There is a difference between speculative Masons and the gentlemen non-operative masons who joined Masonry in medieval days. In the old days, any mason who was not an operative mason was a speculative mason. Now the definitions have changed; a speculative Mason is a symbolic Mason who has been initiated into an esoteric mystery. The first known Mason who answers that definition is Elias Ashmole who was initiated in 1646 in a lodge at Warrington, but we do not know how old the lodge was then. On the other hand we know quite a lot about the history of the operative masons, many of their names, and many buildings they constructed are still here. This is due to the fact that the manuscripts of their Constitutions, written by learned ecclesiastics, have come down to us. There is nothing symbolical in these Old manuscript Charges but only the rules and organisation of the Masonic Craft, as seen by knowledgeable medieval ecclesiastics, and written to be read at meetings of Craft masons. They were still read in speculative lodges that had nothing to do with the mason trade. The link between the Old Charges and the Craft ritual is not obvious unless we assume that, within the mason Craft, there was a quasi-religious fraternity as within all the other medieval Crafts, that survived the Reformation to create this link.
In the 1700’s England there was a Masonic fraternity distinct from the operative masons, but there is no evidence of the presence of Freemasons, except as members of the trade. If we assume that esoteric Freemasonry was not an innovation in the middle of the 1600’s, where was it coming from? What was Freemasonry and where was it at the beginning of the seventeenth century for instance? It is known that after the Reformation all the religious guilds and fraternities, as opposed to the Craft guilds, were suppressed by Henry VIII. At that time religion, mixed with some kind of superstition, was accepted by people of all classes, learned or not, poor or rich. It is then highly possible that among the numerous religious guilds and fraternities, some esoteric groups led by learned people were able to exist without being known by the public at-large while attracting the privileged few. To survive they had to be secretive, and this would explain why we couldn’t find any trace of them to day. However they were known to the Crown that suppressed them by fear that they would oppose the new religious policy. Most of the old religious fraternities ceased to exist, but some must have gone underground for some time until they died of their natural death.
The important dates to remember are:
. 1534 when Henry VIII became head of the English Church.
. 1538, the year when the monasteries were sacked.
. 1547 the Act suppressing the religious fraternities became law.
. 1646, the first known speculative Mason, Elias Ashmole, is initiated.
There is therefore a gap of about a century between the suppression of the religious fraternities and the appearance of the first Freemason, as we understand them to day. It is obviously possible that some old religious fraternities survived long enough in hiding to create the link from medieval Craft esoteric guilds and Freemasonry.
There is little doubt that speculative Freemasonry was originally English only. Later on, through the eighteenth century, it was subject to French and German influences, but it was not born there, and neither in Ireland or the American Colonies. Scotland is different since it is known that Scot operative masons had their secret mode of recognition and their “mason word”. There is no such evidence among the English operative masons of that time, even if non-operative masons used them in late seventeenth century. Some experts believe that English Freemasonry derives, in large part, from the Scottish system. It is difficult, however, to believe that Scotland had any Masonic system that could have developed into the symbolic Craft known to the Freemasons of the early eighteenth century.
We will assume that modern speculative Masonry started in 1646 with Elias Ashmole’s initiation in a Warrington lodge. It is however very possible that there were already some lodges in England in the years 1640-1650, even if we do not know anything about them. We are not certain if they had operative and non-operative members, or if they already were fully speculative. We know more about the operative Scottish lodges of that time and their non-operative members. Until 1665 we only know one speculative Mason, Elias Ashmole, but as four London lodges would form the Grand Lodge fifty years later, other lodges must have existed in the meantime. We do not know anything about them and no evidence has ever been found. We do not know either where the esoteric content of Freemasonry came from. Was it from a fraternity within the operative Craft of two centuries before? Or did Ashmole and his colleagues create the small ceremonial and ritual of existing Freemasonry by borrowing what suited them from the ancient mysteries? It is not known which ritual inspired the authors in the 1720’s. How much did these men use of the material at their disposal, and how much did they reject? What happened to the material discarded? It is doubtful that these questions will ever be answered, but some research is still going on to this effect.
Some experts believe that the speculative lodges of the 1700’s did not have any connection with previous operative Masonry, nor with Masonic fraternities. Instead, they assume that the early members had some Rosicrucian roots and beliefs, and that they decided to call themselves “Freemasons” at the time when the old London Company of Freemasons was still called this way. This would mean that Freemasonry would be a Rosicrucian invention, and not so much subject to Rosicrucian influence. There is no real evidence to support this assumption.
Some other experts believe that the emergence of Freemasonry in the 1600’s is one of the offshoots of the Renaissance spirit that prevailed through Europe at that time. This too is not proved.
Elias Ashmole was born in 1617, he died in 1692, and he was accepted as a Freemason in Warrington in 1646, the first time this word was used to describe a speculative or symbolic Mason. After the Restoration he became a Fellow of the Royal Society and, in 1677, he founded the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.
