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THE OPERATIVE MASONS
IF the date assigned by scholarship is correct, the oldest existing Masonic manuscript, the Regius poem, was penned in the year 1390. In that year King Richard II was on the throne of England; the battle of Agincourt had not yet been fought; the War of the Roses as yet in the future and the first voyage of Columbus to the New World was not to begin for more than another century. Almost three-quarters of a century were to pass before Martin Luther's birth. All over Europe men were still building cathedrals in the Gothic style, although that school of architecture had entered upon its final phases of decline. The guild system was in its heyday in England and on the continent. It had not yet become fashionable - in England at least - to burn heretics at the stake. Legal issues might still be decided in trial by combat.
The Regius manuscript contains a set of rules and regulations for the government of what was obviously a guild of craftsmen; in the light of modern research it is possible to ascertain that the society was organized upon much the same general plan as were the majority of operative guilds of that day. But the Regius poem is of far greater importance than that. It was a patent attempt to account to the English members of an English institution for an antiquity of that institution in which they already believed. Presumably it was to be read to men whose fathers and grandfathers and probably great grandfathers had belonged. It gave naive credence to a tradition that the society had been in continuous existence on English soil since the days of Athelstan - which was to say since before the Norman conquest. It is clear from the rhymed narrative itself that its author had no real sense of the passage of time. What he did know, however, was that the society was very old - or at least so old that the traditions and memories of persons then living did not run back to a time when it did not exist.
In some manner this particular manuscript was lost to sight, to remain lost for some 450 years. At any rate when the first Grand Lodge was formed, about 325 years after it was penned, and diligent search was made for all the writings having to do with Operative Masonry, this one for the time escaped attention. There were other and later ones, however, and these contained substantially the same material, thus indicating the persistence of the Regius tradition. At least six of these were in possession of the old "immemorial" Lodge at York - a lodge which held itself out to be the direct lineal descendant of the masonry of Athelstan's day. Not a few such lodges were scattered about England and Scotland at that time, unmistakable survivors of the guild system of the Middle Ages. One of the first tasks the new Grand Lodge set for itself was to gather, digest and publish in literary form all that could be learned of the operative guilds and particularly their legends, customs, laws and regulations. More than a century after that had been done, the Regius manuscript was rediscovered, to bear eloquent testimony to the fact that there had been no great alteration in the practices and beliefs of the operative masons between the reign of Richard II and the reign of George I, a period of more than three centuries.
Taking the year 1400 as a point of departure from which to measure English Masonic history both forward and backward, it is therefore clear: (1) that before that time, and probably for a considerable period before it, operative masonic guilds were in existence in England; that they had a substantial literary tradition and customs established by immemorial usage; (2) that they continued to exist for another 300 years with relatively little change in either customs or traditions; and (3) that surviving units or "lodges" of them participated in the eighteenth-century movement which centered on the formation of the first Grand Lodge, from which Speculative Freemasonry dates its present form of existence.
For purposes of discussion it may be assumed that even if there had been no operative societies coming down from a remoter antiquity, the guild system itself would have produced them. When artisans of all other classes and callings were uniting themselves into such groups, it would have been strange indeed if the stone masons had not done so also. If not a single record of their medieval existence could be found, it still would be safe to infer they did exist. As a matter of fact there are records of Masonic guilds both in England and on the continent. The term Freemason occurs in the fabric rolls of Exeter Cathedral in the year 1396. The guild at London in 1537 called its members Freemasons; at Norwich in 1375 masons appear to have been attached to the guild of carpenters; whether that was a purely local or a general arrangement at the time there is no way of knowing.
It is interesting to observe, however, that in the year 1350 two separate classes of masons were recognized. A statute of that period describes a mestre mason de franche pere - a master mason of free stone - as being different from other masons and entitled to higher pay. That distinction is maintained in a statute of 1360 except that in the later one the preferred workman is called a "chief mestre" of masons. The common mason appears to have been classified generally with "carpenters, tilers, thatchers, daubers and all other labourers." As late as 1604 an incorporation at Oxford included freemasons, carpenters, joiners and slaters. It is evident from the records of smaller towns that mason guilds were not numerous or particularly important, a fact which in itself is illuminating. It marks one great respect in which these bodies differed from all other craft organizations, for they were essentially local institutions, made up of workmen who remained in one town and usually in one quarter of the town, whereas the skilled masons who worked in the building of the Gothic cathedrals had from the nature of their calling to be more or less itinerant, moving about from place to place as work was to be found.
