THE MYSTERIES, THE RENAISSANCE & THE CRAFT

By L.L. (Laurie) Ventour

(Ed. note:  Bro. Ventour is a member of Royal Lodge #207 [RL], and a Past District Senior Grand Deacon [PDSGD].  This Paper was developed and delivered by him to RL, under the agenda item "Masonic Education", at its regular meeting on July 05, 2010.)

IN JULY 1991, I completed a research Paper which speculated on six possibilities, any or all of which may have prompted King Solomon to issue an instruction on items of dress by certain masons at their attendance at a funeral. Of earlier vintage and infinitely greater quality and content, were the speculative reasons advanced by Bro. Afeef Lazarus, PDGM (and member of RL) on the reasons that motivated the Royal Lodge, warranted in 1789 as # 699 under the Irish Constitution (I.C.), to switch allegiance, 5 years later, to the English Constitution E.C., coming in as # 283 in the Antients or Atholls Grand Lodge of England. (AQC, Vol. 101 (1988), Article 'What Inducement Have You to Leave ...?')

I mention the above for the sole purpose of putting this Paper in its true context. The foundation which I shall lay here is based on actual recorded “history”. This does not mean that the information contained herein is factual. It may be Fact or Fiction. Reality or Mythology. Right or Wrong. It is given here because it has come down to us from history or lore.

On the other hand the CONCLUSIONS which I shall draw from my prognoses are purely speculative and they are to be regarded as such.

“There is a body of knowledge which is the property of the Race of Man. It is old –as old as the race itself.” So says W. Kirk MacNulty in his “The Way of the Craftsman – A Search for the Spiritual Essence of Freemasonry”. This knowledge is available to all cultures during all times and is presented in the idiom and lore of the appropriate culture. But beneath the customization of the idiom and lore, the underlying information – factual or mythical – is always the same. The story of the Creation did not start with Christianity or any known religion, but goes back to Antiquity in almost every time and geographical eon.

In ancient times, the subject of this body of knowledge was called the MYSTERIES.  According to most writers in esotery, today it is known as the WORK. (Hence, in Freemasonry, e.g. Emulation Workings/Complete Workings, Logic, etc.). Many of the concepts of the psychology of Freemasonry as it relates to the psyche of the human mind and soul are founded on this body of knowledge. (Those of us who remember our Greek Mythology will recall the personification of the spirit psyche as the beloved of the god, Eros).

Free (or speculative) Masonry, as an initiatory system – because that’s what it is - goes back only 500 years or so. However, we have numerous references throughout our Masonic literature which appear to contradict this. For example, there are many, many references to/in Freemasonry as dating back to “time immemorial”. The Book of Constitutions (BoC) in its ANTIENT CHARGES, Behaviour towards a strange Brother, concludes “...that all may see the benign influence of masonry, as all true masons have done from the beginning of the world, and will do to the end of time.”. One of our ceremonies records that the ‘... distinguishing badge of a mason is more ancient that the Golden Fleece or the Roman Eagle.....”. We also are  told that a certain well-known master mason “..was slain three thousand years after the creation of the world.” And the Year of Light (Anno Lucis) – as distinguished from Year of the World (Anno Mundi), the latter counting from the Biblical Creation of the World – both add 4,000 years to our present year 2010 A.D. to make it 6010 A.L.  An interesting aside to the Masonic Anno Lucis (A.L.) is that it was initially acronymed Anno Latomorum or “Year of the Stonecutters”.  Not 'lots 'o more rum', as it may appear. (Wray & Nephew 'whites'?)

What are the reasons for this apparent incongruity? Indeed, is there any incongruity at all? MacNulty makes an interesting submission for this apparent paradox. He postulates that the system and precepts of Freemasonry “subsisted” from time immemorial in the psyche of man. Therefore, Freemasonry is from ‘time immemorial’.   Bernard Jones’ view, in his Freemasons’ Guide & Compendium, is also interesting. He posits that Freemasonry has two histories – the one, legendary and traditional, going back almost to the dawn of architecture; the other, authentic, covering a period of a few hundred years and deriving in some part from the ancient craft guilds and fraternities whose fortunes rose and fell in England with the Gothic period. He believes that in that particular period lie the main roots of world freemasonry.  W.M. Don Falconer in his Origin and Evolution of Speculative Freemasonry (Masonic Essays 1998) has his say: 'Speculative freemasonry is a natural extension of man's spiritual and mental attempts to unravel his origins, to comprehend the meaning of life, to perceive his ultimate destiny ..and to communicate his thoughts on these matters to others.'  He opines that although purely speculative lodges are of recent origin, speculative freemasonry is as old as the operative art itself.  And Falconer traces stone building and operative masons to 6,000 - 5000 B.C. in construction in Catal Huyuk in Turkey and 'beehive' houses at Khirokitia in Cyprus.

