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C.2.3 The Halliwell Poem and the Legend

This oldest Masonic document is very different in form and content from the others dealing with the same object; this indicates that its source is different too. It was first published in 1840 by Mr James Orchard Halliwell, a non-Mason, under the title “A Poem on the Constitutions of Masonry”. Mr Halliwell used the only known existing manuscript copy of the original that was kept in the King’s Library of the British Museum; before that it belonged to a well-known collector of the seventeenth century, Charles Theyer. Most experts believe that this manuscript originates from between 1425 and 1450, and Mr Halliwell says that it was copied in 1390. A few other people even believe that it is a transcript of the Book of Constitutions adopted by the General Assembly held in York in 926, but this seems very unlikely. The manuscript is in rhythmic verses, has 794 lines, and the language is very archaic even in relation to other manuscripts of this period. Therefore if we admit that the document deposited in the British Museum is from 1390, then the original must have been written around 1300.

Lines 1 to 86 of this MS relate to the history of Geometry (or Masonry) and to the story of Euclid as already found in the “Legend of the Craft”. Lines 87 to 470 contain the Regulations adopted at the Assembly organised by King Athelstan, but without any reference to York or to Prince Edwin. From line 471 to line 534, under the title “Ars quator coronatorum” or “The Art of the four Crowned Ones”, we have, first, an invocation to God and the Virgin, and then the German Stone Masons Middle Ages’ Legend of the Four Crowned Martyrs. After that we have a small and imperfect version of the Legend of the Craft as described in later manuscripts (lines 535 to 576) followed by instructions as how to behave in church, when in company of one’s superiors, and when present at the celebration of the mass.

Many experts now believe that the Halliwell’s Poem is a mixture of two documents written by two different persons, and badly assembled by the copyist or compiler. From the second, less important source, the copyist took the lines 471 to 496, lines 535 to 576, and perhaps lines 496 to 534 but we are not certain. If lines 496 to 534 are from the first manuscript then the copyist took the whole of the first document and inserted only a small part of the second (68 lines).

The Halliwell document is very different from the following ones:
– It was written in verses, while the others are in prose.
– The language of the Halliwell Poem is more ancient as it was written in an earlier stage of the English language.
– The Halliwell Poem is obviously a Roman Catholic work written when this religion prevailed in England, while the others are definitely Protestants and then written after 1550.

There are many reasons to believe that the Halliwell Poem comes from the Middle Ages Stonemasons of Germany:
– It is the only MS that introduces the “Four Crowned Martyrs” legend, whereas the following English manuscripts do not mention it.
– It omits reference to Lamech, it ascribes the building of Babel to Nebuchadnezzar, and it begins with the legend of Euclid and the establishment by him of Masonry in Egypt.
– There is no mention of King Solomon’s Temple.
– There is no mention of Charles Martel and to the introduction of Masonry in England from France during his reign.
– There is no mention of Masonry in England during the time of St Alban but it says that King Athelstan introduced it here.
– There is no mention of the calling of the Assembly at York by Prince Edwin.

If only for these reasons it is obvious the Halliwell Poem has a different source that all the later English manuscripts: the origin is German for the Halliwell manuscript, while the others have a French origin. There is, however, a certain resemblance, they diverge only in the details. This means that they are based on a common belief, but with two different structures built on it.