In an enumeration of the guilds entitled to representation in the Common Council of London in 1370, a Company of Freemasons was listed and a Company of Masons, standing respectively as No. 17 and No. 34 on a roll of forty-eight. The Company of Masons appears to have been of greater numerical strength than the Company of Freemasons, since it had four representatives as against two for the other. Whether, as Mackey's History of Freemasonry suggests, this indicates that the Freemasons formed a smaller and more select society, is pure speculation, since no proof one way or the other has been found, but as a guess it is decidedly plausible. In any event, the list establishes the existence of two separate guilds. Ultimately they were merged, taking a coat of arms which displayed three white castles with black doors and windows on a black field, together with a silver or scalloped chevron and on it a pair of black compasses.
It is therefore possible to be reasonably sure of the following facts pertaining to the general situation of Operative Masonry at the time the Regius manuscript was presumably written, that is, in the year 1390:
But when the Regius poem was drafted, the active period of Gothic architecture was already drawing to a close. That period for centuries had given to the stone masons of Northern and Western Europe their principal occupation. Its work required a high degree of skill, which for the most part could not be acquired except by actual practice in the labor of building just such edifices as the great churches themselves. The stonework of successive cathedrals discloses that as fast as problems of construction were solved, the solutions were passed along to succeeding builders. From quarry to the finished task every stone had its separate purpose, and preparation of every stone involved conscious and more or less skilled direction at the hands of every workman through whose hands it must pass.
When the curtain first rises on the stage of organize Operative Masonry, it discloses a society proudly an profoundly self- conscious. It is a society of aristocrat among workmen, boasting of an ancestry of incredible age and distinction. It has noble traditions, and it has dignity of a high order to maintain. Moreover, it has secrets which at all costs must be preserved, and a esoteric philosophy which is rooted in the lore of the past. True, it is a guild and in many respects like all the other guilds which then flourished as such societies had not flourished before and as they have not flourished since. But it is more than a guild; it is also a cult, for it practices mystical rites which are now known to have been survivals of magic rites and religious observances, coming down from a past which was indefinitely remote.
The Old Charges bear abundant witness to all these things. Most of them prescribe the ritualistic manner in which oaths of secrecy must be administered. One reveals that the candidate was compelled to swear, "in the presence of Almighty God and my Fellows and Brethren here present" that he would not by any act or under any circumstance, "publish, discover, reveal or make known any of the secrets, privileges or counseIs of the fraternity or fellowship of Free Masonry." (Harleian MSS.) Those secrets were indeed well kept; so well, in fact, that the modern Freemason is much in doubt as to what many of them were and can only suppose that they had to do with the mechanical science of the operative calling. As Operative Masonry fell into disuse, some of them undoubtedly became imbedded in the symbolism and allegory of rite and ritual, where they remain to this day. Of their origin, practical use, and indeed of their scope, the present day knows almost nothing. It is by no means unlikely that as cathedral building masons merged with the guild masons of the towns, they saw no reason to impart to their less skilled companions more of their own secret art than was necessary to give it symbolical or emblematical preservation; and as "accepted," or non-operative, masons came in time to outnumber them both, the value of purely mechanical secrets naturally tended diminish and ultimately to disappear.
The modern student must bear in mind also that from their very nature it was unlawful for these things to be written, carved or engraved upon any movable or immovable thing, in such fashion that they might become legible or intelligible to a "cowan," or outsider. The Old Charges must therefore be studied for what they may suggest "between the lines" as well as for what they openly say. In actual practice Masons appear always to have been singularly tenacious of their secret ritualistic "work." Although no particular care appears to have been taken to keep the Old Manuscripts from public inspection, secretaries of many immemorial lodges burned their records rather than have them fall into the hands of historians appointed by the first Grand Lodge. Even today conservative brethren, fearing improper disclosures will be made, look askance upon public discussions of esoteric matters, and although various Monitors have been published officially for guidance in the ritualistic labors of the Craft, by far the greater part of modern ritual may not be lawfully written even in cipher; Masons who compose ciphers for that purpose or make use of them are subject to the severest penalties. The only legal method of passing these secret things from man to man and from generation to generation is that of mouth-to-ear communication. It is truly astonishing how accurate and uniform these oral transmissions have been, and this accuracy is in itself the best justification of a jealous zeal which forbids oral alteration or other innovation upon the fundamentals of Craft Masonry.
