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THE GOTHIC BUILDERS
SOMEWHERE and somehow in the gloom of the Dark Ages, Operative Craft Masonry was developing the social form in which it was to emerge as the immediate ancestor of Speculative Freemasonry. Few periods of history are so obscure and mysterious as is that which comprehends the centuries of pillage and bloodshed when "the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome" had disappeared from sight, trodden down beneath the conquering footsteps of barbarian hordes. The Northern invaders were mighty in destruction but for long seemed impotent to rebuild where they had razed. Charlemagne indeed erected upon the ruins of Roman rule in Western Europe an ambitious political structure, but when the Carolingian empire in turn succumbed to the disintegrating influences of the times, the fairest lands relapsed into anarchy and barbarism.
Everywhere religion and superstition were in a death struggle for supremacy, the advantage going first one way and then the other. Philosophy was degraded from its once high estate, while witchcraft and demonology, bigotry and ignorance, vied with one another for hegemony of the human mind. Art languished, science perished and the learning of the ancients slumbered in parchments until a more propitious and a kindlier age should awaken it once more. The Saracen East alone gave shelter to intellectual refinements too subtle to attract the coarser genius of Europe. In a day when light and learning suffused the understanding of Persia and when Omar the Tentmaker was lifting his voice in song or, with educated contemporaries of the Near East, was discussing the complications of algebra, kings who could neither read nor write reigned in France, England and Germany.
Viewed in retrospect it is as if a malevolent fate had drawn a curtain of fog across the face of the earth from the Bosphorus and the strait of Gibraltar to the arctic circle. Now and then a stray breath of history lifts a corner of the veil to disclose marching armies and besieged cities. From behind it come the clang of sword upon shield, the twang of bow, the thud of battle-axe and the shrill clamor of martial trumpets. Then the mist begins slowly to clear away, lifting, not upon a scene of desolation, as might be expected, but upon a new and sturdy civilization which, in some seemin0v miraculous way, has come into being in the midst turmoil and confusion.
During that long period when the western mind, like a field that has lain fallow, had been storing up the energy which was to raise humanity to novel and unimagined heights, seeds of a new social and artistic order had germinated. Most striking of all the products of the Dark Ages was that style of building which is spoken of as Gothic architecture. Along with it developed the system of medieval operative guilds, of which that of the stone masons was at once the most interesting and most complex. Both the architecture and the guild system contained innumerable vestiges of earlier ancestry, but each was so distinctive in itself as to defy exact identification with anything that had gone before. When Gothic architecture is dispassionately measured by that of the Byzantine or of the Greco-Roman period, the contrasts appear to be greater than the resemblances. Similarly when the guild system is measured by the collegia or the Ancient Mysteries, the differences appear greater than the similarities. That Gothic architecture and the medieval guilds were codevelopments due to common causes appears to be established by an overwhelming preponderance of the historical evidence.
A list of theories that Freemasonry in approximately its present form has descended from the days of King Solomon has already passed in review. Among these was the theory that primitive man originated the Fraternity; the theory that it came from the Ancient Mysteries; the theory that it came from the collegia' with attendant hypotheses of transmission through Britain, Byzantium or Southern France; the Comacine theory, which will be examined hereafter in greater detail. Still other theories have been advanced from time to time, as that it originated among ancient Jewish theosophists and was transmitted through the Kabbalists; that it sprang from the Druses of Mount Lebanon; that it came from antiquity through the Dionysian Artificers; that it was originally a system of Egyptian mystery cults; that it was founded by the Druids of ancient Britain; that it was brought from the Orient by Crusaders; that the Knights of the Temple acquired it from the Society of the Assassins. It is necessary, however, for the champion of any such hypothesis to present evidence that Freemasonry has continued as one big fraternity from the beginning down to the present. Not only has this not been done, but the testimony of history is heavily against the supposition.
If, on the other hand, the attempt be only to show that Freemasonry contains survivals and inheritances of the cultural experiences of all past times, the undertaking is by no means difficult. Such an attempt naturally presupposes a hypothesis that the origins of the Fraternity as a separate institution are to be sought in a period which would be calculated to give it the peculiar and distinctive traits it has been known from its earliest provable history to possess. The nascency of Gothic architecture supplies precisely such a period. If the guilds of the Gothic builders did not give origin to Freemasonry, it is at least certain that Freemasonry first appears in a recognizable form among those guilds. To go behind the records which prove that, is to abandon the realm of history for that of speculation and fancy. It is therefore of importance to examine as carefully as may be the art and practices of the Gothic builders for what light they may throw upon the Masonic institution.
