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THE COMACINE MASTERS
THE theory that the Comacine Masters of Lombardy constituted the Freemasonry of their day has been popular because it appears to explain so many things that want explaining. If true, it would supply a bridge between Operative Masonry of the Middle Ages and the Roman collegia; would throw light upon the ancient belief of Craftsmen that the institution entered Europe from Palestine by way of Greece; would provide an ancestral society analogous in many ways to the modern Fraternity, and explain that curious blend of metaphysical lore and architectural practice which in some mysterious way has come from the past into the present system of ritual and symbols. It would be invaluable also in establishing Masonic continuity, since it proclaims the existence, in the midst of the confusion of the dark centuries, of an asylum in which an esoteric and philosophical cult was able to maintain itself as a thing apart, securely and serenely pursuing an uninterrupted intellectual course and preserving a stream of culture which otherwise must have been diverted into a thousand channels.
Small wonder that this hypothesis has been urged so passionately by certain Masonic writers! Yet, however fascinating and useful a theory may be, it must be judged before the bar of history solely on the basis of truth. This one is still on trial; as yet, notwithstanding that it has received the benefit of every reasonable doubt and the support of persuasive argument, the case for it has by no means been proved. On the contrary, dispassionate examination discloses serious weaknesses in it - so serious, indeed, that evidence as yet undiscovered must be presented before it can be accepted as something of more substance than mere speculation. To borrow Dr. Newton's phrase, the utmost that can now be said for it is that the associations of the Comacine Masters were prophecies of Freemasonry, although Dr. Newton accepted them as having a more definite connection with the institution, making that belief an important part of his argument in The Builders.
These Comacine Masters were united into a guild, or perhaps several guilds, of stone masons dwelling in the Lombard State of Northern Italy. The Lombards, or Longobardi, when Roman writers first made their acquaintance, were a Germanic race dwelling in the lower basin of the Elbe. Etymologically their name is taken to mean Long-beards, and it is commonly supposed they were so designated by the people of Italy because the men wore long and heavy beards. One of their own legends, however, gave another explanation. This was that they got the name from the god, Wotan, because of an artifice practiced upon him when women of the tribe passed themselves off as men by draping their long hair across their faces in imitation of manly beards.
Before the end of the fifth century they had migrated southward into what is now Lower Austria. The emperor Justinian invited them into Noricum and Pannonia to assist him in his wars with other barbarous peoples. They appear to have kept their part of the bargain in several important battles, but when occasion served they were not disinclined to make terms with the foes of the Byzantine empire. They engaged in a protracted struggle with the Gepidae, another Teutonic race, and in a final battle their king, Alboin, crushed the Gepidae, slew their king, Cunimund, caused a chalice to be fashioned out of his skull and compelled the slain monarch's daughter, Rosamund, to drink the conqueror's health from that gruesome cup. He then forced Rosamund to become his wife, but this amiable damsel is said to have obtained full revenge by bringing about the assassination of Alboin some years later.
Uniting his own followers with the surviving Gepidae, Alboin in 568 swept down through the mountain passes upon the Italian plain at the head of the Adriatic. Northern Italy was then in a condition of political chaos. Once before it had been overrun by Goths, but the Gothic tribes had become depleted by wars and famines. These made what resistance they could, but the newcomers were not to be denied. To hold the lands they won, the Longobardi adopted a system which was destined to exert profound influence upon the later history of Italy. They established, or occupied when they could find them already established, fortified cities at all important strategic points. Each became the seat of a local chieftain or duke, of whom there were about thirty-five. The capital was at Pavia, although for a long period it was capital in name only, since each truculent duke was a law to himself, yielding but a show of fealty to his overlord. In this manner the invaders settled down into the region about Lake Como and Lake Maggiori, occupied the fertile upland valleys and seized some of the choicest lands of Northern Italy.
Surrounded by hostile forces and controlling a subject population which despised them for their barbaric rudeness, the Longobardi soon found their ducal system unwieldy. Accordingly in 584 they chose Authari, grandson of Alboin, as king. The monarchy thus established lasted almost two hundred years, or until King Desiderius in 774 was overthrown by the iron hand of Charlemagne.
