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CENTURIES were required to bring the guild system of the Middle Ages to the prosperity it enjoyed when it was at the summit of its opulence, and centuries more were called upon to witness its decline and decay. As part of that system, Operative Masonry shared the common doom. It was indeed all but extinct when a more modern age found its machinery adaptable to new purposes and rescued it from the oblivion toward which it was drifting. Its salvation can be attributed in all reasonableness to its possession of cultural dynamics which in themselves were eternal. If it had relied alone upon its structure as a society for the promotion of a handicraft, it must have gone the way of other craft guilds. But it had more than this; it had an internal quality which was ethical, moral and spiritual, responsive to indestructible demands of human nature and so constituted as to be peculiarly fitted to meet them.
Although it is customary to regard the formation of the first Grand Lodge as marking a revolutionary process by which Speculative Freemasonry replaced Operative Masonry, this is true only in a limited sense. The new organization abruptly altered the course of English Freemasonry, but that alteration long had been foreshadowed in the course of history. An old institution was not uprooted to make place for a new one; rather the new one sprouted from the roots of the old, aided thereto by energetic assistance at the hands of intelligent gardeners. Speculative Freemasonry is therefore the result of an operation by which eighteenth century philosophy was grafted upon the hardy stock of immemorial Operative Masonry, to the great improvement and advantage of both.
Yet it would be contrary to reason and information to suppose the speculative element a novelty of the eighteenth century. Something of the kind appears to have existed from the earliest times. The old traditions offer proof of this, since they bear testimony to early efforts at developing a moral philosophy , which had nothing to do with the carving and placing of stones. And the fact that each subsequent version of the Old Charges is an improvement upon its predecessors is a clear intimation that this philosophy under-went steady development in its progress through the centuries. The great change of 1717-1723 did not take place until all things had been made ready for it.
It is said of a man that as soon as he begins to live, that soon he begins to die. Of Operative Masonry it may at least be said that when it was in its prime the germs of impending dissolution were already planted within it. At the moment when the Regius manuscript was penned, two causes wholly external to the Craft and beyond its control were beginning to work for its ultimate undoing. One was the decline of Gothic architecture; the other was the decline of the guild system. Gothic architecture supplied it with nourishment, the guild system with the means of social existence.
Some years before the date assigned to the Regius, Europe had been swept by an appalling visitation of the Black Death. The plague was no respecter of persons, but it fell heaviest upon the working classes. It not only took their lives, but it paralyzed industry, stopped the plough in the field, kept ships tied to their wharves, forced the mechanic to lay aside his working tools. When its first effects had passed, the survivors had natural reason to expect they might be able to profit by a general shortage of labor and a resultant increase in pay. Those in England were doomed to disappointment through enactment of the notorious Statute of Laborers, which made it unlawful for a worker to ask or receive more than the most miserly pittance which would serve to keep body and soul together. As amended in 1350, for instance, the law fixed the pay of a master mason in free stone at four pence for a day which began at dawn and lasted until nightfall. Such a scale was bound to drive many a man out of the trade, if he could find something else at which to earn a living, or, if he could not, to reduce him to a state of despair.
Many craft guilds offered violent protest and in this the masons appear to have joined. In so doing they replaying into the hands of enemies already alarmed by the growing power of the guilds and their airs of superiority and arrogance. A new wage scale was published in 1360 and along with it went a decree dissolving all associations of masons, carpenters, congregations, chapters and ordinances and absolving all persons from every oath they had taken binding them to such associations. To add to the burdens of the poor, an oppressive poll tax was levied in the year 1380. This was a signal for that popular uprising of workers and peasants known in history as Wat Tyler's Rebellion, a disturbance so grave that for a time it seriously threatened to overturn the government. What part craft guilds may have played in this affair cannot be stated with certainty, but the occasion served to provide a pretext for one of a series of statutes forbidding secret assemblies and unlawful associations. Each new enactment weighed more heavily upon the craftsmen until the trend of adverse legislation culminated in 1425 in a law which, among other things, decreed:
"Whereas by the yearly Congregations and Confederacies made by the Masons in their general Chapiters assembled the good course and effect of the Statute of Labourers be openly, violated and broken in subversion of the law, and to the great damage of all the Commons: our said Lord the King, willing in this case to provide Remedy, by the advice an consent aforesaid, and at the special Request of the said Commons, hath ordained and established that such Chapiters and Congregations shall not be hereafter holden; and if any such be made, that they cause such Chapiters and Congregations to be holden, if they be thereof convict, shall be judged for felons; and that all the other Masons that come to such Chapiters and Congregations be punished by Imprisonment of their Bodies, and make Fine and Ransom at the King's Will."
