The allegories that veil Freemasonry and the symbols that illustrate it come from architecture and building. Freemasonry has two histories. The traditional and legendary goes back to the beginning of architecture. The other, more authentic, is a few hundred years old and is derived, in part, from the ancient Craft guilds and fraternities of the Gothic period, at least in England.
The prehistoric men were living in hovels built of stones, boughs and mud. When they took some rational shape and proportion, architecture was born, and civilisation started its journey. Architecture soon stopped to copy nature and grew during 6,000 years to become art and Masonry; erecting buildings made of stones is part of it. Remains of old constructions are there to show us that man started to build them since prehistory.
Babylonia and Assyria were among the first Eastern states where builders became active but their early works were of poor quality and have disappeared, the bricks going back to clay. Soon they used better materials, and remains of them have been discovered showing the beauty and quality especially of their temples. Buildings in Egypt are among the first in the world for which we have written records. Egyptians had unlimited good material and competent labour. Their tombs known to day as pyramids are still there to prove it. The Semitic countries, among them Palestine, learned their architectural skill from the Egyptians. Unfortunately Solomon had to build his temple of cedar wood so that no remains are available to day. The Greeks have always been a nation of merchants and seamen, and they must have learned architecture from the Egyptians and Assyrians as well as from other eastern countries. They even improved on what they learned, and their buildings were not only functional, but also beautiful. Their first temples were made of wood and have disappeared completely. They knew the purpose of the arches but they used them for minor work. Their Doric (from Egyptian origin), Ionic (from Assyria) and Corinthian columns are well known. Rome’s contribution to architecture is linked to the use of the arch and to the modified Greek columns. Romans had no proper architecture when they conquered Greece in 146 BC, but they soon learned the trade before becoming known for their great architects and builders. The use of the arch allowed them to put the columns farther apart, and to build multi-storey buildings. Their palaces, baths, amphitheatres, and arches are admired worldwide.
The Roman Emperor Constantine the Great legalised Christianity in 313 AD and founded Constantinople in 330. It took two more centuries to see the appearance of an architectural style typical of the Roman-occupied Eastern lands. In 532 the Emperor Justinian started to build churches, such as St Sophia in Constantinople, in a style known as Byzantine. This style soon spread East and West.
Little is known of architecture in Britain before the Romans. They built beautiful villas and public buildings, but little beside mosaic floors, baths, and wall fragments are left to admire to day. The Roman basilica are the original Christian churches, but they were destroyed by the Saxons who build their own churches, mainly in wood, after they became Christians. They also built some stone churches during the seventh century AD. They often copied Solomon’s temple. English buildings of the seventh century were often made of wood and thatch, and it was not until the year 1,000 that a sturdy form of Romanesque-type of constructions appeared with thick walls and columns and semi-circular arches. Foreign masons and carvers came to England in the ninth century. An Anglo-Saxon style developed before the Conquest (pre-Conquest-Romanesque) and lasted even after. After the year 1,000 many churches, monasteries, and abbeys were build in Italy, France and England, most of them by Norman masons. In England, following the coming of William the Conqueror, the Norman style became very popular, and even many Saxon churches were rebuilt on the new design.
The Gothic style emerged in England during the second half of the twelfth century AD. English Gothic is the local adaptation of the great architectural movement that swept over Europe at that time and characterised by pointed arches. The Norman Conquest, as well as the crusades, influenced greatly the development of English Gothic style with its clustered pillars, window mullions, pointed arches, and well-proportioned Gothic columns. The pointed Gothic arches reduced the side-thrust on pillars and walls that could be built thinner and less expensive. Vaulting is one of the greatest technical improvements invented by the Gothic masons. During this period cathedrals, castles, and churches were built in greater number than before.
It is in this period that Freemasonry had its true foundation. Following the crisis brought in by the Black Death, the Gothic style started its slow death in the middle of the sixteenth century. The similarity in style of the Gothic architecture in all the Western European countries led to the assumption that the masons of that period were guided by a secret principle handed from one generation to the other. This led to the legend of the organised travelling masons, going from country to country under Papal authority to build churches based on their original design and their own secrets of construction, that they had learned in a unique monastery school in Normandy. The Reformation, in the sixteenth century, led to the final death of the Gothic style. It was followed by the Elizabethan style of mixed Gothic and Italian and, later on, by the Renaissance.
