Museum of Freemasonry - Masonic Library

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Operative Masonry

One of the oldest Masonic documents is the Regius Manuscript written about 1390 AD. At this time all masons were operatives, that is, they were workers engaged in constructing important buildings in stone.

There were many kinds of masons such as hewers, layers, and setters, but evidence indicates that those who were called freemasons were builders of a superior type.

It was these freemasons who, under the control of a Master Mason, supervised and erected the great cathedrals and other marvelous structures in the Gothic style of architecture throughout Europe and Britain in the Middle Ages. The operative masons not only cut and dressed the stones in the quarries, but constructed the walls, set the pillars and arches, laid the floors, and carved the decorations. They were also responsible for the beautiful artwork, and the creation of the sculptures. The freemasons were the artists of their age, and were organizers of labour on a grand scale. Many of their great Gothic works survive to this day.

The hierarchy of the trades or crafts was very strict. In mediaeval times, masonry was one of the highest skilled trades available. Its training took many years to complete, and its skills were jealously guarded by its members. To join this exclusive band, a boy, sound in body, keen of mind, and of good reputation, was accepted at an age between ten and fifteen years and apprenticed to a skilled mason for a period of seven to ten years.

The mason taught the apprentice both the theory and practice of the craft. After the boy had served a probationary period, and shown evidence of his fitness, his name was entered into the books of the Lodge, after which he was generally called an Entered Apprentice. He thus received a thorough grounding in moral duties, in the practice of charity, and in his duties toward his master and his fellow employees.

At the end of his apprenticeship, the youth was required to submit to an exacting test of his proficiency, including his work skills and his responsibilities. His conduct was reported upon, and he was finally set to prove his skills by producing a special example, sometimes called a master's piece.

Having successfully passed these tests, he then stood as an equal in duties, rights and privileges with the other masons, and was called a Fellow of the Craft. To all intents, he had now mastered the theories, practices, strict rules of conduct, and the secrets and tools of his trade.

When a number of Freemasons worked together on one of the great buildings of the Middle Ages they organized themselves into a Lodge to enable them to properly control and organize the work to be accomplished. This lodge was governed by an expert mason, called the Master Mason. On larger structures, he would be assisted by others, called Wardens.

The lodge would have its equivalent of a secretary to keep the books, and a treasurer to keep and disburse the lodge funds. It also had a charity chest, containing monies contributed by the masons to dispense relief to members in sickness, accident or distress, and to assist widows and orphans of deceased members suffering difficult times. The lodge meets regularly, to record apprentices in its books and to admit fellows. Both of these acts were done in a ceremonial fashion, called initiation.

The Non-Operative or Accepted and Speculative Mason

The operative period of the Masonic fraternity flourished from the 11th to the 15th centuries. The 16th century saw the rise of the Reformation in Europe, and the Gothic style of architecture became less prevalent. Social conditions and laws altered considerably. These factors, coupled with the Great Plague, and the Great Fire of London, and the introduction of the use of bricks instead of stone, brought about a decline in operative masonry. This decline was so great, that by the late 17th century, freemasons became so few, that only a small number of lodges remained. During this period, referred to by Masonic historians as the Transition Period, a number of important citizens commenced to take an active interest in the ancient customs of the craft, and, although not operative masons, were admitted into lodges. Because of these circumstances, they were called accepted masons. At first, the number of accepted Masons was small. By the early part of the 18th century, however, they outnumbered the operatives, and exerted a great deal of influence on the expansion of Freemasonry, and on its principles of fellowship, and charitable pursuits. On St. John the Baptist's Day, 24th June 1717, four old Lodges in London and Westminster met, and organized a governing body, called a Grand Lodge. This Grand Lodge gradually took control of all the Lodges meeting in England.

The word speculative now became linked with the word accepted; speculative meaning masonry in a symbolic sense. The two original grades of masonry were organized into three degrees: the Entered Apprentice; the Fellow Craft; and the Master Mason.

In 1723, the Grand Lodge approved a Constitution, and was soon chartering Lodges, not only in England, but in the expanding colonies, and other overseas countries.