Thus it became a crime, punishable by death, to summon the Craft to an annual assembly and a misdemeanor, punishable by imprisonment, to attend one when so summoned. The obvious purpose was to prevent working men engaged in the mechanical trades from meeting in conventions at which grievances might be aired and steps might be taken to procure a betterment in wages. It apparently did not interfere with local and independent lodges in their ordinary concerns, but it effectively acted to hinder systematic co-operation of the various lodges through their duly accredited representatives; to hinder it, moreover, at a time when the need for federation was most imperative. It was a blow aimed at the whole guild system and the fact that masons were singled out is fair evidence that the civil authorities regarded the workers in the mason handicrafts as particularly likely, from the nature of their work, to be drawn together into a compact and powerful organization.
Meanwhile other hostile forces were at work. The period at which the Craft then had arrived was one of economic instability. For almost half a century Europe had been plunged into the desperate but desultory series of military adventures which is known as the Hundred Years' War. Nation after nation was drawn into the struggle and at one time or other almost every country had been bled white to provide fighting men for the armies, or had been plundered, harassed and ravaged by invading bands. When the countries were not fighting each other, they were fighting among themselves. The death of a king was usually the pretext for a dynastic struggle; often ambitious pretenders did not wait for a royal death before essaying to win a crown by the edge of the sword. England and Scotland did not escape the dreadful turmoil; when the re not recruiting soldiers for foreign fields they were impressing simple artisans and peasants into additional battalions to carry on the national passion for internecine strife.
The religious ardor which had once set men to building churches and abbeys had begun to find a new and less gentle outlet. The inevitable reaction which led to the Protestant Reformation was already in full swing. Bold individuals everywhere were questioning the credentials of a Church which pretended to temporal as well as to spiritual supremacy over the universe; which had erected upon the simple teachings of the Nazarene an ecclesiastical system that demanded surrender to its control of the national will as well of the individual conscience, and assumed with equal arrogance to grant or withhold Paradise, in the case of a particular sinner, and to grant or withhold a crown, in the case of a claimant to a throne. The Church responded to every challenge of its authority with the arguments of material force, with steel, fire and fagot with slaughter, persecution and confiscation. Albigenses in France, Lollards in England, questioners everywhere, were hunted to the death; it was regarded as a deed of merit to plunge a sword into the heart of a heretic, though he might be but a babbling old man, whose offense had been to doubt the infallible truth of some dogma.
Small wonder that the building of churches languished! By this time Gothic architecture had entered its final stages, in England reaching the phase sometimes known as the Perpendicular. The great time for building private homes of stone and brick had not yet come. Such ecclesiastical building as was still under way was in the hands of the principal religious guilds. Although these were constant employers of operative masons - who, in the earlier centuries, were stanch Catholics to a man - and worked with them in the greatest harmony, their own days of affluence were numbered. When the English orders lined up with the Papacy in its quarrels with Henry VIII, they signed their own death warrant, so far as England was concerned.
Henry, with one imperial gesture, closed abbeys and monasteries, confiscating their wealth and declaring their lands forfeit to the Crown. This served a double purpose, for it not only removed a dangerous enemy, but it also replenished a royal treasury sorely in need of funds. Later all fraternities, brotherhoods and religious guilds were placed under a ban of outlawry.
The Muse of History may have enjoyed many a sardonic smile in contemplating the fact that the Reformation gave to Freemasonry a blow which came near being the death of it. Coming as it did upon other ills of a period of decline, that great moral revolution deprived Operative Masonry of its last important source of material nutriment; although it lingered on, it was condemned to steady deterioration. Not only were its chief employers impoverished, but its chief art also fell into disrepute. It had thrived by building great and beautiful temples and lavishing upon them all the adornments the ingenuity of man could devise. But these temples stood in the minds of reforming zealots as representative of all they most feared and hated. Stained glass, marble carvings, statues, vaulted arches, choirs, altar decorations and the vestments of priests and acolytes were anathematized as so many survivals of Romish "Idolatry."