As was characteristic of Germanic invaders, the Longobardi rapidly absorbed the culture of those they had conquered. They adopted the Latin tongue, embraced the Roman Catholic religion, took Latin names, imitated Roman and Greek fashions in dress, amusements and architecture. They maintained desultory intercourse with Byzantium, although the Byzantines appear to have had no more affection for the Longobardi than did their other neighbors.
By the time of King Rothari, who died in 652, the Longobardi - or Lombards as they may henceforth be called - had made remarkable progress in the arts of peace. But they were in constant danger from Frankish tribes to the west of them and from Slavs and Huns to the east. Although King Liutprand, who died in 744, promoted many works of piety, including the erection of a church at Pavia, the Popes were always hostile to the invaders and continually sought means of dislodging them, or at least of reducing their power. Finally Pope Adrian I invited the Frankish monarch, Charlemagne, to enter Lombardy and possess it. This request Charlemagne was not unwilling to accept. He smashed the Lombard power, took King Desiderius prisoner and received the crown of Lombardy at the hands of Adrian. Thus ended Lombard reign over Northern Italy, which had endured for two and a third centuries.
If Lombard political supremacy was speedily swallowed up by the Carolingian empire, however, Lombard social influence was destined to survive for many another day. The city system continued, because the cities themselves remained. Under the new regime they soon passed into the control of bishops, but they never found the episcopal yoke agreeable and always struggled more or less actively for independence. In due course they actually became free, self-governing entities, fostering the arts and commerce. "Islands in a sea of turbulence," Dean R. W. Church has described them. Later they were to send out missionaries to bear their own culture over Europe. To quote again from Dean Church:
"In England, at least, the enterprising traders and bankers who found their way to the West, from the 13th to the 16th centuries, though they did not all come from Lombardy, bore the name of Lombards. In the next place, the Lombards or the Italian builders whom they employed or followed, the 'Masters of Como,' of whom so much is said in the early Lombard laws, introduced a manner of building, stately, solemn and elastic, to which their name has been attached, and which gave a character of its own to some of the most interesting churches of Italy."
The earliest of those "early Lombard laws" to which the Dean refers, and of which there is now record, appeared in the reign of King Rothari. They are of such Masonic importance as to deserve repetition, the translation herewith given being that of Ossian Lang, Grand Historian, in a report contained in the Proceedings of the Grand Lodge of New York in 1925:
Section 144. Of the Comacine Master - If a Comacine Master with his associates (colligantes) shall undertake to restore or build the house of any person whatsoever, after an agreement shall have been closed as to payment, and it chances that someone should be killed, by reason of the house, through the falling of either material or stone, no claim shall be lodged against the owner of the house, in case the Comacine Master or those working with him (consortibus) shall fall to settle for the death or the damage done; because who after having contracted to do work f or his own advantage, must assume, not undeservedly, the damage done.
Section 145. Of masters called or brought in. - If any person shall call or bring in Comacine Masters one or several - to design a work or to daily assist his retainers (servi) at the building of his house (domun aut casa), and it should happen that, by reason of this house (casa), one of the Comacines is killed, the owner of the house (casa) shall not be held responsible. On the other hand, if falling timber or stone should kill an outsider or cause injury to anyone, the fault shall not be imputed to the Masters, but to him who called them in, and he shall be responsible for the damage.
Later, under King Liutprand, additional legislation confirmed to the Comacine Masters the privileges of freemen in the Lombard State, and fixed the prices they were to charge for various kinds of construction. Manifestly these regulations concerned a group of persons who designed, built and repaired buildings, the major part of their work being the erection of the domun or dwelling house, and the casa or cabin. Unlike many other workers, they were freemen and not slaves; they could go about over the country; they could enter into contracts within certain prescribed limits as to fees; they could sue and be sued for civil damages rising from the nature of their work. That they were one corporation, or society, or fraternity, is not conclusively shown by these early records. By analogy, however, it is possible to infer that they probably formed themselves into a guild, or guilds, as other groups of special workers did in other cities. Certainly there can be no ground for doubting they had much to do with the development of what is known as the Lombard style of architecture as practiced in Italy, parts of Germany and parts of France.
