History: An Exercise in Humility
As I said in my last entry to this blog, my goal in writing these blogs is ‘reclaiming our story’. We have seen that many of the narratives that currently define our Fraternity in the common mind are in fact fictions written by either those who would exploit the Craft for profit (literature and movies) or our enemies (The Protocols). That said a reasonable man could see some small truth in some of these myths about the Craft. So how do we, as Masons, know what is true and what is false, or more importantly, I feel, what is important and what is not?
I’d like to first talk about the something that will at first seem unrelated, but I hope to use this story to illustrate the problem at hand.
It’s hard to imagine someone who has not heard of the Nile River, so important to Biblical stories and to the evolution of Western Civilization. What is even harder to believe is that the source of the Nile was not determined until 1858! As you can see from the map the Nile is created from two rivers, the Blue and White Niles (Nile means river). When we talk about the source or origin of the Nile, what do we mean? Most of the water that feeds the Nile comes from the Blue Nile, BUT the farthest point of origin derives from the White Nile. Which is it? If you want to understand the Nile thoroughly you would have to study all sources equally, and weigh the impact of each river proportionately.
History is much like a river, the main story being comprised of many ‘tributaries’ each contributing something. If you wish a cursory understanding then the major contributors will be your focus, but you may choose to pursue smaller, more distant and exotic sources if you have a particular interest in a singular aspect of History.
History like science has rules, or a method, that governs what is accepted as history and what is not. Like science history relies on data, some of which is scientific data like archeology and carbon dating. Unlike scientific data historical data might have a less rigorous pedigree, like eyewitness accounts and source documents generated by humans. This historical data can be accepted on equal terms with scientific data. Historians are however just as strict in the analysis of data as any scientist, and often have to work much harder to determine what data is valid. The history of history is filled with errors made by people to eager to accept data that supports a popular belief, and because of that mainstream historians are very careful making interpretations.
As Freemasons we are not exempt from the temptations of our Crafts mythology, which runs close to, sometimes parallel with, recorded and accepted history. This is, in my opinion, no excuse for lazy or indulgent research that jumps to exciting and aggrandizing conclusions.
A good example of this can be found at Rosslyn Chapel, near Edinburgh Scotland. I visited Rosslyn Chapel with my wife in 2008 and was amazed at the intricate carvings in and on the Chapel that have stimulated so many theories about the Templars, the discovery of America and the link between the Templars and the Freemasons. I do not have the space to go into all these theories here, but there is one I would like to explore as an example. The Chapel was dedicated in 1450 CE to St Mathew, almost 150 years after the Templars were arrested in France, October 13, 1307 CE. Freemasonry commonly accepts the date of June 24th, 1717 as its nominal start date, a little more that 250 years after the Chapel was erected. On one of the outside walls of the Chapel is a carving that many Masons will recognize (wink). In this carving there seems to be a blind folded man, kneeling with a cable around his neck and behind him a man holding the cable. Both seem to wear the Templar cross. Now, I live by the same oath as you, so I will have to assume you get the importance of this image (see photo). I also have to add that the stone that the Chapel is made from has degraded over the centuries, which makes this image a bit tough to see. Whole books have been written that hang their evidentiary hat on this engraving. At first glance this carving does seem to prove in the minds of many that there is a link between the Templars Knights and Masons.
I would like to start by saying, I believe this link is worth researching, not that I accept it as fact. Here are the facts that support this possibility. The Templars had many Bailies, local offices, and source of the term “the whole bailiwick”. These served as local centers of operations. In Scotland there were several centers, but one in particular was in Balantrodach Scotland (modern Temple Scotland), which is only 7 miles from Rosslyn Chapel.
While everyone focuses on the Templar Knights, as romantic warriors, the Templars possessed many craftsmen and specialist. Everyone knows they had accountants, being bankers, but few consider the farriers, armorers, carpenters and yes, masons that would have been required to keep the order functioning. History tells us that the Templars lasted longer in Scotland than other countries because the whole kingdom was essentially excommunicated after Robert Bruce, later King of Scotland, murdered his primary competitor for the throne in a church. This allowed the members of the order to survive, (i.e., avoid arrest and torture) much longer than on the continent.
If there were stonemasons at Temple Scotland, and if they survived its likely they would have eventually assimilated into the local masons guilds.
From about the time the Templars were arrested until the end of the 14th century Europe was devastated by climate change, leading to famine, and the Black Death. The population plummeted and the rules of guild membership were relaxed, as were all rules of social and economic mobility. The local guilds, guilds that would have been close enough to Rosslyn to be affected, would have been open to receiving new, skilled masons. These ex-Templar masons may well have brought their initiation rituals with them and these rituals assimilated into guild ritual. Over time those rituals may well have propagated throughout the guilds that evolved into Speculative Masonry. It’s important to note, to the propagation theory, that Rosslyn and Temple Scotland are a day’s ride from Edinburgh, the seat of Scottish power and economics for centuries.
This possibility, remote though it might be, would be a minor tributary into the great river that is Freemasonry. It seems more likely than warrior knights, often born to noble classes would become craftsmen, essentially a step down in social rank. It would also make the connection between the Freemasons and the Templars a backwater of history and not the main thrust. I think this idea is worth exploring. I think this line of thought shows that jumping to the conclusion that the Knights Templar as a whole organization became Freemasons, based on the one carving is a less likely scenario than the one I just offered.
Before you write me telling me there are many other reasons, found in Scotland, to believe the Templars are the antecedents to the Freemasons I ask that you include the source documents that prove it. The fact that something “could be true” is not proof that it is true. Even the idea I expressed above is pure speculation based on loose facts and is as likely to be false as true. Before I would ever state it as fact, I would need a lot more research.
Lets say for a moment that my theory, the one I just put forth, is true. Is it important? Would it change the kind of Mason you are? Would it change anything? Its only real value would be in adding a small chapter to the story of the Templars and the Freemasons, that’s it. What is important? That Shriner hospital, that reading program, that time when you could have chosen the wrong thing and because you are a Mason you chose the right thing. That’s what is important. Not some distant event that aggrandizes our egos and does little to improve the world.
History supports the idea that Freemasonry evolved as a part of European history, not as its main event. We are as much influenced by the events of European history, as we are an influencing agent. In my opinion our ascension as a Fraternity is linked to many factors such as the catastrophe of the Black Death and the social freedoms acquired during the reformation and renascence. Our mysticism and esoterica appeared at the same time in history as they appeared in European society, much of which is the result of the fall of Constantinople creating a great diaspora of knowledge. In my next blog I will address the arrival of many of the influences of our Craft’s mysticism and science, and show that we did not bring them through time to reveal them to Europeans, but rather that we acquired them just like everyone else. What makes Freemasonry important to history is that we provided a Tyled hall, where men, under oath to keep each others secrets, could freely discuss ideas that might well have brought them to the inquisition, the hangman’s noose or the guillotine. This Brethren is no small thing, and something that should cause us to feel proud of our heritage.