The origin of the Tracing Board

The earliest reference I have been able to find, is in the minutes of the Old King's Arms Lodge, No. 28, London. On Dec. 1st, 1735, the Lodge resolved...that the Foot Cloth made use of at the initiation of new members should be defaced.  The Lodge was ten years old in 1735, and the Foot Cloth must have been worn out. The Tracing Board, or "Floor Cloth" evolved from the early custom of drawing on the floor of the Lodge, a collection of symbols relevant to particular degrees. Originally, it was the Tyler's duty to draw the designs in Chalk and Charcoal, and the Candidates duty at the end of the ceremony to wash out the design with "mop and pail." Later the designs were drawn or painted on "Floor Cloths" for more permanent use, and the collected symbols became the basis for the speculative interpretation of the ceremonies, which were eventually standardized as the Lectures on the Tracing Boards. As to the significance of the Tracing Board's; in the course of time the "Lodge Board" became "the Lodge" and acquired a quality of sanctity. "The Lodge stands on Holy Ground" and none were allowed to stand or walk on it. Finally, when the Consecration ceremony came into use, the essential elements of consecration, Corn, Wine, Oil and Salt were poured on "the Lodge", i.e.  on the Tracing Board.

The Landmarks

In early times, prior to the development of modern surveying techniques, and the recording of the position, shape and size, of land areas, it was very difficult to establish the permanent boundaries of a farm, estate, or other piece of land. Almost the only known way was to fix upon some prominent feature, such as a hill, a stream, a rock, or even a tree, and draw a line from it to some other feature, and thus establish the limits beyond which a man's property could not, or should not, go. Later, more or less permanent stone markers, with identifying marks cut into them, were set up. Their self-explanatory name was landmarks.

Throughout history, we see evidence that the destruction or removal of landmarks, was considered a serious offense, as without them, there was no means of measuring the encroachment by one person on the property of another.

In the craft of Freemasonry there are certain principles, practices, traditions, usage's and laws, which are considered to be significant to the essential identity and nature of Freemasonry. These things, which are spoken of as the Ancient Landmarks of Freemasonry, cannot be changed by any Freemason, Lodge, or even a Grand Lodge.

It is not intended to make an exhaustive list of the things that constitute the Ancient Landmarks. However, the following are some examples of the things Freemasons see them to be, - the things which make Freemasonry different from other organizations.

Belief in God

An important feature of a Lodge Room, is a pedestal, upon which is an open Volume of the Sacred Law. As Freemasonry holds the concepts of the Brotherhood of Man, under the Fatherhood of GOD, belief in a Supreme Being is a fundamental requirement of Freemasonry. If this spiritual belief were removed, Freemasonry would degenerate, and cease to exist. A Belief in a Supreme Being, is therefore accepted as being a Landmark in Freemasonry.

Respect For The Civil Law

Freemasons are good citizens, and may not engage in riots or rebellion. Political discussion is not allowed in Masonic assemblies, in order to avoid controversy, and to preserve harmony.


There are certain confidences revealed in our ceremonies which are considered private to ourselves, and which we do not share with the outside world. These confidences relate only to certain parts of our ceremonial ritual, and the means of recognition between Masons. These confidences stem from the operative masons' desire, in times past, to protect their reputation for sound work and good conduct, thus ensuring that their work continued at the highest standard.

Sound Qualifications

Each Candidate for Freemasonry must be well recommended, of good character, and of mature age. These qualifications are required so that we may be assured that a Candidate will be capable of living a Masonic life, in all its aspects.

The principal tenets of Freemasonry are Friendship, Morality, and Brotherly Love.


Man is a social creature and, usually, cannot find happiness by himself, but seeks the companionship of other of like mind. To be accepted by a Lodge, is evidence that the Lodge believes that the friendship of Freemasonry will appeal to you, and that your friendly spirit will be acceptable to it. Sincerity, loyalty, tolerance, sympathy, interest, devotedness, and unselfishess, are some of the ingredients of true friendship.


Good morals are the accepted standards of behavior, by which any action is measured, and form the exercise of those accepted standards. There is no such thing as a Masonic morality which indicates a separate or exclusive code of conduct. Our standards are those contained in the Volume of the Sacred Law, and adherence to those principles is strongly developed amongst Freemasons.

