History of Freemasonry - Chapter XII

 Transition - Operative to Speculative


  
By:   H. L. Haywood



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
herefore 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 hall 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 candidats 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
altogether 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 so ever 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 money 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.

 

         

Museum Home Page     Phoenixmasonry Home Page

Copyrighted 1999 - 2013   Phoenixmasonry, Inc.      The Fine Print