Their name itself indicates that they were identified either with the ancient city of Como or Comum, or with Lake Como, in Italy some thirty odd miles north of Milan. It has been suggested that they got the name from an island in Lake Como, a theory to be examined hereafter. The many fine quarries in that region afforded sufficient reason for the development there of groups of artisans especially concerned with stone work. Ricci in his History of Italian Architecture observes that - their guilds were made free of all feudal restraints and the members were suffered to go about at will, but no records substantiating that statement have as yet been found in papal bulls or in the Carolingian laws, although search for them has been thoroughly prosecuted.
Gregory II gave to Boniface permission to take with him to Germany a following of monks skilled in the arts of building, and lay brethren who were also architects. Italian chroniclers have been quoted as saying that similar permission was accorded by Gregory I to Augustine when in 597-8 he went as a missionary to Britain. If anything is to be inferred from these facts, it is that workmen were not free to travel at will outside their own countries, or, at least, that Catholic missionaries were not at liberty to take them without papal authorization.
Whatever may have been the nature of their constitution, the societies of Comacine Masters were lost sight of for many centuries, although modern historians have glanced at them with more than passing interest. To Giuseppe Merzario, an Italian, must go the principal credit for the prominent place they have come to occupy at the present time, although Muratori, the Italian historian, called attention to the important part they played in the development of the architectural societies, which came to be known by the generic name of Magistri Comacini, or Comacine Masters. Merzario pursued the subject through all the manuscripts he could find, and although he made more of it than his predecessor had done, he still agreed with Muratori that the name was a generic one for builders in a large part of Northern Italy, and quotes with approval an older authority which held that the name was derived from the bishopric of Como.
In the early 1890's, however, the Masonic world Was excited by a book which had recently appeared from the hand of Mrs. Lucy Baxter, who wrote under the pen name of Leader Scott. It was entitled The Cathedral Builders: The Story of a Great Masonic Guild. This astonishing work, as appears from internal evidence, was based largely on Merzario's studies of the Comacine Masters and, indeed, first made that work generally known to the English-speaking public. As it has since been the principal basis for the Comacine theory of Freemasonry, the major conclusions of Mrs. Baxter's book may be summarized as follows:
That after Italy was overrun by barbarians, Roman collegia were suppressed, but the college of architects at Rome escaped the general doom and removed to the republic of Comum;
That this college survived in a medieval Masonic guild known as the Society of Comacine Masters, educating young men in the arts and sciences and sending them out to all parts of the world as missionaries of culture;
That many monks were Masons affiliated with this Society, thereby qualifying themselves for architectural pursuits;
That Italian chroniclists testify architects and masons accompanied Augustine to England, and from the Venerable Bede's account of the settlement of Augustine's mission in England it seems evident that he took Masonic architects to that country with him;
That Gregory probably chose these from the Comacine Order, as likelier to hold fast to the old Roman traditions of building than would be the case with a Byzantine guild, and that the works they did in Britain proved he was right in this surmise;
That early Saxon carvings represented fabulous monsters an d symbolical creatures which evidently were of Latin origin;
That words and phrases in the edicts of Rothari and Liutprand are to be met in the writings of Bede and Richard, Prior of Hagustald, indicating that these writers were familiar with terms of art used by the Comacine Masters.
The argument upon which these conclusions is based long and interesting, recapitulating many of Merzario's theories besides containing much new material resulting from Leader Scott's own investigations and those of her brother, the Rev. W. Miles Barnes, who contributed to The Cathedral Builders a chapter on "The Origin of Saxon Architecture." But the author goes further than Merzario did in many respects. For instance, Merzario thinks their name a generic one, applied to builders in many parts of Northern Italy, whereas Leader Scott restricts them within the narrow bonds of a single esoteric society. She supposes also that when the Roman college of architects fled to the region of Lake Como they found refuge on a small but strongly fortified islet known as Comacina. There, safely locked within stout walls, she believes they kept alive for centuries the traditions of classic art, and developed various styles of Italian architecture which subsequently they scattered through France, Spain, Germany and England.
