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THE OLD CHARGES
SCIENTIFIC approach to what may be described as the authentic historical period of Freemasonry must be made by way of the curious documents which are known variously as the Old Charges, the Ancient Constitutions, the Ancient Manuscripts, the Gothic Manuscripts and the Legend of the Craft. This does not mean that these venerable scriptures, abounding in quaint conceits and naive legends, are to be accepted as giving correct and dependable accounts of the origins of the institution. To assume they did so would be as absurd as to suppose that the Iliad of Homer gives a reliable historical narrative of the siege of Troy. But if the modern reader knew nothing of the ancient Greeks save what that immortal poem tells of them, he would still have an excellent idea of their racial characteristics and ideals. In like manner the Old Charges illuminate the state of the Masonic Craft as it was in the operative days, revealing what the ancient brethren believed about their Fraternity, illustrating their customs and practices and showing forth something of the purposes which animated them.
To the historian they are of the utmost importance. The critic's microscope finds in them innumerable hidden implications. The turn of a phrase or the peculiar use of a word may prove far more important for fixing a date than anything related in a manuscript itself. Indeed, there are few branches of knowledge more interesting than that which bears upon the use of words. It is almost as difficult for a man to forge another's finger prints as for an author to conceal the era in which he writes. Even when he attempts with the greatest skill and patience to imitate the literary style of a previous age, he will be certain to make some error that will betray the deception.
Living languages are forever changing. The same word may mean one thing in one century and something entirely different in a later century. The English of the original King James version of the Holy Bible has undergone so many alterations that a large part of it would be confusing, if not actually unintelligible, if presented to an unschooled reader of the twentieth century. The word conversation, for instance, was formerly employed to denote conduct or deportment, whereas it now has a different meaning. If a modern were attempting to pass his own compositions off as of the time of James and if he used such words as mob, dynamite, lynching, self-conscious, egoism and thousands of others, it would be proof positive, to the critic of discernment, that the pretension of antiquity was wholly fraudulent. The Ephraimites, who could not correctly pronounce the word shibboleth, labored under no greater disadvantage than does the author of one age who seeks to employ the phraseology of an antecedent one. Every science, art, trade and profession contributes to the whole language a jargon of its own; in time many cant words acquire popular acceptance and become imbedded in literature as well as in the vernacular. What fossil remains are to one branch of science, word forms are to another; they enable the interpreter to fix with reasonable certainty the approximate time in which they were commonly employed.
For this reason the ancient Masonic manuscripts have come to a new importance in recent years. They have been studied more diligently than ever before; constant search for additional information has brought to light many that had been forgotten. It is interesting to observe that, after exhaustive search, William James Hughan in 1872 was able to catalogue only thirty-two of them. Seventeen years later, Gould listed sixty-two and by 1895 Hughan succeeded in stretching his original list to sixty-six. In 1918 R.H. Baxter had increased the number to ninety-eight. One of the most important of all, the Regius poem, as the reader has already noticed, was discovered in the late 1830's by a non-Masonic investigator.
These ancient writings supply the basis for what Freemasons ordinarily term the Landmarks of the Fraternity. Few words are more often used and less commonly understood than is this word Landmarks. It greets the Freemason at every turn. Very early in hi Masonic career he hears of the Landmarks as something too sacred and inviolate ever to be subject to modification or change. They are at the foundation of Masonic jurisprudence, as unalterable as the laws of the Medes and Persians. Very few active Masons have more than a vague general notion of what they are, yet they affect every Mason in his relationships with the Craft as a whole. Learned writers have attempted at one time or other to reduce them to some definite code of rules and practices, but most of the learned writers do not agree with one another. Various lists give enumerations of Landmarks running all the way up from three to fifty.
The truth is that the Landmarks partake somewhat of the principle of English common law and somewhat of that of the unwritten British Constitution. They are like the common law in that they relate to customs used by the Craft at a time to which the memory of man runneth not to the contrary. They are like the British Constitution in that although they are the fundamental law of the Craft they do not constitute a definite set of formularies which can be divided off into articles, sections and clauses. It will perhaps serve the present purpose to describe the Landmarks as a body of Masonic precedents derived from immemorial usage. To ascertain whether a given doctrine is a Landmark it is therefore necessary to ascertain whether it was in accordance with Masonic practice at the earliest time of which there is record. The several lists enumerate those customs which the compilers consider important. It is clear that any article in any list is invalid if it can be shown to be contrary to immemorial usage; conversely there is a measure of validity for every article in every list which cannot be shown to be contrary to immemorial usage.