Following the Norman Conquest the land became the property of the kings, nobles, and the church, and all wanted to build. Skilled masons from Normandy and elsewhere came to England to work and teach their art to the Saxons. Initially the Craftsmen were serfs tied to their employers and their home locality but, little by little, over the next two centuries, they obtained some freedom with the corresponding civic obligations and privileges. Many serfs of the countryside found some degrees of freedom with the agreement of the estate-owners in towns, and they entered into the guild life as it existed then. Giving nominal freedom to the serfs did not amount to much more that a legal distinction. England was becoming richer and the population increased from two to four million people until the Black Death decimated the population again. By the 1600’s when speculative Masonry emerged, the population was estimated to be between five and six millions.
Operative Masonry became significant in the beginning of the eleventh century, and increased again after the Norman Conquest when building construction was intense. Masons worked in quarry where they got their stones from, and where they shaped them too. The hewers used axes of shapes adapted to the local conditions and maintained by blacksmiths. Craftsmen, using finer tools like chisels, were able to produce more elaborated carvings. Other masons were doing the laying or setting on the building sites but, initially, they were considered of a lower social level than the cutters and shapers. This priority changed with time but it is still visible in the old Constitutions and in the present day speculative Freemasons’ rituals in which the trowels, the tool of the layers, has still a subsidiary place.
Apprenticeship must have always existed, but the earliest historical evidence dates from 1356 in the London Masons’ regulations. This rules was confirmed by an ordinance of King Henry VI dated 1430. In the 1530’s the apprenticeship lasted seven years in the whole of England, but the rule was not always followed. After his apprenticeship, and his acceptance as a qualified Craftsman, the mason became a fellow or a Master, but he did not always obtain the enjoyment and freedom of his fraternity as the employers tried to limit the number of masons qualified to act on their own. Masters took apprentices without registering them and, in order to keep the labour cost as low as possible, they also refused to present them for the freedom after their long learning period.
A lodge (from the French word “loge”) for the working masons was always available at the quarry and at the building site. It was used to prepare the stones, to store the tools, to eat, and to allow the workers to rest. In most cases the lodge was a rough building with a boarded or thatched roof. If the work was to last many years the lodge was built in a much better way in order to last. In Scotland lodges appeared later than in England, possibly not before 1483.
Many masons died from the Black Death but, afterwards, their customs became more rigid and the division into grades or classes, the Freemason being at the top level, became more apparent. To keep the cost of construction low the Parliament adopted various “Statutes of Labourers” and fixed the wages, obviously at a low level.
In early days the Master Mason designed the buildings, organised the supply of all materials, and directed the construction work. Very few important buildings for private use existed before the Norman Conquest. Private houses were built by carpenters and plasterers rather that by Master Masons, as their frames were made of timber filled with local material. Chimney of stone and bricks came much later. The work of medieval Freemasons is associated only with the construction of churches, castles, palaces, and bridges. The small builders of domestic houses bought local materials that they resold to the house owners. The Master Mason, on the opposite, was not a buyer or seller: he was architect, surveyor, builder, and his employer’s agent in ordering supplies of all kind. He was not a principal but his employer’s servant, even if he was a well-respected professional. He was known by different names: overseer, keeper of the work, director, clerk of the work, devisor, supervisor, surveyor, magister, etc. He was the most important man in the building trade for two or three centuries. Later on his job disappeared with the introduction of the contract system. In the early medieval period only kings, the rich churches, and the great landowners could finance the construction of a big building. Master Masons had the equivalent status of a well-known professional man to day, and was treated with respect.
Great Masons served their medieval king as architect, overseer of the construction, manager in charge of all supply and payments, labour supervisor, etc. Some may have been known as King’s Master Mason even before the Conquest, although the title became used only afterwards. The King’s Master Mason had the rank and standing of a first-class architect of to day. However he was above all a builder, and the actual design of the building was often a collective task entrusted to men of culture, educated and travelled monk, and the Master Mason himself who, in addition, gave form and structure to the project.
Many people to day believe that the buildings of the Middle Ages were not erected following plans and designs prepared in advance. It is true that the Master Mason of that time had the authority to change the design at his own discretion during the construction, however, when he was also the architect, it is a fact that drawings were prepared in advance as many records show. This power of the Master Mason decreased with the use of the contract system, known as “task work” in the thirteenth century. The Master Mason was no longer the employer’s agent, but a builder working for a price, or remunerated on a basis of measured-up completed work. This system owns its popularity to the scarcity of labour following the Black Death, and was used also for the smaller building work. This system adapted itself easily to changing conditions. Whereas before there had been few great employers, later on there were many smaller ones, mainly members of a trade and, by the sixteenth century, all construction works, big or small, were done by contracts. Under the old system the Master Mason did not take any financial risk, as he was only a wage earner. With the new task or contract system the Master Mason, or the King Master Mason, was his own employer and was liable to make a profit or a loss.