Artisans are peculiarly susceptible to changes popular tastes. The fashion of bobbed hair in recent months has meant loss of employment to numerous makers of hair nets in China; the discovery of substitute fuels has brought problems of the utmost gravity to the coal industry of the world. So it was with the operative masons. With a major field of labor close to them, they could expect to gain a livelihood on through the requirements of local communities an these were not extensive enough to support a considerable number of toilers. In consequence there was a rapid defection of active workers. To this the growing unpopularity of the guild system and the danger of associating with a society which was under the suspicion of the authorities no doubt contributed.
Yet there was still a remnant which did not bow unto Baal. In many a town and borough and hamlet of England and Scotland the brethren continued to keep their lodges going; continued to cherish their ancient customs and to ponder over their ancient manuscripts. There was something in Masonry which could not die, and therefore it did not die. To comprehend this phenomenon it is necessary to recall once more that it was more than a mere guild of craftsmen; it was also a cult with a mystical background and a moral program. Both background and program had been conceived in the spirit and preserved in the language of a mechanic art, but they were universal none the less. As the practical advantages of association waned, it was natural to expect the philosophical ones to increase, fostered as they were by the machinery which the lodge itself afforded for social intercourse. An important factor in this development was the practice of admitting non-operatives to membership, a practice which increased more and more in the later centuries.
That it began, in the prosperous times of the guilds, by the admission of clerics, mathematicians and others especially interested in the craft has already appeared. Its expansion in later days is disclosed by the few fugitive records and minutes that have been preserved. Of these the minutes of Scottish lodges are oldest and it is of importance to notice that the oldest Scottish minutes record the practice as a matter of course. Murray Lyon in his History of the Lodge of Edinburgh remarks that in 1598, William Schaw, who in all probability was a non-operative, was described as Master of the Work and Warden of the Masons. That lodge was then made up in the main of operatives, and the Scotch Constitutions prepared by Schaw were obviously intended for the government of operatives. Furthermore, it is indicated that Schaw's own predecessor was a nobleman; the wardenship over Masons in Aberdeen, Banff and Kincardine was held by another non- operative, the Laird of Udaught. From these accounts it appears that distinguished patrons not only were accepted as members of the Craft but also that they were chosen for administrative posts of the highest importance.
These outsiders were sometimes known as "Gentlemen Masons," sometimes as "Theoretical Masons," sometimes as "Geomatic Masons," and sometimes by other titles. In July of 1634 the Lodge of Edinburgh admitted as Fellowcrafts three gentlemen, Lord Alexander, Viscount Canada, his brother, Sir Anthony Alexander, and Sir Alexander Strachan. Subsequent records indicate that these afterwards assisted at the "making" of other Masons. In 1637 David Ramsay, a gentleman of the Privy Chamber, was admitted and in the following year admission was granted to Henry Alexander, son of the Earl of Stirling. In 1640 General Alexander Hamilton was accepted and in 1667 Sir Patrick Hume received the same honor. In 1670 the Right Honorable William Murray and two members of the Bar, Walter Pringle and Sir John Harper were admitted.
In England the same custom was followed by some of the lodges, if not by all. An obscure note in the records of the Mason's Company of London suggests that it may have been a practice of that body for a considerable length of time, although the matter is by no means certain. That organization was incorporated in the years 1410-1411 and received a coat of arms in 1472 or 1473, but records of the city show that as an unincorporated guild it was in existence as early as the year 1356, when rules were formed for its guidance. In 1530 its name was changed to "The Company of Freemasons." Associated with it was an organization known as "The Accepcon," or "The Acception," which, met in the same hall and seems to have been subordinate to the Company. Edward Conder in his Hole Crafte and Fellowship of Masons remarks that an account book of The Acception shows that in 1619 payments made by newly made Masons were paid into the funds of the Company, and that in case of deficits in banquet expenses of The Acception, the money to meet them was paid out of the Company's treasury.
If this is correct it indicates: (1) that The Acception collected money from newly made Masons; (2) that it gave banquets to newly made Masons; (3) that its financial affairs were strictly supervised by the Mason's Company. Now the Mason's Company was an operative organization, and surely there is nothing far- fetched in supposing - especially in view of the significant title of the subordinate body - that The Acception was made up of a group of non-operative, or honorary, members. Moreover, that hypothesis is strongly ported by the testimony of the first distinguished non- operative known to have been accepted by an operative English lodge.