Of the men who worked out this style unfortunately little is known. There have been almost as many conflicting theories of its origin as there are of the origin of Freemasonry itself. A phenomenon of the Dark Ages was the rise in all parts of Europe of free and self-governing cities. These were essentially different in their political composition from the feudal governments existing all around them. They were ruled by their own councils of burgesses and these in turn were frequently composed of representatives of important subdivisions of the municipality. Craftsmen in the various mechanical trades were accustomed to gather into their own societies; when a society had sufficient numerical strength or prestige in business it demanded and received a voice in the affairs of the town. Its existence as a separate entity was recognized by some form of charter prescribing its duties and privileges and limiting its power of extending or diminishing its own membership. These societies, or guilds as they came to be known, exercised local monopoly in the practice of their respective trades and in return supplied competent workmen for whatever tasks were to be performed.
A passion for building had begun to sweep over Europe. It came so close upon the heels of the eleventh century as to lead many students to consider it a reaction from the gloomy misgivings with which Christian countries had awaited the coming of the year 1,000. The belief that this would be the end of the millennium after which the world was to come to an end had been widespread. But the world did not come to an end and popular thanksgiving was manifest in an almost universal desire to perform notable works of piety. Bishops and abbots expended the offerings of the faithful in erecting cathedrals, churches and monasteries. Feudal lords and ladies found admirable means of atoning for sundry misdeeds by setting aside sums for building or adorning temples. A knight hard pressed in battle might vow a gift of gold to the shrine of a favored saint; a general might promise a chapel for success in a minor campaign or a cathedral, if the campaign was to be hard and the issue doubtful. Occasionally some secular dignitary might desire a castle or palace befitting his dignity. The Crusades not only stimulated the movement still further, but they brought additional treasure and new ideas from the East and profoundly influenced the architectural science of the builders.
In the beginning there were no architects in the modern sense, but there were master builders, who designed the structures, supervised construction and worked with their own hands along with their operative brethren. The workers went by the generic name of masons, but in certain instances were called freemasons. The etymology and original definition of these terms remain, after many years of debate, undecided.
Of "Mason" The New English Dictionary prepared by the English Philological Society says, "The ulterior etymology is obscure; possibly the word is from the root of the Latin maceria (a wall)." The first quotation given to illustrate use of the word is dated at 1205. Lionel Vibert says: "Mason may not be German or Latin, but the ulterior origin is obscure. At all events, when we first find it, it is purely and simply a trade name, and has no esoteric meaning of a brother, or son of anything or of anybody."
As to the original meaning of "freemason" there have been many hypotheses. Edward Conder suggested that among masons in general a few were capable of working without plans, free handedly like painters, and were called "freemasons" in consequence. A more popular theory holds that masons were exempted by papal bulls from certain of the usual feudal restraints. Stieglitz looked with favor upon this notion in his History of Architecture. Leader Scott adopted it in behalf of the Comacine Masters, of whom she said, "They were Freemasons because they were builders of a privileged class, absolved from taxes and servitude, and free to travel about in times of feudal bondage." This theory has its attractions, but it must be laid aside until the papal bulls in question are discovered.
Early writers inclined strongly to the belief that a freemason was so designated because he worked in free stone, that is, stone already hewn from the quarry. Dr. Begemann gave credence to the notion and so did Chetwode Crawley. Still another belief derives the word from the idea of release from the restraints of apprenticeship, when a workman, being out of his indentures, was at liberty to travel about in search of employment. The New English Dictionary somewhat favors the supposition that certain workmen of especial skill were "given their freedom" and ascribes this to a medieval practice of emancipating the best artisans so that they might offer their services wherever a great building was in process of construction.
George W. Speth contributed to Ars Quatuor Coronatorum what he called a tentative inquiry in which he advanced the suggestion that there may have been two distinct masonic guilds in the Gothic period. One was stationary and all its members were bound to work within their local communities; the other was a society of traveling workmen, the members of which were free to move about. He believed that much of the work of cathedral building was so highly specialized that it required workmen of particular training and that it was from itinerant, rather than stationary, town guilds that modern Freemasonry is descended.