By this test, if it can be shown that the ancient brethren insisted upon belief in a Supreme Being and the immortality of the soul, then that doctrine must be accepted as a Landmark; by the same token, if our ancient brethren refused membership to all who were not freeborn men of lawful age, hale in body and mind, that also may be accepted as a Landmark. This background of basic law is therefore the constitution of the Fraternity, which no Masonic legislative power can amend or repeal. Provided it does not infringe upon the provisions of that constitution, a Masonic legislature - a Grand Lodge, for instance, - can make whatever laws, rules and edicts may be advisable for the government of the Craft.
In actual practice, every Grand Lodge does that very thing and so, to a lesser degree, does every constituent Lodge. But whenever complaint is raised that legislation has violated the Landmarks, it becomes a subject or prompt judicial determination when, if violation can be demonstrated, it becomes null and void; no regular Mason is bound longer to observe it, but every regular Mason may be bound to cease Masonic intercourse with all who continue to observe it. It may happen, of course, that the courts of different sovereign Grand Jurisdictions will disagree as to whether there has been violation; in that case, the individual Mason is obligated to follow the interpretation of his own governing body. If it breaks off Masonic intercourse with another Grand jurisdiction, he is required, under pain of incurring that most disagreeable of Masonic penalties, the stigma of clandestinism, to break off Masonic intercourse with the members yielding allegiance to that Grand jurisdiction.
It should be obvious that the term immemorial usage applies in the main to usage which antedated the formation of the first English Grand Lodge in 1717-1723. Few practices which may have come into use since that time can be called "immemorial," since they have been either ordered or sanctioned by legislative or judicial authority, and of this there is, or ought to be, authentic record. These new customs therefore do not belong to the Landmarks, although they may be wholly legal within themselves, since they have been found to be not inconsistent with the Landmarks. Thus, it will be readily apparent, that, since the Ancient Manuscripts furnish almost the sole account of Masonic laws and customs prior to the organization of the Grand Lodge, these documents are of vital importance to Masonic jurisprudence as well as to Masonic history.
It is with their historical import, however, that the present work is chiefly concerned; although in the last analysis there is probably no way to separate the purely historical from the purely legal phase. In their language, in their legends, in their doctrines and dogmas and above all in their customs, these ancient records bear weighty attestation to the medieval influences which held sway over the minds of operative Craftsmen. Some of them are in the form of manuscript rolls of parchment or paper, occasionally written in the calligraphy of Gothic script. Others are written by hand on sheets stitched together in book form; a few later ones were printed in books from movable type. The oldest - the Regius poem - is a copy dating from about the year 1390; the most recent of them belong to the year 1725, or after the creation of the first Grand Lodge.
The most striking thing about the older ones is the way in which they differ from one another in their versions of the Legend of the Craft. To historians of the lineal mind these variations have caused no small amount of perplexity. They indicate that there was not one basic tradition but that there were several, and that these were in conflict in certain important particulars. It would be difficult to understand how this could be so if there had been one continuous, self- conscious Fraternity, projected into the Middle Ages from the remotest past. The difficulty disappears, however, when it is noticed that all these versions can be related to a central theme. They differ from one another precisely as certain folk tales differ from one another; that is, they contain the germ of a common idea which, in different countries, has sprouted and grown in slightly different ways.
The Regius poem alone contains at least two, and perhaps three, variations. The central narrative gives what has come to be regarded as the general English version. But in one place somebody has interpolated an allusion to the Four Crowned Martyrs, which does not appear in any other English version. Now the legend of the Four Crowned Martyrs, although it is ignored in other English accounts, played an important part in the lore of the German Steinmetzen of the Middle Ages. Its appearance in an English manuscript therefore becomes a theme for legitimate curiosity.