This was none other than Elias Ashmole, one of the most eminent of the scientists, philosophers and antiquarians of his day. Ashmole was a man of prodigious energy and catholic interests. He appears to have dipped into most of the activities of the strenuous times which he lived. He was born in 1617 at Lichfield and was educated for the practice of law. When the Great Rebellion came along, he took up arms, with the of Captain. He was a student of botany, chemistry and what passed for physics in those times, with a string leaning toward occultism and especially the cults of alchemy and astrology. He was an inveterate collector of curious objects of antiquarian interest, and his collection is preserved at Oxford University, where is known as the Ashmolean Museum. He was a Fellow of the Royal Society, received the degree of Doctor of Medicine and was made a Windsor Herald. His diary was published in 1717 and from it certain important extracts relating to Freemasonry have been culled. The following entry appeared in the diary for 1646:
Oct. 16th - 4:30 p.m. - I was made a Free Mason a Warrington in Lancashire, with Coll: Henry Mainwaring of Kanincham in Cheshire. The names of those that were of the Lodge; Mr. Rich Penket Warden Jr., James Collier, Mr. Rich Sankey, Henry Littler, John Ellam, Rich; Ellam and Hugh Brewer."
In the diary for March, 1682, or thirty-six years later, appeared the following entry:
10th - About 5 p.m. I recd. a Sumons to appe. at a Lodge to be held the next day at Mason's Hall London.
11th - Accordingly I went, and about Noone were admitted into the Fellowship of Free Masons.
Sr. William Wilson Knight, Capt. Rich; Borthwick, M Will: Woodman, Mr. Win. Grey, Mr. Samuel Taylour, and Mr. William Wise.
I was the Senior Fellow among them (it being 35 years since I was admitted). There were present beside my se the Fellows after named.
Mr. Tho: Wise Mr of the Masons Company this present yeare. Mr Thomas Shorthose, Mr. Thomas Shadbolt Waindsford Esqr., Mr. Nich: Young, Mr. John Shorthose Mr. William Hamon, Mr. John Thompson, and Mr. Will Stanton.
Wee all dyned at the halfe moone Taverne in Cheapside at a Noble Dinner, prepaired at the Charge of the New accepted Masons."
In endeavoring to arrive at a conclusion as to whether the acceptance of non-operatives was a general practice the operative bodies, it is important by way of recapitulation to bear certain dates in mind. It is clear that at the time to which the oldest Scottish minutes can be traced) a non-operative was a Master of the Work and Warden of the lodge at Edinburgh and that his predecessor also had been a non-operative. It is clear also that non-operatives were made Masons in various Scottish lodges down to the beginning of the of the first Grand Lodge. It is furthermore clear at the London Company had a subordinate society known as The Acception in 1619; and that sixty-three years later, non-operatives were made Masons in the halI of that Company with its Master in attendance.
But the custom was not confined to London and Edinburgh. Ashmole was made a Mason in Lancashire. And there is additional testimony to the same effect, this time from a non-Mason who was not friendly to the institution. In his Natural History of a Staffordshire (1686) Dr. Robert Plot wrote:
To these add the Customs relating to the County, whereof they have one, of admitting Men into the Society of Freemasons, that in the moorelands of this County seems to be of greater request, than anywhere else, though I find the Custom spread more or less all over the Nation; for here I found persons of the most eminent quality, that did not disdain to be of this Fellowship. Nor indeed need they, were it of that Antiquity and honor, that is pretended in a large parchment volum they have amongst them, containing the History and Rules of the craft of masonry.
Into which Society when they are admitted, they call a meeting (or Lodge as they term it in some places), which must consist of at lest 5 or 6 of the Ancients of the Order, when the candidate present with gloves, and so likewise to their wives, and entertain with a collation according to the Custom of the place: This ended, they proceed to the admission of them, which chiefly consists in the communication of certain secret signes, whereby they are known to one another all over the Nation, by which means they have maintenance whither ever they travel: for if any man appear though altoger unknown that can show any of these signes to a Fellow of the Society, whom they otherwise call an accepted mason, he is obliged promptly to come to him, from what company or place soever he be in, nay, tho' from the top of a Steeple (what hazard or inconvenience soever he run) to know his pleasure and assist him; viz., if he want work he is bound to find him some; or if he cannot doe that, to give him mony or otherwise support him till work can be had; which is one of their Articles.