In the operative days it is clear that mason guilds arose in towns where there was enough work to support resident craftsmen. Medieval cities for the most part, however, were built not of stone but of wood. In such places carpenters were far more in demand, and it is not surprising to find that carpenter guilds were more numerous and more important in local affairs than were those of the workers in stone. Indeed, the stone worker was likely to be only an auxiliary to the carpenter, performing incidental tasks in laying foundations for houses, shoring up banks, lining the walls of excavations, and here and there constructing a small bridge or culvert. Sometimes there were not enough of them in a town to conduct their own mystery plays in connection with great pageants. At Exeter the masons shared a play with the goldsmiths; at York with the hatmakers.
But when great churches, monasteries, castles or manor houses were toward, it was a different story. Here the stone worker came into his own; the carpenter, tiler, slater, glazier, sank into subordinate positions. Resident mason guilds were neither numerous enough nor possessed the necessary skill to conduct enterprises of such magnitude. From afar off, perhaps from foreign countries, would come the master builder to take the work in hand. In many instances he brought with him a few especially skilled assistants who possessed his confidence and who knew how to do important parts of the work as he liked to have them done. The bishop, abbot or lord might have in mind a few especially skilled craftsmen of his own and these of course would be employed. Masons hearing of the undertaking would begin to drift in from all directions. They came afoot, making their way from town to town, visiting local lodges by the way, sure of refreshment and hospitality and even of financial assistance if they required it.
The gathering of so many strangers in one place would naturally bring to local authorities unwonted burdens of housing and policing. In those days, when serfs were tied to their soil and a considerable proportion of the population of every country was made up of bondsmen, the masterless man was everywhere suspect. He might be locked up or even be put to death if he couldn't give a satisfactory account of himself. An apprentice not yet free of his indentures was in most respects a bondsman; only master workmen and fellows, free of their guild, might travel about in safety, and it was essential that these have with them the means of proving their identity. It could be assumed, even if there were no traditions to support the theory, that these traveling craftsmen possessed methods of making themselves known to local craftsmen who would vouch for them to the civil authorities. As few could either read or write, and as written certificates, even if they existed, might be lost or stolen, they would need to know a method of proving themselves free craftsmen which would be independent of articles to be concealed in the clothing or carried about the person. The method would have to be more or less secret to prevent its use by impostors.
Common laborers and other classes of workmen would be recruited from the neighborhood and would be under the direction of their own masters. The masons, on the other hand, would have to be subject to other arrangements. But this was an old experience to them; they knew precisely what ought to be done in such an emergency.
Their first care was to set up a "lodge." Nearly every craft guild had its building or other place of work, where the men sometimes slept or gathered for social intercourse as well as for labor, but the masons appear to have been alone in applying the term "lodge" to the organization or assemblage itself as well as to the place of assembly. In town guilds, as at Aberdeen, where resident brethren were sufficiently numerous, lodges were housed in permanent structures. On the site of construction, however, it was usually sheltered in a temporary shed or lean-to. Here it was a custom for the craftsmen to take counsel on all matters pertaining to their general welfare. Here also, apprentices were placed under strict obligation to preserve the secrets of the logge; to hele, or conceal, the counsel of their brethren.
Whether initiatory ceremonies were performed in those rooms is not altogether clear. Survivals in the ritual make it most certain that at some time lodge meetings were held in the open air, the roof being nothing lower than the clouded or star-decked canopy of the heavens. If this was the case, such congregations must have been in secure places away from the general body of the work, perhaps on the tops of hills or in deep valleys where sentinels might observe the approach of "cowans" - that is, non-organized workers or "scabs" as they are now termed in labor parlance - and eavesdroppers. Some arrangement of the kind would at least seem reasonable, since the working hut was usually situated at the heart of a busy camp surrounded by those of other crafts. Some of the ceremonials which have come down to modern times manifestly had their origin in magical practices - practices maintained because they were supposed to bring "good luck," long after their primitive function of appeasing the divinities of nature had been forgotten. Such exercises would serve to impress the novice with the solemnity and inviolability of his undertakings in addition to providing him with means of identifying himself should he afterwards become a sojourner among stranger masons. They naturally would be screened with the greatest care from the eyes of the profane.