According to this legend, four sculptors, Claudius, Castorius, Semphorianus and Nicostratus, were employed among others by the Roman Emperor Dioclein building a temple to AEsculapius, god of health. They were devout Christians and their constant prayers to the Saviour had brought them remarkable skill at their work. An unskilled competitor, Simplicius, upon learning the secret of their power, embraced the Christian religion, whereupon he, too, immediately became proficient. The fame of this conversion reached the ears of the pagan authorities, who demanded that the Christians abjure their faith. Although subjected to barbarous scourgings, they refused to recant, and in punishment were placed in leaden coffins which were thrown into the Tiber. Later the bodies were recovered and placed at rest in the catacombs.
Some months later four Christian soldiers, who were masons by trade, were also tortured to death for refusing to do homage to AEsculapius. All nine bodies ultimately came to rest under a Christian basilica. The names of the soldiers were unknown until the ninth century when it was said to have been learned that they were Severus, Severianus, Carpoferus and Victorianus. Meanwhile they had been known as the Four Crowned Martyrs, they having received the "crown" of martyrdom. There has been dispute whether the distinction belonged to the soldiers or to the four original sculptors, but, at any rate, all were regarded as distinguished masons who had been immortalized by their fidelity. In time the Four Crowned Ones became patron saints of German Masons and probably of other medieval guilds.
The allusion to them in the Regius poem, in addition to the fact that an early English church was dedicated to them, has been urged as showing direct connection between the mason guilds of England and Germany. It is rather a slender circumstance upon which to place so much responsibility. A more plausible supposition is that the legend had its origin in the general. Catholic martyrology of the times; that the compiler of the Regius narrative, coming across a German legend, incorporated it into the body of his tale. Its non- appearance in other English manuscripts may be taken as an indication that their writers were not familiar with it. It was rejected in the later mythology of the Craft, an almost certain indication that it had come to be considered apocryphal.
It is not until the Regius poem passes from the realm of legend and reaches that of practical affairs that it throws real light upon the state of Masonry in the England of its day. It contains a set of "articles" and one of "points," which are of interest not only as being the oldest extant code of Masonic laws, but also as indicating the strictly utilitarian character of teachings in the operative days. The following transcription from the Regius verse is that of Silas H. Shepherd in The Landmarks of Freemasonry:
And the following are the "points":
No exercise of the imagination is required to understand that these "articles" and "points" refer to the everyday management of the business of a society, the primary function of which is the performance of work under contract or for hire. Read in connection with the rest of the manuscript, they disclose, however, that the author was laboring under a sense of obligation which even today the conscientious Masonic instructor must feel - the obligation of relating the practical affairs of the moment to the legendary history of an ethical cult. In addition to the legend and this practical advice, .there is much moralizing upon the duties of a man to God and the Church, with allusions to the seven deadly sins, the Virgin Mary and to holy water. Whether at that early day the operative guild was in the habit of "accepting" non-working members is in much dispute. On that point, Gould, in his Commentary on the Regius Manuscript, says:
"These rules of decorum read very curiously in the present age, but their inapplicability to the circumstances of the working Masons of the fourteenth century will be at once apparent. They were intended for the gentlemen of those days, and the instruction for behaviour in the presence of a Lord - at table and in the society of ladies - would have all been equally out of place in a code of manners drawn up for the use o a guild or craft of artisans."
A suggestion as ingenious as it is unsusceptible of proof. Most Masonic scholars are agreed that this version of the Old Charges was used strictly for the government of an operative body.
Next to the Regius in point of antiquity is the Cooke Manuscript, so-called because it was edited for publication in 1861 by Matthew Cooke. From internal evidence this document, or a copy of it, was in the possession of George Payne, when in 1720, as Grand Master, he compiled the "General Regulations," which were later included in Anderson's Constitutions. Its composition has been ascribed to the middle of the fifteenth century, or some sixty years later than that of the Regius. Its traditional account of Freemasonry follows the usual narrative of a beginning before the flood and a persistence through the time of Solomon, with an introduction into England by way of France in the time of Charles Martel. It is apparently a revision of older documents, but its version of the Old Charges mentions nine "articles" and nine "points."