Brotherly Love

This tenet can be described as impartial friendship, and shows mutual respect and understanding between men. Each respects the other as a friend, a companion, an associate, and a neighbour. To work with that person is one of life's pleasures. Freemasonry builds on brotherhood, and provides opportunities to share true fellowship. It encourages us to practice Brotherly Love, and to make it part of our existence.

These then, are the principal tenets or foundations of Freemasonry.

What is the meaning of the word "Cable-tow?"  What is meant by the reference to its length?

The Oxford English Dictionary contains a number of cable combinations, e.g., "cable-rope, cable-range, cable-stock," etc., but does not give "cable-tow."

The word tow has another significance, in addition to pulling or dragging, it also means the fiber of flax, or hemp, or jute.  A cable might be made of plaited wire, or of metal links, or of manmade fibers, but the combination "cable-tow" which seems to be of purely Masonic usage, implies almost certainly the natural fiber from which the rope is to be made.

The "cables length" is a unit of marine measurements, 1/10th of a sea mile, or 607.56 feet. We use the term "cables length" in two senses:

"A cables length from the shore," implying that anything buried at that distance out at sea, could never be recovered.

"If within the length of my cable-tow."  In operative times, attendance at Lodge or assembly was obligatory and there were penalties for non-attendance.  Early regulations on this point varied from 5 to 50 miles, except "in the peril of death." In effect, the length of the cable-tow implies that masons were obliged to attend, so long as it was humanly possible to do so.

Friend to Friend / Brother to Brother

The values, traditions, and principles that are so strong in Freemasonry and so vital in our lives today have existed "from time immemorial." We harken to Craft Masonry with its guilds of stonemasons in the Middle Ages as being a root from which the modern Masonic brotherhood evolved. The operative masons worked for perfection to become masters at their craft; to teach, guide, aid and assist their fellows; to show concern for families and widows ­ their own and those of their fellow workers -- and to make the communities better. Our ancestors, the framers of our nation, and so many brethren through the generations carried forth the traditions and principles for us to cherish and uphold.

Our concerns -- values and benefits, if you will -- are the same today; but they're the "old and the new" crafted for the 21st century.

It's easy to tell someone about the good that we strive so diligently to do for others: Like all the wonderful services, facilities and care at the Masonic Homes; how "Masons Care" for youth; that Masons contribute every day, toward charitable causes; that there are scholarships, home assistance, emergency aid and loans, and community outreach. We can readily grasp and relate the importance of the human services aspects and how they benefit us personally. As one brother so aptly said: "We all have insurance policies covering any imaginable event that may occur in our lives.... my membership provides assurance, not insurance, that I, along with my family, could receive benefits not emphasized frequently enough to prospective members and members who may be about to have their membership lapse."

But, we have to pause every now and then to remind ourselves of so many other very valuable benefits that are important to each of us personally. They are more difficult to express in words and obviously less likely to impress another person until he experiences them. I call them intangible benefits, some of which are: the fellowship, bonding, and networking unique among brethren; character-building and personal development; education and leadership training, and civic concern and community involvement. The personal benefits, satisfaction, and gratification inherent in the unique brotherhood of Freemasonry are immeasurable ­ almost indescribable.

So, if you have some of the same kinds of thoughts as I do when you brethren, being Masons, enjoying Masonry as a "Way of Life," and benefiting from what they give and what they gain in Freemasonry. You are living, sharing, and extolling "The Values of Brotherhood."

Can we communicate those values

Friend to Friend/Brother to Brother?

Why is the North-East the position of the Foundation-Stone and therefore of the Initiate?

The reason why the North-East Corner is traditionally stated to be the site of the first or foundation stone is that in Operative Masonry the first stone of a building is placed in the North-East.

As a matter of fact this particular stone is not always placed in that corner, and yet, symbolically, the location of that stone in the building is the North-East corner ... Why ... Building operations require good light to properly lay the stones the ancients did not have the advantage of electric light. They must make the best use of the sunlight while it lasted. The stones in the corner had to be laid with great exactness, and since, in the civilized world of that day the sun rose in the north-east, that corner would be the natural place to begin. It was the only place where in the early morning the sun would shine on both the outer walls of the stone and permit accurate placing by sunlight.