It has been claimed that the monks were the architects of the Middle Ages, and that the artisans and overseers worked for them. According to this theory only the monks had the necessary knowledge in technology, architecture, and geometry as well as the culture to be able to design and construct such beautiful buildings. Some writers even go so far as saying that these monks and their bishops were Freemasons, members of some esoteric Masonic bodies. It is true that initially, medieval architecture was linked to the monks, at least in England and in France before the year 1000. After the Conquest the Church, the main and richest power in Western world, wanted to build as many churches as possible and, if only for this reason, its members had to learn something about their construction. Their instruction would allow some of them to Master the techniques involved, and these monks were encouraged by their bishops to cultivate their knowledge. These privileged monks travelled extensively and they were compelled to manage the construction of the churches that they wanted to build in many places. It is well known that in early medieval days priests and monks also worked with their own hands in the building of churches together with laymen. In some cases Master Masons of the Middle Ages built great buildings, but ecclesiastics or other men of importance took the credit although they did not have the practical knowledge necessary to direct such big projects. In these cases those credited with “building”, let us say a church, only ordered it and pay for it on behalf of the Church. It is also true that for some time many monks were not ecclesiastics but laymen working on the construction of churches. In time, of course, they all became priests.
Many Master Masons of the Middle Ages were qualified architects with all the necessary training, whereas very few bishops, abbots, priests, and monks were. Those ecclesiastics hired Master Masons and gave them direction for they work, but they did not take technical control. In France it seems however that monks were the architects of their cathedrals until the middle of the twelfth century. Their monasteries then became the centre of intellectual and artistic life, and they trained, among others, the future architects most of whom were laymen and the minority priests or monks. Still later the teaching of apprentices passed to the lay Master Masons who had by then an education equal, if not better, than the ecclesiastics. Calling these educated French people of the thirteenth century “architects”, “masons” or “Masters of the work” was not important. Some of them were certainly borrowed by England from Normandy in the early Middle Ages.
Some members of the Craft believe that the secret modes of recognition used by Freemasons to day initiated with the travelling masons of the Middle Ages who used their membership of the fraternity to introduce themselves to would-be employers. This tradition of travelling masons reaches back to a thousand years ago, but it is not really supported by documents of that time. It was first mentioned in the seventeenth century according to which “about henry the Third’s time, the Pope gave a Bull or Diploma to a company of Italian Architects to travel all over Europe to build churches”. More or less the same story is credited to Elias Ashmole and Sir Christopher Wren, but even this information is not certain. The tradition can be summarised as follow: companies of masons, highly skilled and not, received authority from the Pope to travel all over Europe, including England, to build churches and other buildings, They lived in lodges erected on the building sites, and were assumed to possess esoteric knowledge, including secret modes of recognition. Put in a simpler way, it was probably true that in this period of extensive medieval building construction, qualified labour became scarce, and masons moved from one district to another where their skill was required. This simpler explanation is not well accepted by the Craft to day which prefers the more glamorous story of the ever wandering masons who went from country to country during all their life under the protection of a Papal Bull.
Another legend in the same line deals with the “Comacines”, a group of qualified masons from Como in the North of Italy. The people of Como were assumed to be super-qualified masons known as “Magistri Comacini”, or “Masters from Como”. After erecting many fine buildings in Lombardy, they formed an association or fraternity aiming to obtain a kind of monopoly in the building trade, not only in Italy, but also in the entire Christian world. They received Papal Bulls or Diplomas that allowed them to fix the price of their labour, to organise themselves as they wished and to control their membership. According to the same legend it is from this company of travelling masons that “the fraternity of adopted masons, accepted masons or Freemasons” is derived. In reality there are no evidence of the existence of this migrant fraternity.
France had also its own legend of the travelling masons. According to this story, around 1145, great companies of Norman masons, under a chief known as Prince, immigrated to Chartres to help building the Cathedral. On their return they built and repaired churches in Rouen and its province. An earlier version of the tradition proclaims that a brotherhood known as “Les Fratres Pontis” was founded in France to build bridges anywhere in the country. The only historical evidences are that companies of masons were formed to build the bridges of Avignon and Saint-Esprit in the twelfth and fourteenth centuries. Another legend regards the sending by the Pope of the Franciscans and the Dominicans from Italy on their missionary work to the rest of Europe.
