Museum of Freemasonry - Masonic Library

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Since I first began to find in masonry more than the performance of rites and ceremonies, I have wanted to know how it originated. That is to say, I was curious why men took up speculative masonry; for there is no mystery about the old lodges of the operative masons, nor about their practice of admitting honorary members. There is secure evidence of such admissions taking place early in the seventeenth century in England, and in the minute book of the Lodge of Edinburgh the presence of James Boswell, Laird of Auchinleck, is recorded under the date 8 June 1600.

The brethren of that time belonged to the Livery Company of Masons of London and to the Gilds of Masons up and down the country, and had plied their craft during the Middle Ages in association with the Cathedral Chapters and the Monastic Orders in building and maintaining the great Gothic Churches. Alone of all trades they had preserved the cohesion of the ‘fabric lodge’; since by the nature of things they had to keep together as a band, their work could only be done ‘on the site’. At York the masons employed at the Minster in 1532 were:

To begin work immediately after sunrise until the ringing of the bell of the Virgin Mary; then to breakfast in the logium fabricoe; then one of the masters is to knockupon the door of the lodge and forthwith all are to return to work till 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 until the end of the third bell, and return to work so long as they can see by daylight.1

The economic changes and the new eagerness to free the individual from restriction had caused the gild system to decay and collapse, and masons lost employment as the new classical styles became popular, which called for less intricate work. Brick, too, was more extensively used.

THE SINGULARITY OF THE MASONS

There was, however, one feature of the masonic fraternity which made it unique. Unlike other associations of craftsmen, lodges were not permanent. When a building was completed, the workmen might pass to employment in another locality. The secrecy, fidelity and obedience they owed were not to a group in a particular place, but to the Craft as a whole. To ensure that strangers claiming the privileges of masons should not deceive, signs, tokens and words of recognition were communicated under vows of concealment that the mysteries of their art might be guarded and preserved.

A special character distinguishes bodies of men who rove the world in the

  1. 1. Quoted in Hastings' Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics.