The Evolution of the Craft Through the Old Charges
In my last Blog entry I laid out one way to break down the evolution of the Craft from its medieval origins to today. The way I described the development of the Craft through time was from the perspective of a man on the outside, looking in as an observer. In this entry I will take a different perspective, that of a man within the Craft.
As Masons we enjoy a certain amount of homogeneity of the Craft, such that when we travel geographically as Masons we pretty much understand the ritual and customs of the Lodges we visit, but would this be true if we could travel through time? Would you recognize a Lodge from 1390 C.E.? 1425? 1738? To put this in perspective a Lodge in 1390 could have the grandson of a Templar in attendance, 1425 was 67 years before Columbus landed in the Caribbean, and 1738 was before the US Revolution.
To answer these questions I have turned to what are collectively known as the Old Charges. The Old Charges are essentially the documents that spell out the rules, regulations and customs of Lodges in the time before the 1717 founding of the Grand Lodge of England. I have included Anderson’s Constitution (1738 C.E.) as a bookend to the development of Lodges. There are many Old Charges, but I have selected six (including Anderson). These six are, The Regius Poem 1390 C.E., The Cooke Manuscript 1425 C.E., the two Shaw Statues 1598 and 99 C.E., Old Rules of the Grand Lodge of York 1725 C.E. and Anderson’s Constitution 1738 C.E.
I will not be exploring the history of these documents, as that would be a whole blog in itself, but rather will call out familiar Lodge elements first appearing in Craft development in these documents.
My primary source for this blog is “Old Charges of Freemasonry: From the Original Manuscripts”, by WB Walter William Melnyk, Springfield-Hanby Lodge No. 767 in Springfield, Pennsylvania.
Regius Poem 1390 CE
We will begin with the elements of the Craft that are familiar to all of us that are found in the Regius Poem. Before I begin I have to admit that the language of these ancient documents is difficult to read. I have relied on translations and my best guesses when reading them, however any errors are mine, not those whose translations I relied on.
This period relates to what I called in my last Blog the Operative Era, or the period in which Masons were focused on building with stone. Lodges were at this point in history job site specific and Masons moved from one job to the next.
Before I tell you what the Regius Poem said of Masons, lets take just a moment and reflect on the life of a common person. This period is clearly the Middle Ages (476-1400 C.E.), and the feudal and manorial systems were still very much alive. This meant that the ‘average’ person had little property, few freedoms, no education and not much hope for improvement. The Black Death had just passed and the European population was decimated. In short the average person lived a short, difficult life. Now consider the life of a Mason, educated, free to travel and seek better work, free of many of the restrictions of the period. What follows is what these Masons valued and recorded in the Regius Poem.
Geometry, we all know its central place in our Masonic culture, and it shows up immediately in the Regius Poem, as does the man credited with its development Euclid. Its importance to the Craft in 1390 is no less than it is today. What you may not know is that geometry was considered as almost synonymous with architecture. You would also be interested to find the seven liberal arts, more or less as we know them today called out in the poem as valued by Masons.
Education being so important to the early Craft might seem odd, but you have to remember when it came to castles they were the most advanced military technology available at the time, they were the aircraft carriers of their day. Like today those charged with the design and construction of advanced technology, a castle in the Middle Ages, would have had to apply the most sophisticated engineering principals available.
The requirements of candidates would seem familiar, only free men, only men of good reputation (not thieves or murderers), a belief in God is required, as is a healthy body (here it is slightly different than today, but the idea is the same. You must be able to contribute.)
The requirement that a mason be a free man was a little more than you might understand as a modern mason. I have heard many say they thought it was a reflection of ideas concerning slavery in America and that the requirement that a man be free was used as an excuse to prohibit African Americans from membership. While this excuse may have been used, it was not based in fact. In the feudal and manorial systems a common man would have been ‘bonded’ to a lord and his land. You were not free to leave the manor or the service of the lord without the lord’s permission. There were not many free men, so admission to the craft would not have come easily. This apparently is the origin of the requirement that a man be free.
Other elements you would recognize are that all Masters are considered equal, a Mason should respect the chastity of a Brother Masters wife, you must keep secrets, you should obey the law and be a good citizen (subject) and you are expected to aid and support brother Masons. Also the Steward is mentioned as a supplier of refreshment. Masters and Fellows are mentioned, but here I believe Masters are the Masters of Lodges and Fellows are the highest rank under the Master, having the place in Lodge today of a Master Mason.
Cooke Manuscript 1425 CE
The next document I will draw from is the Cooke Manuscript. Even though it was written very near the Regius Poem in time, there are some significant developments in the Craft. I can’t say that these elements did not exist 35 years earlier, but they were not called out.
The Cooke manuscript offers some names we would all recognize, even if they were used differently in the Lodge. This is where we first see the name Tubal Cain and the King of Tyre mentioned. Jabal and Jubal, names similar to names we all know today are discussed. We also see the first mentions of Pythagoras and Hermes in this document.
Much of the wisdom of the Roman world was lost to the West after the fall of Rome, but one book Asclepius of the Corpus Hermeticum (the Corpus is a collection of works attributed to the man Hermes Trismegistus) had survived and Stone Masons were obviously aware of it. The study of geometry had never been lost, nor the names Euclid and Pythagoras.