The effect of The Cathedral Builders upon Masonic thought for the next quarter of a century was prodigious. Already earlier writers had suspected that Freemasonry must look to the Lombard guilds for its origin, and Leader Scott's work gave strong confirmation to the notion; confirmation that was the stronger because Mrs. Baxter was not herself friendly to modern Freemasonry. Her own conclusions she summed up in the sentence: "Though there is no certain proof that the Comacines were the veritable stock from which the pseudo-Freemasonry of the present day sprang, we may at least admit that they were a link between the classic collegia and all other art and trade guilds of the Middle Ages."
Adopting this conclusion in its general form, W. Ravenscroft went to Italy in 1906 and spent many years investigating and confirming as best he could its major implications. Subsequently Dr. Newton took it up and, made much of it in The Builders. In fact, Ravenscroft's The Comacines and Newton's Builders remain today among the most widely read of Masonic books, and justly so, for their almost religious loyalty to Freemasonry and the excellence of their literary construction.
Within the last decade or so, however, the Comacine theory has been seriously attacked until now it is very much on the defensive. Gould in his Concise History was among the first to point out that even if the existence of the Comacine guild, with all that is claimed for it, could be established, there would still be the necessity of clearing up the mystery involved in innumerable variations in the different schools of medieval architecture - variations which could not have been so extensive if one society had controlled the whole. A.L. Frothingham, in the Dictionary of Architecture and Building, went so far as to deny that a Comacine fraternity ever existed. In justice to Leader Scott it should be noted that she did not claim for the Comacines that they founded Gothic architecture, or that all medieval architectural styles could be traced to them. Conclusions to that extent are to be attributed in the main to those who have accepted her doctrines and enlarged upon them.
In a report on the matter to the Grand Lodge of New York, Ossian Lang made a frontal assault upon he entire position taken by Mrs. Baxter, Ravenscroft and Dr. Newton. He attacked it at its weakest point - the alleged connection between the Comacines and the builders' guilds of England. Nothing can be clearer than that Speculative Masonry is an offshoot of English Operative Masonry; hence if the Comacines cannot be connected with Operative Masonry, they cannot be connected with Speculative Masonry, and the whole theory fails of historic dependability.
From the writings of the Venerable Bede the author of Cathedra Builders and her collaborator endeavored to show that several early British churches were built of stone and that, on this account, it was necessary to import masons skilled in the use of that material. The theory is that the masons thus imported were partisans of the Comacine cult, which they carried with them and introduced into England. But Bede - historian of the English churches of the early eighth century - expressly states that one of these buildings, at Lindisfarne, was built of hewn oak and covered with reeds "after the manner of the Scots."
Nor does Bede substantiate further statements that British ecclesiastical authorities made frequent demands upon Rome for skillful workmen. He does speak of passings back and forth between Britain and Gaul, but the Gaul of that day was more Frankish than Roman. He reports that Benedict Biscop, founder of the monasteries at Wearmouth and Jarrow, crossed into Gaul in 675 and engaged masons to build for him a church in the Roman style, but to infer that these masons were Comacines, or even Italians, is pure guesswork. They may or may not have been, but this thread is far to slender to support the heavy weight imposed upon it by the Comacine theory. The next reliable record of importations of foreign builders into England comes down into the Norman period, when Gothic architecture was beginning to take form. Thus it will be seen that so far as authentic written evidence of connection between the Comacines and the early English builders is concerned, there is none.