The principal function of a lodge at the scene of labor was to bring the masons under a central government, responsible to the general overseer or superintendent of the work, who might be the master builder, his agents, the ecclesiastical authorities, the civil authorities or a committee of laymen. The lodge chose its own presiding officer, sometimes known as a master, sometimes as a warden, sometimes, and especially in Scotland, as a deacon. A box master, or treasurer, was chosen to take care of the common fund. There were bookkeepers or rolls keepers, whose duty it was to keep track of the workers and the pay due them or received by them. In general the officers were as few as might be. Local conditions sometimes dictated increasing or diminishing the number. There are no records showing the employment of tylers at that early day, although it is apparent that some method must have been employed to keep the lodge free from intrusion when it was engaged upon its private business. Some of these officers disappeared entirely in later days, hen the need for them no longer existed; other officers were created as circumstance might decree.
The Old Charges furnish indications of the kind of rules and regulations to which the members were subject. From another source, the Fabric Rolls of York Cathedral, comes a sidelight upon the working conditions of that period. It is a decree establishing "Orders for the Masons and workmen," and reads as follows:
"The first and second Masons, who are called masters of the same, and the carpenters, shall take oath that they cause the ancient customs underwritten to be faithfully observed. In summer they are to begin to work immediately after sunrise until the ringing of the bell of the Virgin Mary; then to breakfast in the fabric room (logium fabricae), then one of the masters shall knock upon the door of the lodge, and forthwith all are to return to work until noon. Between April and August, after dinner, they shall sleep in the lodge, then work until the first bell for vespers; then sit to drink till the end of the third bell, and return to work so long as they can see by daylight. In winter they are to begin work at daybreak, and to continue as before till noon, dine and return to work till daylight is over. On Vigils and on Saturdays they are to work until noon."
Masons of the lodge kept themselves strictly apart from unskilled workers in stone, who were known as rough setters, wallers, plasterers, layers, cowans and masons without the word." Apparently there was free intercourse among members of the cathedral builders' lodges and those of the local mason guilds, but no master might lay out plans or display trade sets in the presence of workers of the cowan class. As certain amount of intercourse between the craftsmen and the directors of the work was essential, it was a custom to give the "freedom of the lodge" to the more notable of these, as a bishop, an architect or a man skilled in the mechanical sciences. In Scotland persons so distinguished came to be known as Geomatic Masons and Gentlemen Masons. This appears to have been one of the earliest plans for "accepting" non- operatives. There can be little doubt that these honorary members, coming thus in contact with the esoteric practices of the society, were vastly interested by them, and it may be that some of these learned brethren were able to explain to the less erudite mechanics certain meanings of their quaint ceremonials which had long since been forgotten.
Occasions for this must have been numerous. These working masons were constantly surrounded by symbols and other reminders of the past. The cathedrals which they built, from "turret to foundation stone," were full of symbolism. The arches, the windows, the gargoyles, were luminous with it. Strange and secret markings were chiseled into the stones; a master mason himself might employ a mark which had been used by his father before him, the original significance of which he had perhaps lost. Stained glass, mural decorations, altar cloths, priestly vestments, were employed to teach to an illiterate populace the most treasured doctrines of Church and Bible. The ceremonial of the Mass was symbolical in every detail, with every gesture and intonation carefully prescribed so as to bear its proper place in this great drama of the Passion of the Blessed Saviour. To wits skilled in the reading of such things there was scarcely an object upon which the eye could rest which did not have its own esoteric significance. Even to-day the Gothic cathedral is an open book to those who know how to read it rightly.