The importance of two hollow pillars, in which secrets are kept, to the mythology of the Craft is discussed, as is the fact that Masons built King Solomon’s Temple.
To the requirement that a Mason respect the chastity of a Master’s wife a similar requirement for his daughter is added. The use of the word “hele” can be seen in the Cooke manuscript.
Finally, the idea that the Wardens would fill in for an absent Master is spelled out in the Cooke manuscript.
So, while we are talking about men who were definitely stonemasons we can see elements of our Lodge and ritual existed over 600 years ago.
The Shaw Statues 1598 and 1599 CE
The two Shaw Statutes bring us much closer to the Craft we know today. The first thing that they reveal is the presence of geographically fixed Lodges. Kilwinning and Edinburgh Lodges specifically are addressed in the Statutes. Before this period Lodges are generally discussed as temporary buildings and meeting places, here they exist, as we know them today, linked to a location. This is probably due in part to the evolutions of cities and towns in the period between 1390 and 1598. It should be noted that in the new cities and towns the men who governed, Burgesses, were often guild members. This reflects the development of a middle class that was dominated by crafts and businesses.
Other elements that are familiar are the presence of Deacons, the unanimous agreement of Masters, Wardens and Deacons on the admittance of an apprentice (someone different than today) and the idea that Lodges were somewhat sovereign under its master. Today each degree requires a minimum number of members to open, and the Cooke manuscript requires that that least six members be present for the operation of a Lodge.
We also see the first mention of “Cowans”, the election of a secretary and a clear requirement of dues.
Lodge records show that after the Shaw Statues gentlemen, not stonemasons were initiated as “Accepted” or “ Speculative” Freemasons. Some authors mark the Shaw Statutes as the date of the transition from Operative to Speculative. The last Shaw Statue was written in 1599, and we know that Elias Ashmole (1617-1692) was initiated in the 1640s. By anyone’s definition Ashmole was a modern speculative Freemason.
The Old Rules of the Grand Lodge of York 1725 CE
The Old Rules of the Grand Lodge of York adds to the establishment of our craft the use of the gavel (mallet), monthly meetings, strict examination of visitors and of course refreshments after meeting.
Anderson’s Constitutions 1738 CE
The Final document I will explore is Anderson’s Constitutions, 1738. Here we see the requirement in a belief in God, no women can be admitted, no bondsman a requirement that a candidate be of “good report” and a respect for the State’s government and laws. Other familiar developments include that Masters and Wardens be elected based on merit, officers must be fellow-crafts (this was before the Master Mason degree), there will be no talking in Lodge without the Master’s permission, there is now a Grand Master, and Grand Lodge can be called on decide disputes.
The phrase “meeting on the level” makes its first appearance, and probably most important the prohibition against discussing politics and religion in Lodge. By in large these Lodges would be familiar in operation and culture to us. While there were differences that are significant, like the absence of Master Masons and therefore the Master Mason’s degree drama.
This exploration of the evolution of our Craft through its documents has been cursory at best, but I think it shows that even in the earliest operative craft documents we do see a Craft we recognize. It feels to me though that we tend to see these similarities in terms of our present world rather than consider them in terms of the times in which they evolved. For example, the seven liberal arts cited in the Regius Poem. That level of education in 1390 would have been equivalent to a bachelor’s degree today, and when you consider the weight and authority of a Master in 1390 we can imagine that the term “Master’s degree” might apply to the man who became a specialist in geometry/masonry after completing his education in the seven liberal arts.
In the period of Anderson’s constitutions, less than 100 years after the reformation and the English Civil war, the prohibition against politics and religion in Lodge shows a wisdom of brotherhood we may have forgotten in today’s contentious political and religious environment and it might encourage us to tread gently in and out of the Lodge when we espouse our religious and political opinions, for the sake of that brotherhood we love.
There are other elements of culture that do not show up in the documents I cited that have affected the development of Freemasonry. The care of widows and orphans, as an example, is a biblical injunction that was shared as standard behavior in many medieval guilds. Religious drama such as is used in modern craft initiations was common practice (even required by law) in the medieval
guilds, as many were expected to perform religiously inspired plays in public in late medieval times. It’s not hard to imagine this evolving into degree dramas.
Finally I have not addressed the role of the Moderns and Ancients or the evolution of the Scottish or York rites in this analysis. No doubt meaningful insight could be gleaned from the addition of those traditions. It is also possible that some of the elements I have stated originated in a particular document may in fact be present in older documents I have not addressed. I do not intend this to be an exhaustive exploration, but as I said a cursory review intended to demonstrate that our Craft as shared some fundamental traits since its earliest formal documents.
Finally I would hope that you take a moment and reflect on the privilege of being a member in a 600 plus year old tradition that was born in a dark and difficult time, has adapted to and participated in history, science, philosophy and politics, and has managed to preserve its most ancient tenets. Let that sink in as you pin on that lapel pin, and let the weight of it inform you actions in and out of Lodge, but in particular when you consider admitting a man to our Lodge. You will be entrusting our traditions to them for safe keeping, just as they were passed on to you, we owe a debt of obligation to the men who came before us to seek the best of men, rough ashlars they may be, so that they can realize their potential as men and Freemasons.