Ravenscroft has made an earnest effort to supply the connection through details of sculpture and ornamentation. He quotes W.S. Calverley as suggesting that scrolls and interlacings on early scriptured crosses in Carlisle are decorated with patterns then in vogue in Lombardy. He remarks that the plan of Canterbury cathedral, as it existed before 1076, "carried out the Comacine idea, even to the two apses, one at each end and the campanili flanking the aisles north and south." There is more of similar purport in his argument, but what he suggests in regard to the Comacine theory might be suggested with equal force in support of a contrary theory - that the peculiarities noticed are only those which belonged to the general Christian culture of the times, as based upon and adapted from the general Roman culture of preceding times. Latin bishops in the West continued for a long period to prefer churches built in cruciform varieties of the basilica; it is natural to suppose also that they favored methods of ornamentation with which they were familiar. It is, of course, possible that Ravenscroft is right in his conclusions, although secular historians of architecture apparently fail to agree with them; but so long as it is also possible he may be mistaken, the historian can accept them only as opinions and not as proofs.
At the other end of the chain, connection between the Comacines and the Roman collegia is likewise weak. The statement that a Roman college of architects found asylum on the islet of Comacina appears to be without corroboration. That it could have maintained itself there is a romantic guess contrary to what is known about the Longobardi. Those warlike invaders thoroughly and mercilessly subdued the part of Northern Italy they made their own. Lenient to conquered peoples who made full submission, they crushed resistance and punished it with the utmost ferocity. It is unlikely that the savage Alboin, who made a king's daughter drink to him from her father's skull, would have tolerated at the heart of his realm a stronghold of local reaction and rebellion from which nothing could conceivably radiate save hostility to Longobardi rule, contempt for Longobardi knowledge and conspiracy against Longobardi security. Elsewhere throughout Italy and Gaul Germanic conquerors ruthlessly exterminated Roman collegia, fearing them as seminaries of free Roman thought. There is nothing to indicate the Longobardi did otherwise.
In such early records of individual Comacine Masters as have come down, names are not preponderantly Roman but are Teutonic. If the Masters were a Roman college, that circumstance would be most strange. Where the conquerors were so eager to Romanize their names it is scarcely to be supposed that private citizens with honest titles to. Latin patronymics would exchange them for new ones which to Latin ears must have seemed harsh and barbaric.
A preponderance of evidence is to the effect that the Lombard builders were much more strongly influenced by Byzantine than by Latin culture. Even in the most important of their churches, at Milan and Pavia, it is apparent they were wrestling with the old Byzantine problem of adapting a basilican groundwork. to the support of spacious vaultings, and there is marked progress, in a Byzantine way, in the architectural skill shown in the construction at Pavia over that shown in the erection of its most recent predecessor at Milan. Their later schools, both in Lombardy and on the Rhine, as recently as the beginning of the eleventh century, were still engaged, as a writer in the Encyclopedia Britannica puts it, "in the task of covering with vaults large churches of Basilican plan - the typical problem of the period."
It is not essential to an understanding of the rise of the Lombard guilds to depend upon a romantic story such as that of Roman architects marooned on an island in Lake Como. The explanation is far simpler than that. What happened in Lombardy in the seventh, eighth and ninth centuries was precisely what has happened in the development of all other urban civilizations of the Middle Ages. The Germanic invaders came upon an old and decadent civilization which moreover stood at the crossroads between East and West, North and South. Here they entrenched their power in strongly fortified cities. The chief economic asset of their new domain was an abundance of building stone of all kinds. It was characteristic of their genius that they should make the best use of what they found. They had a passion for the culture of all peoples whose social and ethical advancement they regarded as better than their own. They welcomed every missionary of beauty, no matter whence he came.
Into these cities flocked artisans, architects, builders, sculptors, carvers in wood, workers in gold and silver, dyers and weavers. They came for the simple and obvious reason that there was employment for them. The Longobardi were the newly rich of the hour, hot upon expending the profits of war and conquest for things of comfort and luxury. When they became converted to Catholicism they displayed the usual zeal of the proselyte and sought to express their piety in the building of handsome churches. A subject population which in its heart despised them was not disinclined to profit by opportunities, then so abundant, of catering to whims, for the gratification of which the barbarians were willing to pay and to pay well. It should be remembered that the Lombard State existed in a condition of relative strength and security for almost a hundred years longer than the United States of America have existed as a separate political entity, and that, like Americans of the present times, the Lombards were virile, energetic, progressive, ambitious and covetous of spiritual as well as of material gain. Like modern Americans, also, they did not hesitate to borrow useful ideas wherever they might find them and, turning them into the hopper of their own peculiar genius, to grind out of the mixture a culture which was distinctively their own.