Mackey's History of Freemasonry observes that the author of the Cooke Manuscript was probably familiar with the Regius poem but that he revised his details of the legendary narrative in the light of John of Trevisals translation of Ranulph Higdon's Universal History, which was published by Caxton in 1482. It is clear, however, that he made a sort of carry-all of his story, taking in a little of all the versions then current in manuscript form. He was in turn followed by the author of the Dowland Manuscript and he by the writer or compiler of the still later one, which is commonly described as York Roll No. 1. Since this last is of especial interest as showing the development through which the Old Charges had passed, it is perhaps worth somewhat extensive attention.
At the time the first Grand Lodge was formed, there were many old operative lodges in England. Of these one of the oldest - if not the oldest in fact - was working at York. It will be recalled that York was the scene of the famous legendary assembly in King Athelstan's time at which, the old tradition ran, the Fraternity was constituted under the leadership of Prince Edwin. Some months after the Grand Lodge was formed, the "time immemorial" Lodge at York proclaimed itself the "Grand Lodge of All England." The story of that venture belongs to another part of this narrative, but it is sufficient to say that when an inventory of this body was made in 1779 six copies of the Old Charges were listed. Of these one, numbered No. 1, was a manuscript on parchment in the form of a roll which was five inches wide and about seven feet long. It became misplaced in some manner but was discovered later at Freemason's Hall in London and restored to the York brethren in 1877 by W. J. Hughan. It is believed to have been written in about the year 1600.
The document begins with a few lines of doggerel the first letters of which spell the word "Masonrie, and which are as follows:
The manuscript proper begins with the pious invocation: "The might of the Father of heaven with wisdom of the blessed Son through the grace of God and goodness of the Holy Ghost that be three persons in one godhead be with us at our beginning and give us grace so to govern us here in this life that we may come to His blessing that never shall have ending." The purpose is declared to be that of telling "good brethren and fellows" how Masonry was begun and preserved and adds: "And also to them that be here we will declare the charges that belong to every Free Mason to keep the governor of the work, Master, during the time that they work with him and other moe charges that is too long here to tell, and to all these charges he made them to swear a great Oath that men used in that time."
The narrative then proceeds to say that "that worthy Master Euclid was the first that gave it the name of Geomatrie, the which is now called Masonrie throughout all this nation." Then ensues the now familiar story of its transmission, after the building of Solomon)s Temple, to France, then to England, and so to the great assembly at York. Prince Edwin is said to have issued a proclamation, in response to which all who possessed old "writeings" were called upon to produce them. Some of these were found to be in French, some in Greek, some in English and some in other languages. Edwin caused a digest of these to be made and gave command that "it should be read or told when that any Masons should be made & to give them the charge." And from that day to this, the story runs, that custom has been followed. The manner of giving the charge is described in Latin: "Then one of the elders shall take the book and he or they shall place the hands upon the book and shall give the law."
"Every man that is a Mason," the Charge continues, "take right good heed to these Charges & if any man find himself guilty in any of the charges that he amend himself before God and particularly ye that are to be charged take good heed that ye keep these charges right well, for it is sure in good faith. And therefore take good heed hereto it is well worthy to be kept well for that the Science is ancient for there be vii liberall Sciences of the which it is one & the names of the seven Sciences be these:
"First Grammer which teacheth a man to speak truly & write truly. And the second is Rhetoricke and teacheth a man to speak fair and plain in subtile terms & the third is Dielectick or Lodgick & that teacheth a man to discern truth from falsehood. And the fourth is Arithmetick & that teacheth a man to reckon and accompt all manner of numbers. And the fifth is called Geomatrie & teacheth all measure of grounds & of all other things, of the which Science is grounded Masonrie; & the sixth Science is called Musicke & that teacheth a man the Science of Song & violl of tongue & organ harp trumpett. And the seventh Science is called Astronomie and that teacheth a man to know the course of the Sonne, Moone & Starrs. These be the vii liberall Sciences the which Seven be all grounded by one that is to say Geomatrie for by this may a man prove the Essence of work as founded by Geomatrie so Geomatrie teacheth meat, measure, ponderation & Weight of all manner of things on earth for there is no man that worketh any Science but he worketh by some measure or weight & all this is Geomatrie & Marchants & all crafts men & all other of the vii Sciences & especially the plower & tiller of all manner of graines & feeds planters of vinyeards setters of fruits, for in Grammer retorick nor astronomie nor in any of all the other liberall Sciences can any man find meat or measure without Geomatrie, & me thinks that this Science Geomatrie is most worthy and foundeth all others."