The society of which Dr. Plot was writing was undoubtedly an association of operative masons, but it was one to which "persons of the most eminent quality" did not disdain to belong. Ashmole was certainly eminent, as was also his friend and father-in-law, Sir William Dugdale, who was likewise an antiquarian, and Sir Christopher Wren, the architect. That Dugdale was a Mason is not established, but he undoubtedly had intimate knowledge of the institution and is known to have discussed its practices and origin. Whether Wren was accepted into the fraternity is a subject of much debate, Robert Freke Gould having strongly supported the negative. But John Aubrey, antiquarian and author, left a memorandum saying Sir Christopher was "adopted a brother" at a convention of Masons at St. Paul's Church on May 18, 1691. The Postboy, a London publication, in a contemporaneous account of his death described him as "that worthy Freemason." F. De P. Castells in an essay in the Transactions of the Author's Lodge records an excerpt from the minutes of the Lodge of Antiquity, dated June 3, 1723, which says: "The set of Mahogany Candlesticks presented to this Lodge by its worthy old Master, Sir Christopher Wren, ordered to be carefully deposited in a wooden case lin'd with cloth to be Immediately purchased for the purpose."
That at the two Bacons, Roger and Sir Francis, were Masons has long been a legend both believed and disputed, although there is no reliable evidence either way. A discussion of this question belongs properly to the obscure and troublesome problem of the Rosicrucians and kindred occult societies. Much more has been said about it than can be proved, and in the present work it can be noticed only in passing.
There can be little doubt that during the Middle Ages more than one society was devoted to the pursuit of studies which were forbidden by Church and State. Kabbalism, astrology, alchemy, and various mystical philosophies were ticklish things to deal with in an age which believed in witchcraft and sorcery and which, in a heated moment, was likely to lay hold upon a sorcerer and burn him to death. Now and then men engaged in these occult concerns united themselves for the purpose of carrying on correspondence and transmitting their discoveries. They were the scientists of their day, and to their labors may be traced the beginnings of modern chemistry, physics and astronomy. Of all the associations into which the Alchemistical Philosophers or Hermetic Philosophers, as they are variously called, formed themselves, the most considerable appears to have been the Rosicrucian. Whether that body was more than a shadow organization is far from certain, but, at any rate, it afforded a cover sufficient for the purpose and many learned men called themselves Rosicrucians in their books and other writings.
The supposition that a considerable number of them also became Freemasons is only supposition. There are survivals in the modem Masonic ritual which strongly suggest hermetic influence, and not a few students have believed that it is through this channel some of the Fraternity's oldest cult survivals ought to be traced. Albert Pike was inclined to suspect that Ashmole became interested in Freemasonry because he was particularly concerned with hermetic philosophy and believed that the secrets of the society would throw light upon his hobby. Others have hinted that Ashmole's acceptance in itself forged a connecting link between Freemasonry and Rosicrucianism.
It is entirely possible that more than one distinguished Englishman who dabbled in occultism dabbled also in Freemasonry. Indeed, it would be rather curious if, after making the acquaintance of the one, they had not investigated the other. Men in an age of mental tyranny searching for a medium through which they might be able to find liberty for philosophical thought and the safe interchange of ideas might well hope to find it behind the tyled door of a Masonic lodge. It is reasonably certain that many scholars who entered the Fraternity in the eighteenth century did so for the freedom they expected to find there. But the whole matter is so befogged in doubt, uncertainty, hypothesis and speculation that it scarcely belongs to the realm of Masonic history, strictly so called.
At all events, the structure of Operative Masonry had altered by imperceptible stages between the days of Richard II and those of James II. At the time of the Revolution of 1688, the camel which had got its nose through a flap of the tent in 1390 had managed to get almost its whole body inside. In other words, the non- operatives were rapidly driving the operatives into a small corner of what had once been their own domicile. But the tent itself was still. a good one, offering refuge to new purposes in need of just such shelter. The final stage of transition was to take place in the thirty odd years which intervened between the time when Dr. Plot wrote the spirited paragraphs recently quoted and the beginning of the Grand Lodge era in 1717.
By then the operative art itself had become little more than a memory. The old lodges were collections of individuals who met occasionally because they had been in the habit of meeting. Their rosters contained the names of many who had never earned blisters to their hands by wielding setting maul or chisel. Many had already closed their doors for the last time. The Old Manuscripts were still treasured, but they had become too worn and too precious to be handled except upon occasions of state. Such craftsmanship as was actually performed was but a shadow of that which had once given vitality to the brotherhood. Tools and implements of architecture were still employed, but more as symbols for the inculcation of moral lessons than as instruments of labor. Now and then, on some St. John's day, there might be a banquet and assembly of a given lodge, but as a going concern the institution was moribund. Thus the curtain of history falls, at the end of an act, upon a scene of deterioration and decay, only to rise again upon a new scene - this time of health and prosperity.
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