This of course is in the Northern Hemisphere.

It will be noted that in all the traditions and legends about this corner it represents the source of the dawn, the place of beginning where the sun's rays first strike, and therefore it symbolizes the Entered .Apprentice beginning his Masonic life.

Front the fact that Masonically the North is considered the place of darkness and the East the source of light, the North-East Corner appropriately symbolizes the Candidate emerging from darkness to light; He is turning the corner from the darkness of the North to the dawning light of the East ... He has received some light and is in search of more.

The North as the place of Darkness, Masonically, represents the profane World, while the East as the source of Light represents the Lodge. The Corner-Stone in the North-East Corner has one side towards the North and the other towards the East. The Candidate in that Corner, therefore, represents one that has just emerged from the Darkness of the North but has not wholly left it.



Light is an important word in the Masonic system. It conveys a far more mystical meaning than it is believed to possess by the generality of readers. It is fact the first of all the symbols presented to the apprentice, and continues to be presented to him in various modifications throughout all his future progress in his Masonic career. It does not simply mean, as some might be supposed, truth or wisdom, but it contains within itself a far more abstruse allusion to the very essence of Speculative masonry, and embraces within its extensive signification all other symbols or the order. Freemasons have been called "the sons of light," because they are, or at least entitled to be, in possession of the true meaning of the symbol; while the profane or uninitiated who have not received this knowledge are, by a parity of expression, said to be in darkness

The connection of material light with this emblematic and mental illumination, was prominently exhibited in all the ancient systems of religion and cryptic mysteries. If we proceed to an examination of the other systems of religion which were practised by the nations of antiquity, we shall find that light always constituted a principal object of adoration, as the primordial source of knowledge and goodness, and that darkness was with them synonymous with ignorance and evil. As light was thus adored as the source of goodness, darkness, which is the negation of light, was abhorred as the cause of evil, and hence arose that doctrine which prevailed among the ancients, that there were two antagonistic principals continually contending for the government of the world.

In fact in all the ancient systems, this reverence for light, as an emblematic representation of the Eternal Principal of Good, is predominant. In our mysteries, the candidate passed during his initiation through scenes of utter darkness, and at length terminated his trials by gaining that intellectual illumination that would dispel the darkness of his mental and moral ignorance, and he was said to have attained pure and perfect light, and where he received the necessary instructions which were to invest him with that divine truth which had been the object of all his labour.



Darkness has, in all the systems of initiation, been deemed a symbol of ignorance, and so opposed to light, which is the symbol of knowledge.

Hence the rule, that the eye should not see until the heart has conceived the true nature of those beauties which constitute the mysteries of the Order.

Because, according to the cosmogonies, darkness existed before light was created, darkness was originally worshipped as the first-born, as the progenitor of day and the state of existence before creation.

Freemasonry has restored darkness to its proper place as a state of preparation; the symbol of that antemundane chaos from whence light issued at the divine command; of the state of nonentity before birth, and of ignorance before the reception of knowledge. Hence in the Ancient Mysteries, the release of the aspirant from solitude and darkness was called the act of regeneration, and he was said to be born again. And in Masonry, the darkness which envelops the mind of the uninitiated being removed by the brilliance of Masonic light.



Extract from “Clavis Symbolica” : “The colour which is outwardly seen on the habit of the body, is symbolically used to denote the true state of the person or subject to which it is applied according to its nature.”  This definition may appropriately be applied to the system of Masonic colours. The colour of a vestment of a decoration is never arbitrarily adopted in Fremasonry. Every colour is selected with a view to its power in the symbolic alphabet, and it teaches the initiate some instructive moral lesson, or refers to some important historical fact in the system.

Frederick Portal, a French Archaeologist, has written a treatise on the symbolism of colours and I quote from page 35: White is the colour of absolute truth, of him who is, it alone reflects all the luminous rays; it is the unity whence all the primitive colours emanate.”