The manuscript then returns to the tale of Lamech, his sons and daughter and brings Masonry down to "this worthy Clark Euclid," who is said to have consented to become a teacher of the children of the King and his Nobles on condition that he be granted a commission to rule them "after the manner the Sciences ought to be ruled." Euclid is said to have taken to himself the sons of the nobility and taught them "the Science of Geomatrie & practice to worke in Stones all manner of worthy work that belongeth to building Churches Temples Castles Tours mannors & all manner of buildding & gave them in Charge on this mannor:
"First that they should be true to the King & to the Lord that they serve & that they should love well one another & that they should call each other his Fellow or his Brother & not his Servant or Knave or other foule name & that they should truly deserve their pay of their Lord or the Master that they serve & that they should ordaine the wisest of them to be the Master of the worke & neither to chuse for Love nor efection nor great nor riches to sett any that hath not suficient Knowledge and cunning in the worke to be Master of the worke whereby the Master should be evill served & they disgraced or ashamed & also that they should call perillous & great danger for a man to forsweare himself upon the holy Scripture.
"The First Charge is that he or thou be true man to god & the holy church & that ye use neither erour nor heresie according to your own understanding or discreet and wise mens teaching & also that he shall be true lege man & bear true Alegiance to the King of England without any treason or any other falshood & if they know of any treason or treachery that you amend it privily if ye may or else warne the King or his counsell of it by declareing it to the Magistrates. And also you shall be true one to another that is to say every Mason of the Craft of Magonrie that be allowed Masons you shall doe to them as you would they should doe to you. And that you keep truely all the counsell of Lodge & chamber & all other counsell that ought to be kept by way of Masonrie & also that you use no theeverie but keep yourselves true."
Then followed the other items of the Charge which in modern English may be summarized thus:
Here end the "Charges in generall that belongeth every Mason to keep, both Masters & Fellows." They are followed by these "certaine of the Charges singularly for Masters and Fellows":
"These Charges," the manuscript concludes, "that we have now rehearsed to you and to all others here present which belongeth to Masons you shall well & truly keep to your power, so help you God & by the contents of that booke - Amen."
Thus it will be seen that from the Regius Manuscript to York Roll No. 1, the Old Charges perform a dual function. On the one hand they preserve the legends and traditions of a society with moral, mystical, ethical and esoteric doctrines; on the other they provide for the practical government of a particular class of mechanics. They differ from one another in details but they agree in essentials of spirit and purpose. Neither differences nor resemblances are hard to account for once the mind of the investigator is disabused of the notion that Operative Masonry was a single, closely knit fraternity in the sense that modern Speculative Freemasonry is.
The situation of Operative Masonry is more easily understood if it is compared to the various bar associations and ethical medical societies of modern times. The comparison is necessarily loose, for these modern associations are strictly professional and not also, as Operative Masonry obviously was, semi-mystical cults. But for practical purposes their methods of working may be regarded as somewhat similar. If a doctor or a lawyer has been duly licensed and admitted to his association in Missouri, no difficulty is made in receiving him by the corresponding association in any other state or country. The doctor is presumed to have subscribed to some form of the Hippocratic oath, to have undergone a satisfactory apprenticeship, to have demonstrated his fitness to be licensed as a physician. He may be called upon, if there is question of his probity or good standing, to produce his credentials. The customs of his own association may vary in numerous small particulars from those of a similar society, say, in New York. Fundamentally, however, the purposes and practices of the two societies are the same.
Studied together, the various writings of the Old Charges show precisely such variations as might be expected from the ordinary course of social life at each period. It is possible to determine of one that it was written at a certain time and in a given part of England; of another that it was written at another time and in a different county. They are peculiarly English; no such documents have been found in Ireland, and Scottish manuscripts are now believed to have been of English origin. With the single exceptions of the allusion in the Regius poem to the Four Crowned Martyrs, they have no definite points of contact with continental documents of the same period.
When they first appear, they are in the possess of an operative body which had developed out of the guild system of the Middle Ages. How were the Operative Mason guilds of England related to the other guilds of that system? Surely it is to that guild system itself that the historian must look for the only reliable answer.
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Last modified: March 22, 2014