It is difficult to believe that, if such organised companies of masons were sent to England, history could ignore such an event until its first mention in the seventeenth century. Moreover it is also difficult to believe that such a large number of masons, as those required to do all the works they have been credited with, could have travelled thousand of miles in Middle Ages Europe. Most churches and other big buildings of the Middle Ages have been built under the direction of known people, and there was no possibility for the hiring of thousand foreign workers. However, highly qualified Master Masons from Normandy have been brought to England to manage important constructions, but in these cases we are dealing with very few qualified people. On the other hand, it is not easy to see thousand of wandering masons going through Europe in search of work, stopping at every places for a few months or a few years, and moving on to the next building site. It is more probable that local Craftsmen trained and directed by highly skilled Master Masons who could have come from anywhere erected these big buildings. At most we can imagine that, in case of real necessity, English masons would look for work in other districts of their own land before going home when the conditions would improve there. The Old Charges are mentioning the wandering masons, but it is also clear that they were referring to a limited number of Craftsmen.
There is little doubt that limited migrations of medieval masons (and carpenters) occurred in difficult times. That these workers were entrusted with secret signs and passwords of recognition by other groups of masons is less certain. That bands of masons travelled the country together in search of work is possible, as the lonely traveller was at risk these days. But the distance travelled to search for work was never very big. It must be remembered that in medieval times, workmen in the countryside were the property of the lords of the land, and although they ceased to be serfs in the fourteenth century, they still had no liberty of movement. The town workers had more freedom, but their trade fraternities controlled them. In conclusion, it is difficult to believe that masons were part of a migratory class in the Middle Ages. They were probably obliged to move to some far-away building sites by the King, the nobles, or the clergy when labour was needed, but in these cases they had no choice but to obey. The mason trade obliged the masons to travel but, even in the fifteenth century, they generally searched for work within a maximum of a two-day journey.
Obviously the medieval mason had to migrate when there was no work in his home district. Some writers assert that many Craftsmen of that time had tokens, or passes, to facilitate their transfer from one employer to another. Moreover masons having completed their apprenticeship were free from their guilds, and were entrusted with signs and passwords to allow them to be employed by any employer requiring qualified labour. However it was rare for masons to wander far away from their home and, in any case, the authority of their guilds was limited to their town or district, and certainly not to the whole country. In general the distance travelled by most masons was limited for at least two reasons. First, the “legal” freedom enjoyed by Freemasons was limited in the early medieval days, and workers could not freely travel long distance. In addition, until at least the fourteenth century if not later, most countrymen belonged to the great lords, who restricted their movements, even if the town people had more freedom. It can be safely assumed that most masons remained all their life within thirty miles from their home.
When the king requested his agents to hire masons, those chosen could not refuse to go unless they worked for the Church. The first record of impressment of masons dates from 1333 and this procedure was used occasionally during the next three hundred years. This impressment involved often hundred or even more than a thousand masons. Sometime the masons working for the Church and the town masons were not exempt.
Some scholars believe that in medieval days there was a class of masons who worked only on the construction of great churches, cathedrals, and monasteries while the town masons built the great castles. These two groups, the cathedral-builders and the castle builders or town masons, were members of different guilds, or organisations. It is believed that the cathedral-builders were not generally subject to impressment. Master Masons working for the Church or the King worked on different types of buildings, as requested by their employers.
Many buildings of that time constructed in different countries, or in different districts, are very similar in appearance. This does not mean that the designers shared the same culture and the same training. In addition, more often that not, these ressemblances are superficial. However, it is also true that the churches and monasteries built by one order (for instance the Dominicans or the Franciscans) are based on the same design imposed by the head of the Order. It is a fact that many foreign masons were invited to work in England, but it is also true that a smaller number of British ones were sent to work on the Continent.
The English guilds that appeared about the tenth century are thought to be the descendants of the old Roman Collegia, a characteristic feature of Roman industrial life. Later on, Freemasonry borrowed much of their form and language from these guilds.
The Roman Collegia were created to foster the Crafts of that time and their members were known as brothers to each other. The building organisation (that probably included the masons) was the Collegium Fabrorum that was governed by a Magister and Decuriones (a Master and Wardens), while the ordinary members were called sodaies or companions. Some colleges were religious while others were more of a social or political character. There were also associations of poor people, even slaves, that were more like benefit clubs. The colleges had a common treasury and a common table; some practised religious rites, candidates were taking an oath upon admission while members contributed to the expenses, and that included helping the poor and burying the dead in a common sepulchre known as “columbarium” since it looked like a pigeon-house with its niches. The son generally took his father’s occupation, and the guilds and companies inherited this custom. When the Romans introduced architecture and other Crafts in England, they also brought their colleges. It is not certain if the Roman influence persisted after their departure, if it lasted during the Dark Ages until the arrival of the Saxon civilisation, a century or more before the Norman Conquest. Some writers believe that the Collegia led to the medieval trade guilds, and that the Collegium Fabrorum was the parent of the mason guilds, but there is no real historical evidence to prove it.