It has been said that Ashmole and his Brethren brought with them the mysticism, the philosophies, and the Christian teaching of the Rosicrucians when then became “accepted” as Freemasons. By Rosicrucianism we intend the German cult that became known in the seventeenth century, and not any of the Masonic orders bearing that name which came later and are very different. The Rosicrucian “legend of the Tomb” reveals that the real, or mythical founder of this Order, Christian Rosenkreuz, was born in a German monastery, and had travelled in 1393 to the Holy Land, Palestine, and Spain where he studied the mysteries of the ancient people with learned men. He went back to Germany in 1402 where he attracted many disciples with whom he created a secret society to study his philosophies and to integrate them in a coherent doctrine. Christian Rosenkreutz died in 1484 when he was at least one hundred and eleven years old. He body was embalmed and put into a vault that was discovered 120 years later. On the door was the inscription “Post centum viginti annos pateblo” (My body will be found after 120 years) and his embalmed body was there as foretold.
The Rosicrucian legend is described in a book that circulated as a manuscript in 1610, and was published in Casel in 1614:”Fama Fraternitatis benedicti Ordinis Rosae Crucis” (The History of the Fraternity of the Meritorious Order of the Rosy-Cross). The Fama, with some other tracts published at the same time, is the basis of the Rosicrucian belief based on old Greek, Arabic, Chaldee, and Egyptian systems. Most experts believe that the story is a myth. The members of this order lived mostly out of touch with this world. They were known as “Frater” (Brother) and their instructor was called “Father”. They devoted their life to the relief of suffering, to cure those who were ill, to create hospices and retreats while “searching for truth, the knowledge of man and his possibilities, and his relation to the other planes of existence beyond the material world, even up to the Divine ideal” (Michael Maier).
By Ashmole’s days the original doctrine had been modified. They were incompetent scientists and their sixteenth and seventeenth century philosophy and sciences would now be qualified as non-sense. Chemical philosophers, alchemists, astrologers, hermetic philosophers, etc. all of them, at one time or the other, regarded themselves as Rosicrucians. In the second half of the seventeenth century the word Rosicrucian described those who, only fifty years before, would have been known as astrologers, or even alchemists. These “alchemists” were searching “the universal solvent (alkahest), the universal remedy (Panacea), and the universal transmutation of the baser metals into gold (alchemy)”. The word Rosicrucian is believed to be derived from “ros or dew”, that was thought to be the most powerful solvent of gold, and “crux, the cross”, which means light, the substance from which gold is produced. Accordingly, the Rosicrucians were alchemists who sought for the philosopher’s stone using dew and light. This search for the Philosopher’s stone that could transmute base metals into gold, the final aim of alchemy, went on for a long time.
The Rosicrucians use the personality of Ashmole, who is said to have joined a German Rosicrucian society, to claim that their system influenced Freemasonry. There is no historical evidence to this effect and it is difficult to believe that Ashmole, alone or with others, invented a Masonic ritual without leaving any trace of his work. He is well known as a writer on alchemy and astrology, as well as a believer in various superstitions. It is perhaps easier to admit, as some do, that Rosicrucianism merged with Freemasonry and became part of it but, again, there is no trace of this being the case. The assertion made by some Rosicrucians that “Freemasonry derived all its moral philosophy, its semi-Christian ideas, and its halo of mystic society” from their system is also hardly believable, as this does not take into consideration that brotherly love, relief, and truth are basic to most beneficent orders. However, benevolence and the other virtues were not among the aims of Freemasonry until after the foundation of the Grand Lodge in 1717, and by then Ashmole had been dead for many years. In addition, the Rosicrucians did not introduce symbolism since it was part of Freemasonry long before them. The best that can be said is that Freemasons and Rosicrucians were united at some time of their history, the professional body of medieval masons brought the form to the new body and the secret group of philosophers, its spirit. Even this assumption is not proved.
The Kabballa, or Cabbala, is somehow related to Rosicrucianism, and it is sometime said that its doctrine has influenced Freemasonry in the seventeenth century. Kabballa (meaning, to receive) is a doctrine “received”, or handed down, by oral tradition. It is said that God himself taught it to some angels who, after the fall of man, transmitted it to men to give them the way to return to the original state of happiness and communion with the deity. The doctrine was transmitted from Adam to Noah, to Abraham and to Moses who initiated the seventy elders into its secrets, and who transmitted them to David, Solomon and their successors until the time of the destruction of Jerusalem. The Kabballa is thought to have been derived by the Jews from Greek, Egyptian, and Oriental sources. Some Christian Fathers adopted it for sometimes, as they thought that it was of Jewish and not Pagan origin. It has three parts: the “theoretical” part teaches of the Divinity and his relation to man; the “enigmatically” bases itself on the arrangement of words and letters in the Bible; the “practical” is also concerned with the puerility of word and letter arrangements and makes some profession of curing diseases. Even now, some writers try to answer some Masonic queries by means of the enigmatic “teaching” of the Kabballa.