In addition to these theories, there is a throng of romantic hypotheses, such as are to be encountered by the student at almost every step of his incursions into Masonic lore. Mackey's Encyclopedia of Freemasonry enumerates some of the more fantastic ones. A writer in the European Magazine for February, 1792, who described himself as "George Drake, lieutenant of marines, " attempted to trace Freemasonry to the Druids and derived the word mason from "May's on," the first part being in reference to May-day and the second to the French impersonal pronoun, on. He argued that it originally meant "Men of May," but that was not original with him, since the same derivation was suggested in 1766 by Cleland in his essays, The Way to Things by Words, and The Real Secret of Freemasons. Hutchinson thought the word may have had a Greek origin, coming from mao soon meaning "I seek salvation, or from mystes, or is perhaps a corruption of mesouraneo, meaning "I am in the midst of heaven, or of Mazourouth, a constellation mentioned by Job, or of mysterion, a mystery." Lessing argued that masa in Anglo-Saxon signifies a table, and that Masonry is consequently a "society of the table." Nicola thought the root word was the low Latin noun masonia signifying an exclusive society or club. C. W Moore in the Boston Magazine of May, 1844, derived it from lithotomos, a stone-cutter, thereby prompting Mackey to the sage observation, "It surpasses our ingenuity to get Mason etymologically out of lithotomos."
The late William S. Rockwell, "who was accustomed," Mackey observes, "to find all his Masonry in the Egyptian mysteries," derived the word from mai, signifying to love, and son, which means a brother. "But all of these fanciful etymologies," the learned commentator wittily adds, "which would have terrified Bopp, Grimm or Muller, or any other student of linguistic relations, forcibly remind us of the French epigrammatist, who admitted that alphina came from equus, but that, in so coming, it had very considerably changed its route."
Non-Masonic lexicographers have had no great difficulty with the word. They trace it back through French into various Latin forms and in every case its verbal ancestors referred to workers in stone or mortar. This simple and reasonable explanation ought to suffice for all practical purposes and does suffice for all except gratification of the peculiar vanity to which Masonic literature has been so susceptible, a vanity of finding hidden and mysterious meanings in things that really are obvious. A mason in the medieval period was therefore one who worked in stone or mortar and he became a "free" mason either because he worked in "free" stone or because he was free of his guild or was otherwise emancipated from restrictions which applied to apprentices, serfs and villeins.
When bishop, abbot, prince or baron of the Gothic age got ready to put up a notable building, his first and most important care was to select the master builder. He was - as Arthur Kingsley Porter noted in Medieval Architecture, a work herein extensively quoted - a man of profession who often traveled great distances to obtain important commissions. William of Sens in 1174 journeyed from France to England to apply for the work of rebuilding the cathedral of Canterbury, which had been destroyed by fire. Villard de Honnecourt, a master builder of the last half of the thirteenth century, went to Hungary to supervise the erection of a church, and his album of sketches contains drawings made by him upon visits to Laon, Reims, Chartres and Lausanne. In a note on the margin of one drawing he remarked he had traveled far and had seen many towers but none like those of Reims. Window traceries he examined at Reims so impressed him that he confided in another note his intention of reproducing them in the cathedral of Cambrai.
"Thus it is evident, Porter remarks "that the master builders moved about freely from place to place for education as well as for business, and readily undertook every long journey to obtain commissions. When a new construction had been determined upon, the bishop or chapter or abbot, as the case might be, let the fact be known. Usually several applicants for the position of master builder would present themselves. From these was selected the one who made the most favorable impression, either as promising to carry out the work more economically or as being best qualified by previous training and experience. Other considerations, such as the pay demanded, or how much of the old edifice the various applicants promised to preserve, also influenced the selection. After the successful candidate had been chosen, he entered into agreement with the ecclesiastical powers, and for a definite wage undertook to carry out the stipulated construction. Only in exceptional cases was there anything approaching a contract; as a general rule in the XIII century the master builder was paid a regular salary, just as were the men who worked under him."
His first job was to make the necessary drawings, for, contrary to an impression long held in later times, the Gothic building was planned in considerable detail before the first stone was laid. Some of these drawings have come down to modern times, notably one of the ground plans of the monastery of St. Gallo, dating from the ninth century, and the sketches of Villard de Honnecourt. They were, as Porter observed, plain, straightforward line drawings, made for use and not for display, sufficiently accurate for practical service yet not overburdened with detail. It is probable that master builders also constructed models, since that practice was common among their predecessors of classical times and their successors of the Renaissance period. Indeed what appears to have been just such a model was discovered not long ago in Rouen. Since the master builder's profession required his personal supervision of every step of the construction, he took up his abode near the scene of labor and remained there until his task was finished, or he died or was dismissed, as sometimes happened when his employers became dissatisfied with his work. An instance of the fate which befell an unfaithful master workman is revealed in the Chronicle of Bec, quoted in Medieval Architecture:
"Therefore, when the foundations had been laid deep," the ancient recorder wrote, "the abbot himself, surrounded by his monks, laid the first stone of the foundations on the first day of Lent; and Ingebram, master builder of Notre Dame of Rouen, directed and aided in the construction. And to his superintendence the abbot entrusted the beginning and care of that work, and for the first year Ingebram worked hard at the building, and constructed it with great success, altering the facade and increasing the length of the nave and wonderfully adorning it with two broad towers; but after a year and a half he commenced to absent himself occasionally, neglecting the work and not finishing it as he had promised. When the abbot saw and understood this, he took wise council, and, when now a year and eight months had passed, he removed Ingebram from the sacred place, and handed the work over to the master builder Walter of Melun, who finished it in the third year."
