to a state of perfection fit for erection in the most glorious of all temples. In each degree the candidate represented a particular stone in the construction of King Solomon's temple at Jerusalem. He was required symbolically to undergo the preparation of that stone, its testing prior to use and its erection in the temple. Each degree related to relevant passages in the scriptures and was explained in practical terms with reference to the work of an operative mason. The appropriate working tools also were introduced and their practical uses and moral interpretations were explained.

The discourse in the traditional history is taken directly from the scriptural record of King David's desire to build a temple at Jerusalem, the preparations he made for its construction and its construction by King Solomon with the assistance of Hiram King of Tyre and Hiram Abif, the son of a widow of the Hebrew tribe of Dan and of a Tyrian father. Hiram Abif was the man of great skill and ingenuity sent by King Hiram to execute the principal works of the interior of the temple and the various utensils required for the sacred services. Adoniram was the official appointed by King Solomon to superintend the monthly levies of ten thousand men working in relays in Lebanon. All of this is described I Kings chapters 5-10, I Chronicles chapters 21-22 and 28-29 and II Chronicles chapters 1-9. The following especially relevant extracts are taken from the New English Bible translation of II Chronicles chapter 3 verse 1, I Kings chapter 5 verse 17 and I Kings chapter 6 verse 7: "Then Solomon began to build the house of the Lord in Jerusalem on Mount Moriah, where the Lord had appeared to his father David, on the site which David had prepared on the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite." "By the king's orders they quarried huge, massive blocks for laying the foundation of the Lord's house in hewn stone." "In the building of the house, only blocks of dressed stone direct from the quarry were used; no hammer or axe or any iron tool whatever was heard in the house while it was being built."

The Old Charges variously refer to the master of geometry and chief master of all masons as Aynon, Agnon, Ajuon or Dyon, whom they call the son of the King of Tyre, although the context suggests that Hiram Abif is the person referred to. It seems that the word could have been a corruption of the Hebrew word Adon which signifies Lord, so that the title could refer to Adon Hiram, or even to Adoniram with whom he is sometimes confused, though the latter seems less likely. Another possible interpretation is the old use of Anon or Anonym signifying one whose name is not divulged and from which the modern anonymous is derived. Whatever the derivation of Anon, he takes on a purely allegorical mantle after the completion of the temple at Jerusalem and is credited with travelling to many lands with other masons to practice and teach the craft, thus introducing masonry into Europe and Britain.


The allegorical story of Aynon is taken up in France under about twenty-five different variations of what most probably was intended to be the same name, among which Naymus Graecus and Maynus Grecus possibly are the best known, although in the second edition of the Constitutions of the premier Grand Lodge, Dr James Anderson refers to him as Ninus. When Pythagoras established his famous school at Crotona in about 530 BC and later in other cities, Greece was known as Magna Graecia, or "Greater Greece", which included Asia Minor, southern Italy and Sicily and continued from the settlement of Syracuse around 750 BC until the Punic Wars 264-241 BC. Pythagoras, who taught geometry and philosophy and established a comprehensive system of symbolism to explain his esoteric teachings, has a legendary connection with masonry which he is supposed to have introduced into France.

It seems highly likely that Naymus Graecus and its variants were corruptions of Magna Graecia, arising from the legendary connection between Pythagoras and masonry. In any event, the legend says that "a curious mason named Naymus Graecus, who had been at the making of Solomon's Temple, came into France and there taught the craft of masonry". The legend then includes an anomaly similar to that of Euclid in Egypt, asserting that a person of French royal blood, Charles Martel, had learned the craft from Naymus Graecus and "loved it well", establishing masonry in France with good methods of payment. Charles Martel (688-741) was known as Charles the Hammer and although not actually the king of France, he was a notable soldier and ruled France under the title "Mayor of the Palace".


The historian Rebold says of Charles Martel that "at the request of the Anglo-Saxon kings, he sent workmen and masters into England", which is the reason why medieval operative masons in England regarded Charles Martel as one of their patrons and included him in the traditional history. The traditional history continues with an allegorical account of the establishment of masonry in England and the fixing of good rates of pay. Briefly, it says that England was pagan and had neither masonry nor the ancient charges until the time of St Alban, when a worthy knight who was chief steward to the king constructed the town walls. He is said to have cherished the masons for their good work, on which account he obtained from the king and his counsel a charter, naming the masons an Assembly. He also gave them charges and doubled their wages, which previously had been only a penny a day throughout the whole land. The early background to St Albans is worth recounting.

St Albans is the successor of the important Roman-British town of Verulamium, which according to the records of the Roman historian Tacitus may have been one of the few examples in Britain of a municipium, wherein the inhabitants had the same rights as the citizens of Rome. The town owes its name to St Alban, a Roman soldier who was the first Christian martyr in England, beheaded in 303 for giving refuge to St Amphibalus, the priest who had converted him to Christianity. In about 793 Offa, the king of Mercia, founded a Benedictine abbey in honour of St Alban. It rose to such great power end wealth that its abbot was the premier abbot in England from 1154 to 1396. Another contemporaneous legend says that the emperor Gordianus (244-238 BC) sent many architects into England, and that they constituted lodges and instructed the craftsmen in the true principles of freemasonry. It also says that a few years later, when Carausius (293-287 BC) was emperor in Britain, he was a lover of the craft and appointed Albanus as Grand Master of Masons, who employed the fraternity in building the palace of Verulamium. Despite the obvious discrepancies in the dates, it is a fact that architecture and the craft of masonry were first encouraged in England during the third century and that the earliest masons came from Europe.

In the light of the early history of St Albans, it is not surprising that its establishment features in the traditional story of the origins of operative masonry in England. Some researchers are of the opinion that the increase in wages attributed to the time of St Alban was the increase that came into effect after the period of the Black Death, the bubonic plague that swept through Asia and Europe and reached England in 1348. Because of the unprecedented demand for labour in the aftermath of the Black Death, a Statute of Labourers was enacted in 1350 to regulate wages and prevent extortionate pricing. The wages of a master freestone mason were then fixed at four pence per day and of other masons at three pence per day, which are much higher than those referred to in the traditional history, strongly suggesting that there were two different events, that in the traditional history occurring much earlier. Some have expressed the opinion that the Statute establishes that the traditional history is a product of the period shortly after the Black Death, but it seems most unlikely to have been compiled at a time of such misfortune and labour shortage. In any event, it almost certainly is a collection of oral traditions that had evolved over a long period.

The traditional history concludes with the legend of an Assembly held at York in 926 during the reign of King Athelstan, whose half-brother Edwin (often called his son), had learnt geometry and the mason's craft, then prevailed upon the king to issue a Charter for the masons and a Commission to hold an annual Assembly. There is no known record of the Assembly, but a tradition handed down for many centuries often has a basis in fact. In any event, the continuing association of York with masonry began with the conversion to Christianity of the Northumbrian king, Prince Edwin, by his Kentish wife. He was baptised on Easter Day 627 by Paulinus, the first Bishop of York, in a wooden chapel on the site of the present Minster. The Venerable Bede, a renowned historian who lived in the Jarrow monastery on Tyneside from 682 until his death in 735, records that Edwin replaced the chapel with a stone church which became the centre of the Bishopric, but it was burned down about 741 and replaced by a magnificent stone church ruined around 1080, following the Norman Conquest. After progressive rebuilding, the York Minster was erected between 1220 and 1474.

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