In all ages the colour of White has symbolised Purity. When Aaron entered the Holy of Holies, he was clothed in white linen; the ancient Egyptians decorated the head of there principal deity, Osiris, with a white tiara, and there priests wore robes of the whitest linen. In the school of Pythagoras the Sacred Hymns were chanted by disciples clothed in white. The Druids clothed there Initiates who had arrived at the ultimate degree, or that of perfection, in white vestments. White was, in general, the garment of the Gentile , as well as the Hebrew priests in the performance of their Sacred Rites. As the Divine Power was supposed to be represented on earth by the Priesthood, in all nations the sovereign pontiff was clad in white

In Speculative Masonry, White is the symbol of Purity and Innocence. This symbolism commences at the earliest point of preparation for Initiation, and when the Candidate is invested with the White Lambskin as a symbol of purity of life and rectitude of conduct.


This is emphatically the colour of masonry. It is the appropriate tincture of the Ancient Craft degrees. It is to a Mason a symbol of universal friendship and benevolence, as it is the colour of the vault of heaven, which embraces and covers the whole globe, we are thus reminded that in the breast of every brother these virtues should be as equally extensive. It is therefore the only colour except white, which should be used in a Masons Lodge. Decorations of any other colour would be highly inappropriate.


The foundations of a mason

Our newly initiated brother is placed in the N.E. Corner of the lodge and he is told that he stands to all external appearances a just and upright man and a mason  and upon the foundations laid this day may he raise a superstructure perfect in all its parts. All to often the building that we started on this occasion is never completed and in most cases hardly out of the ground. The reason being that he cannot complete the work by himself, and needs the assistance of more experienced workmen.

While he is standing in this corner of the Lodge two significant points are mentioned to him. First he is told if he had money or metallic substance on his person he would have to start the ceremony over from the start; and he is asked for charity.

The impression the candidate has at this moment is that being asked for money, but Masonic charity goes far beyond that. The universal charity of a mason is the charity of his heart and of his love. Within the compass of his mind, he measures and draws the Square of his conduct, and within that square, having honestly provided for his own household, he forms his little angles of benevolence and charity to the distressed of all communities. He visits the sick and the infirm, the fatherless and the widow, not out of idle curiosity, but from the impulse of a loving heart, by a kind word, and a helping hand, he keeps himself unspotted from the evil of the world. This is true Masonic charity, and the conduct of every true mason.

As Masonic charity is charity of the heart; he thinks no evil of his brother; he cherishes no designs against him. It is charity of the tongue also; he speaks no evil; bears no false witness; defames no character; blasts no reputation, he knows that to take away a good name is to commit an evil, the damage of which no wealth can repay. Also it is charity of the hand; he anticipates his Brother's wants, he finds the one in need, feeds the hungry, helps the sick, and perhaps also to the very mind he ought to instruct to build a temple prefect in all its parts. Thus the heart, the tongue, the hand and the mind of the really free and accepted Mason are warmly engaged and diligently exercised in all those grand principals of Masonic charity.

While we go to great pains to insure that the candidate is divested of all money and metallic substance, so as to impress upon his mind that in a Masonic lodge all men are considered equal, and no consideration is made on account of worldly possessions. Is this the only reason that all money and metallic substance are removed from his person. There is another symbolic reason for this preparation, for at the time of the building of the Temple there was a peculiar pollution attached to the contamination of metal tools. T.G.A.O.T.U., speaking of the construction of an Altar, commands that it be made of earth or rough stones; observing that if metal tools were used in the fabrication, it would be polluted. In like manner the Temple of Solomon was built without the noise of metallic tools; the stones being hewn in the quarry, there carved, marked, and numbered; the timber felled in the forest of Lebanon, there carved, and marked, and numbered also. They were then floated down to Joppa, and from thence conveyed upon wooden carriages to Mount Moriah, and there set up with wooden mauls made for that purpose; so that there was not heard the sounds of axe, hammer, or metal tool throughout the whole building, for fear that the Temple should be polluted.

The candidate is about to start building a Temple for his soul, and he has been prepared as the well wrought materials of the Temple, and brought into the lodge without the pollution of metallic substance, only now can he raise a superstructure perfect in all its parts.