Alas for poor Ingebram! Cathedrals must go on and naves must be lengthened and towers must continue to mount, and when the Ingebrams grow slack in their work, there is always a Walter of Melun waiting just around the corner to be called in to finish the job. Yet it is apparent from the narrative that the abbot was by no means rash or testy regarding the misconduct of his master builder. It was his business to keep an eye on the work, and he had every right to feel aggrieved when the man he most trusted in this, the most important work of the abbot's life, began to fail him. It is more than likely that he and Ingebram had been on excellent personal terms during that first year. For at least two months after Ingebram's defection had become too apparent to be overlooked, his Superior officer hesitated to take action. But when the crisis came there was no question of which held paramount authority.
"The responsibility of the abbot or bishop did not end when the master builder was engaged," says Porter. "On the contrary he watched carefully every detail, saw to providing building materials and frequently interfered even in purely architectural and artistic matters. At St. Denis, Suger, the abbot, directed where and how work should be begun, decided from what quarries stone should be taken, devised how to procure suitable columns, and hunted in the forests for timber. He even superintended the details of the design of the stained-glass windows.
"This strict control exercised by the ecclesiastical authorities explains the eminently scholastic character of the Gothic church. The master builder and the clerk walked hand in hand. The function of the former was not to dictate, to impose his artistic conception on the priest; he was simply an expert, a man with practical experience called in to execute the desired work in the best manner possible, to oversee the workmen, and to undertake those matters for which the bishop or abbot lacked the requisite technical knowledge. How close this union of client and master builder was, the thoroughly ecclesiastic character of the cathedral itself is the best witness. That disagreements, disputes and misunderstandings of various kinds should arise was only natural, but in all such altercations the ecclesiastical authorities always retained the upper hand. It is amusing to read in Gervase what infinite tact William of Sens was forced to employ (at Canterbury) to persuade the reluctant monks that it was necessary to destroy the charred fragments of the glorious choir of Conrad.
"Also the relationship of the master builder to the men under him was far closer than that existing between the modern architect and the laborers. The medieval master builder not only superintended everything connected with the building - the quarrying of the stone, the stereotomy, the construction of scaffolds and centerings - but he seems also to have labored much with his own hands. William of Sens, called from France to direct the construction of the cathedral of Canterbury, was seriously injured by falling from the scaffold; and the entire tone of Gervase's account of the activities of this master builder gives the impression that he performed with his own hands much manual labor."
There were, however, and especially in the later centuries, master builders who merely directed the work performed by others. Porter mentions a passage in a sermon of Nicolas of Berne in which the preacher used this illustration of a point he desired to make: "The master builders, with rule and compass in hand, say to others, 'Cut this here for me,' and do not work themselves and yet they receive higher pay, like many modern prelates." Another passage quoted in the same work, was as follows: "Some work by word alone. For take notice. In great buildings there is usually a single master builder who directs the construction by word alone, and seldom or never does manual labor, but nevertheless he receives higher pay than the others. So there are many in the Church who possess fat benefices, but God knows what good they do; they work by their tongue alone, saying, 'Thus you ought to do, but themselves do not so at all."
This last illustration was taken from a sermon preached in the fourteenth century and by that time many changes had taken place in the office of the master builder, which appears to have increased in prestige since the day when William of Sens tumbled from his scaffold. William was evidently looked upon as little more than a first-rate artisan. In the next century Villard de Honnecourt was an educated man who could afford the luxury of leisurely travel. By the fourteenth the master builder was distinctly a professional - an architect he would be called today.
How wide the gulf was which separated the master from his workman is not clear, but the indications are that it was narrow in the beginning and widened toward the latter days. The assumption has been that most of the skilled and semi-skilled labor came from guilds. It is known that the masons were organized in such societies, as were most workers at mechanical trades, but records of their activities are meager. It is not certain whether or not they were divided into different grades, beginning with those employed for the ruder kinds of work and progressing to the most expert of craftsmen. There is not even satisfactory evidence showing it was a practice for them to move about from place to place, although the supposition is that the nature of the work itself must have necessitated mobility, since especially proficient workmen would naturally gravitate to places where employment was plentiful and the pay good.