Guild, or gild, or geld comes from the Saxon word guildan meaning, “to pay”. The first guild was probably an association of tribes and families formed for mutual protection, and to share eventual liability. With time the meaning was broadened; it has been a ward in London, a fraternity, an assembly or meeting place, but also the period of time between one assembly of the guild and the next one. However guild generally means an associated body or brotherhood, a town or minor incorporation. Its members are called gildar that means “liable to be taxed” towards the upkeep of the organisation. The Guildhall was, at one time, both the fraternity and the building itself in which members met. Although the Craft owns much of its customs to the old guilds and of to London Company of Freemasons it seems that there was no ancient Craft or trade guild of masons in Britain. Only a Company of Masons and Freemasons modelled on the ancient guilds was created about the fourteenth century. After the Reformation, the surviving guilds became Livery Companies as they still exist to day in London. As a result, we can say that Freemasonry drew inspiration, and some of its customs, from the ancient guilds, the ancient London Company of Freemasons, and from the post-Reformation Livery Companies. The Freemasons of early medieval times did not form their own guilds like the other Craftsmen did, because no town was big enough to provide work to enough masons to make a guild possible. Moreover, masons were not businessmen working for a profit, and their trade could only prospers after the other Craftsmen had succeeded to produce the wealth which the King, the nobles, and the Church could spend hiring masons to erect stone buildings. In time London had a mason organisation but this was an exception in Britain. In other towns masons formed social and religious bodies. In conclusion, the word “guild” is used to describe different types of organisations.
The first guilds, as it has been said before, were primitive associations of tribes and family for helping and protection one another and mutually bearing the tax burden. It is not until the tenth century that the guilds acquired more importance, their constitution being influenced and shaped by the monks and the Church until they became religious associations. Guilds are known to have existed since the middle of the tenth century; they were formed to defend the interests of merchants, citizen, weavers, Knights etc. In Germany, the guilds appeared in the eleventh century, perhaps on the model of the Roman Collegia. It is well known that Charlemagne prohibited them in 779. In France some guilds on the model of the Roman Collegia were alive in the eighth century. Most of them were religious organisations.
The guilds remained alive for hundreds of years pursuing their religious and social activities on behalf of their members. The mason fraternities had the same social and religious aims. Foreign commerce, and consequently trade and industry, increased enormously after the Norman Conquest, and this led to the creation of powerful merchant guilds whose members were influential traders. They soon took over the government of their towns or cities, and guilds and government became one thing only. Craft guilds, fraternities of skilled Craftsmen, followed starting about 1135 and, in the end, absorbed the merchant guilds which, in fact, were doing the same work and serving the same interests. These Craft guilds were formed to promote the interest of the skilled workers, but they were also religious associations. After absorbing the merchant guilds, some of the Craftsmen became employers. The word “Craft” means trade and soon the members of the Craft guilds became rich tradesmen. The Craft guilds were monopolistic, making it difficult for apprentices to become Masters but, above all, making it impossible for non-members, or men born in bondage, to earn a living as skilled Craftsmen. The Craft guilds remained alive until the Reformation.
In France, the Craft guilds imposed long period of apprenticeship from its members, required candidates Masters to prove their skill by providing a Masterpiece, appointed controllers to ensure that work was well done, and fixed the working rules. After completing his apprenticeship the member became a journey-man, or companion, who was then obliged to work some short periods of time for different Masters to complete his training before doing his Masterpiece and becoming a “Master” too. People who could not afford the cost of doing this training and the Masterpiece could follow a different and less expensive procedure and receive the title of “perpetual companion”; but they could not open their own shop or employ other workers. In some trade, for instance the butchers, the Mastership was hereditary in the male line only. In the old days any trade was an “art and mystery”, but this did not imply any secrecy. After the Norman Conquest, the trades were named “métière or mestière” and the Saxons soon changed these names to “mystery”. When, in the old documents, Masonry is described as “mystery”, it does not mean that masons possessed some secrets but, rather, that Masonry was a trade and Craft. Of course, this ambiguity was used to pretend that each trade had some important secrets known only to the senior members.