Operative lodges did not employ the system of degrees in use in modern Freemasonry. They recognized three classes of workmen, apprentices, journeymen or Fellows, and Masters, but the distinction between the Fellow and the Master was not that which now differentiates the Fellowcraft from the Master Mason. Apprentices were precisely what the name implies. They were learners, bound over for a term of years to serve their masters, in return for which service they were to receive food, lodging and clothing and to receive instruction which would enable them afterwards to earn their own livelihood at the trade. They began as mere boys of from twelve to fourteen years of age and usually they served for seven years. Their relation to the lodge appears to have varied in different localities; perhaps also as the lodge to which they were attached was one of cathedral builders or merely a town guild and therefore stationary. In at least one instance it is known that apprentices were present at the making of a master, but whether that means they witnessed the induction of a master into his new rights or participated in some investment with the secrets of the lodge is in doubt, the probabilities strongly favoring the former suggestion.
What ceremonies of initiation apprentices were required to undergo, beyond taking oath in due form in the presence of the brethren, the present age has no way of knowing; nor is it known whether initiatory rites were commonly observed. Immediately after his Admission the newly made Fellow could begin work as a journeyman, since in England he was not expected to undertake a travel tour. On the contrary, this practice was forbidden by laws passed in the fourteenth century. Wages as a rule were also fixed by law, the wage scale sometimes requiring an employer to provide his men with lodging and board and with aprons, gloves and tunics.
The lodges were self-constituting bodies. In spite of efforts which have been made to show that Operative Masonry was one big fraternity, as modern Freemasonry is, the evidence weighs overwhelmingly against that theory. All that seems to have been necessary for forming a lodge was the presence of a number of Masters and Fellows. These no doubt had satisfactory means of proving one another. In later years lodges which had existed from time immemorial came to feel they had exclusive jurisdiction over their respective communities, and at least one of them, acting upon that theory, proclaimed itself a Grand Lodge with the power to issue warrants for constituting subordinate bodies.
The Old Charges make it plain that, from time to time, general assemblies may have been held, but there is nothing in this connection to support a belief that these were central governing bodies in the sense that a Grand Lodge is. They appear to have been district conventions called by officers of the Craft and sometimes by sheriffs. There is doubt that even these were exclusively Masonic and not rather general meetings of all the crafts, masons among the rest. At most they were - if exception be made of the legendary assembly at York, spoken of in the Regius poem - county, provincial or municipal affairs, called to take counsel on matters pertaining to the welfare or government of the craftsmen. There are allusions in the Old Manuscripts to such gatherings at York and to one or two held elsewhere, but nowhere, with the exception noticed, is there record of one for the masons of the entire country.
Each Master was under moral obligation to attend these assemblies when they were held within a reasonable distance of his place of abode. Some of the ancient documents fix the distance at fifty miles, and those of most recent date put it at five miles. On this matter the Regius poem says:
That assemblies were sometimes summoned for disciplinary purposes is indicated in the Cooke Manuscript, which sets forth that while lesser excuses might serve for other Masters unable to attend, "those who have been disobedient at such congregations, or been false to their employers, or had acted so as to deserve reproof by the Craft, should be excused only by extreme sickness, of which notice was to be given to the Master is principal of the assembly." What power the assembly may have had to enforce its decrees and to administer punishment is not revealed. Since these were district affairs, however, it is reasonable to suppose that the Masters who did attend were neighbors of those who did not and that by combining against an intransigent brother or lodge they could exercise something more than moral suasion. Moreover, as the, lodges were also guilds, with certain responsibilities to the civil authorities, it is safe to assume that the decrees of an assembly might expect support from the secular arm. It was probably to the interest of the Masters to rule themselves through their own congregations, as it is certain that the congregations themselves might, on some matter of public policy, speak to greater effect than could the separate lodges.
Dependable accounts of the operative days are unfortunately too scant to enable the historian to do more than glance at certain general principles. A good deal of guesswork must necessarily enter into every attempt to trace Masonry through this tortuous period, uncertain in its beginning and extended over almost half of the entire Christian era. There seems reason to believe, however, that itinerant, cathedral building guilds of masons came into frequent contact with stationary local guilds and that these ultimately became amalgamated. The itinerant guilds appear to have been ma up of men of superior knowledge and wider experience moreover they had innumerable points of contact with the world outside of the British Isles. It is therefore to them that the present age attributes most of the legends, symbolism and cult practices which so evidently have descended from remote antiquity. Even so, this is only a guess - perhaps an intelligent one, certainly plausible, and at least more credible than the wild and fanciful romances in which gullible and not over critical writers have sometimes put their trust.
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Last modified: March 22, 2014