The formation of artisan guilds in towns proceeded in much the same manner in all parts of Europe. Men engaged in the same kind of work would band together, agree upon basic qualifications for membership, choose one or more chief officers, as occasion seemed to demand, and establish a code of ethics. In due season the society would obtain a charter or writ of incorporation from the local authorities. In many instances additional membership was limited to the sons of those who already belonged, and not even these might be admitted until they had served long periods of apprenticeship. All members of the guild usually resided in the same quarter of the town or in the same street, and its authority not infrequently extended to regulation of the public and social conduct of the fellowship.
Most antiquarians are convinced, however, that the mason guilds could not have conformed strictly to this plan. Porter expresses the general idea when he indicates that this guild was known as "free," which meant, among other things, that no fee was demanded of those who entered the trade. "But with the exception of the legitimate sons of masters," he continues, "each novice had to serve an apprenticeship of six years, and no master was allowed to have more than one apprentice. The great number of skilled workmen required to construct a cathedral could hardly have found sufficient work to support them in the city when works on the church were not in progress. It is therefore probable that, like the master builders, they moved about from place to place, probably with their wives and families. But did they move in mass, in great bands? The fact of the corporation seems to imply it, for it is difficult to see how a guild could exist if the members were constantly shifting from one city to another. And in what relationship could the master builder have stood to these corporations? Was he merely the chief man of the band, elected by his fellows? What is known of the master builders seems to contradict such an hypothesis."
This is a frank admission on the part of Mr. Porter that he is but guessing. Many of the older historians of Freemasonry, and a few of the present day, have lacked this modesty. They have boldly jumped to the conclusion that because Gothic buildings everywhere exhibit certain unities, therefore the builders must have belonged to some great fraternity, spread over Britain and a large part of continental Europe; that this fraternity must have had some center, perhaps at York, from which it was governed much after the fashion in which modern Freemasonry is governed by Grand Lodges; that it was in possession of a set of secrets, derived nobody knows whence, thereby accounting for the knowledge of Gothic art possessed in widely separated places.
That the builders of Gothic cathedrals may have comprised a class apart from other builders, enjoying certain privileges and immunities and free - as members of other guilds were not - to move about from one community to another, is a reasonable hypothesis, although as yet it can be regarded only as a hypothesis. But that these roving bands of workmen were organized into one big fraternity there is no evidence to prove; such evidence as there is points to a contrary conclusion.
The one big fraternity would have needed an international organization and a hierarchy of officers, and the silence of history is eloquently persuasive that there was no such organization, no such hierarchy. It would have included in its membership nobles, prelates and others bearing the most illustrious names of three centuries. its influence would have been so great as to make it conspicuous, as the Knights Templar and the Hanseatic League were conspicuous. It is inconceivable that such an organization, doing business with both church and state, would have left behind it no records, no memorials, no documents; or that its existence would not have been mentioned in at least some of the writings of contemporary literature; or that it would not have been noticed in the official records of the countries in which it must have existed. Such a society must have had millions of members. Gothic art was not confined to cathedrals and churches; its principals of construction and its methods of ornamentation were used in building bridges, fortifications, civic structures, and even in the making of clothing, pottery and tools. If these principles were the secrets of one big fraternity, those employing them must have been members of that fraternity. It is natural to doubt that a society of such magnitude could have existed for more than 300 years without leaving definitive records of itself. No such records have been found.
What, then, is the conclusion to which these considerations incontrovertibly point? It is that the mason guilds, like Gothic architecture itself, underwent a gradual course of development, gaining in strength, form and beauty as they advanced.
The Gothic buildings of each land exhibited altogether too many local peculiarities to admit of the supposition of outside control by some central power. Each nation had to make its own experiments in the development of the peculiarities of its own style, yet surely, if a body of Gothic "secrets" had been in the possession of a single international fraternity, this would not have been necessary. Whence then did Gothic architecture derive its essential unity? Why did it everywhere possess those general features by which it is identified? The answer is not far to seek. That unity followed necessarily upon its technique. A pointed arch is a pointed arch, whether it exists in Scotland or in Spain; the builder who employed a flying buttress in France and the one who employed it in England had to use it in the same general manner. Once a master builder had triumphantly solved a problem of construction, he had shown the way to all succeeding builders. A similar tendency is observed in modern times where men are engaged in similar tasks although widely separated in geography. The chief difference is that news of scientific and technical discoveries nowadays is disseminated more rapidly than it could be in the Gothic period.
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Last modified: March 22, 2014