It was inevitable that workers at various trades should sooner or later form themselves into guilds. It was equally inevitable, since the quarries about Lake Como gave to that region its richest material assets, that the mason guilds there should attain to considerable importance. That these societies were colored by the culture of their times goes without saying. It is by no means impossible that when the Lombards arrived they found vestiges of Roman collegia; it is even credible that they absorbed these collegia into their own system just as they absorbed many other things Roman. It may be considered likely that, along with other accretions from Byzantine sources, they incorporated Eastern cult practices into their local societies. But regardless of whether all or any of these surmises are correct, the fact is that no positive affirmative evidence showing them to be correct has as yet been discovered.
As to the exact organization of the Lombard guilds, little is really known. From the edicts of Rothari and Liutprand, Ravenscroft, following the ideas of Leader Scott, argues that the Comacine Masters were at that time a "compact and powerful guild, capable of asserting their rights, and that the guild was properly organized, having degrees of different ranks and Magistri" at their head. That interpretation reads more into the edicts, however, than dispassionate criticism can accept. In the first place, the statute of Rothari does not speak of a guild but of certain Masters, with associates (colligantes) and co-workers (consortes). That those Masters belonged to a guild is to be inferred rather from the usual customs of those days than from the wording of the edict. Furthermore it is clear that the decree was intended to fix the responsibilities not of a guild but of individual contractors and of their employers. The regulation of fees by Liutprand would seem to indicate that their capability of "asserting their rights" was in fact sharply limited. Whether the words magistri, colligantes and consortes refer to successive grades or degrees comparable to those of a Masonic lodge is pure speculation. They may mean that or they may mean only that master workmen, authorized to make contracts for building and repairing houses, took along their own employees and assistants; it is clear from Section 145 of Rothari's edict that the Masters did not refuse to do work alongside the bondsmen of their employers.
Much has been made of the fact that the Comacines met in a place which they called a loggia, and that they called their chiefs magistri or masters. The evidential value of this as tending to show Masonic connections is inconsiderable. The word loggia is a derivative from the same Latin word from which the English word lodge is derived, but a loggia was simply a covered gallery where workmen placed their benches, or whatever else they used, so they could be sheltered from sun and rain. Blacksmiths, carpenters, shoemakers and men of other crafts also worked in a loggia. The title magister was a common one, used f or master musicians, master painters, master professionals of all kinds. To say that because a Comacine contractor was called Master he must have been master of a Masonic lodge would be as sensible as to say that because a man is nowadays addressed by the title of Doctor he must be a practitioner of medicine.
Undoubtedly the Comacine builders attained such proficiency that their services were in demand outside their own country as well as within it. They were more than builders, for they were skilled in wood carving, painting, sculpture and mosaic work. It is not improbable they cherished literature and music. Rivoira in Lombardic Architecture asserts that after the fall of the Lombardic kingdom they re-formed themselves, as did other artisan guilds, in the days of the free Italian cities. Merzario believes they maintained their separate identity and were responsible for the greater part of all works of art between the years 800 and 1000. Agostino Segredio is convinced they were a guild of Freemasons, the theory held by Mrs. Baxter and subsequent writers of that school.
Were they indeed Freemasons? In spite of the fact that connections at both ends are broken, can the Comacine Masters be regarded as a bridge between Operative Masonry and some Roman college of artificers binding them into one continuous society? The answer must depend largely upon individual predilection. The theory is attractive to those who desire simplicity and continuity, for it tends to establish what many would like to believe. But the writers of the present work have been forced to the reluctant conclusion that evidence supporting it is fatally defective in several important particulars. Perhaps the wisdom of future ages may supply the deficiencies; perhaps in the stone of some forgotten work the necessary confirmation may yet be found. Meanwhile the Comacine Masters may safely be regarded as an important part of the general cult system of the Dark Ages, a system which had developed from earlier forms and which in turn gave way to the later development through which modern Freemasonry came into being.
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