Probably affording more empirical evidence is the fact that cathedral and other religious-function building construction was well known during the period 500-1700 A.D., in England, France and other parts of Europe.  We know that operative masons, at their guild meetings, would trace out esoteric building plans (sometimes on the floor of their meeting place - usually a room in a Tavern or Pub) in chalk or charcoal as the stylus.  They would erase these as required.  Ken Follett in his historical/fictional work "The Pillars of the Earth" makes reference to the chief mason/builder tracing out - in the sand - the plans of the Cathedral, with its rib cages and vaulted arches, which he was building in the 1150' for Prior Philip.  He solves a major problem - transverse stress from wind, etc., which causes hairline cracks in the clerestory, the upper level floor - by independently inventing the flying buttress, considered a hallmark of Gothic Architecture.  (It is said in architectural parlance that the flying buttress outside the clerestory walls, created a web of stonework that disguised the solidity of the structure and gives the impression that the Cathedral is suspended from Heaven, with the upper stonework forming a canopy over the congregation. (Wikipedia/Flying buttress).   To those of you who have time for such trivial pursuits, Follett's "The Pillars of the Earth" is advertised to be serialized on "STARZ" TV commencing July 23, 2010. (Wikipedia).  And the book itself is well worth a read.

To the extent that all/either of McNulty, Jones and/or Falconer is/are correct in their/his concept, then the apparent conflict is reconcilable, if still incongruous, as to its genuine Antiquity.

First, let us put on the table some of the contenders for the true origin/s of Freemasonry:

And I am sure you may have heard of a few more – like the Illuminati (said to be founded by Weishaupt in 1776), for example. The question to be asked then, is why is it that Freemasonry as we know it today and can be traced in embryonic existence to the 15th century – well, the 14th century to the purists – does not have a more certain and definitive record of its birth and existence to validate it legitimacy to Antiquity?

To answer this, perhaps we should look at the background to how Man, of the Early and Middle Ages, perceived those who purported to have, hold or exercise the MYSTERIES. Except for special and privileged groups (e.g. Pharaohs and Kings, High Priests and Rulers, etc) to profess to have or to be seen to have such esoteric knowledge was not necessarily conducive to a long or peaceful life. For example, this expectation was seen in the professed ‘Divine Right of Kings’ and also in the disappointment of king and subjects when King Canute (circa. 995 – 1035) was unable to command the waves to go back.  Fact or Fiction, this latter?

Every trade, profession or mortal endeavour has its secrets or “mysteries”. In fact it is argued that the word “mystery” simply means the unique skill of doing something. This skill is esoteric. In the Constitutions of the Fellowship of Freemasons, the phrase, “Craft, Mystery or Science” occurs. Also, Robert Green (1592) describes himself as “..a fencer ..and picked a living out of that mystery.. (i.e. the art of fencing).” (Bernard Jones, Freemasons’ Guide & Compendium). And groups of common activity from Alchemy to Zulu Witchcraft will join together to protect those 'secrets’ which the general society in those days, may not have looked kindly upon.

The profession of Alchemy was seen as evil and false magic. Today, Alchemy is known as Chemistry and solid state Physics. The Inquisition ensured that many with their genuine beliefs not compliant with popular sentiments were imprisoned and/or killed unless they renounced. But today, we have all religions, no religions and the in-betweens. Remember the Star Chamber? It has a history of cruelty and oppression all of its own!

Galileo was forced to recant, even while muttering under his breath, hopefully sotto voce, “it moves”. Today, of course, we know that the Earth goes around the Sun and not the other way round.  Just like Galileo had said it did. The Earth is indeed movable.  Even the Ladies were not spared if they were thought to have possessed, or were brave, bold or stupid enough to admit to a knowledge of Witchcraft on their part. From the Hags of Shakespeare’s Macbeth - and before - to the Witches of Salem, the pages of history are tainted by their mistreatment.

So the practice of the Mysteries of Freemasonry in those days would not have been the smartest thing to do. Not openly, anyhow!

The embryonic and publicly available records of the existence of Freemasonry may be traced to the Halliwell Manuscript (also known as the Regius Poem) and dates circa 1390. (There are other documents around this and later near vintage).  This makes reference to several concepts and phrases (Old Charges) similar to those found in Freemasonry (Antient Charges). But this Manuscript itself seems to be an elaboration of an earlier document, to which it makes reference.  

Also, an item which may have attracted little notice is that the Warrant of the Atholl Lodges (1751-1813) - of whch RL is one - recites: "We the Grand Lodge of the Most Ancient and Honourable Fraternity of Free and Accepted Masons according to the Old Constitutions granted by His Royal Highness Prince Edwin at York (Anno Domini Nine hundred twenty and six), in ample form assembled, viz: ..."  And here follows an impressive listing of names including "The Right Worshipful and Most Noble Prince John", dukes, marquises, earls, barons, etc., etc., etc.  As an aside, Prince Edwin was the son of Edward the Elder (died 924) and grandson of Alfred the Great (the king who burned the cakes!!!).  He had considerable support in 924 to succeed his father instead of for his half-brother, Ethelstan (895-939), who became king in 925.  Prince Edwin died in 933, by drowning at sea, allegedly at the instigation of his half-brother (now) King Ethelstan.  At some point during Ethelstan's reign, Prince Edwin witnessed a Charter (#S 1417), his signature following immediately after his brother's, granting lands to (one) Alfred, a Minister of King Ethelstan.  But there is no contemporary evidence that Prince Edwin empirically granted an "Old Constitutions" to anyone.  It has been suggested to me that the date of 926 AD had been selected by the 'Antients' as a kind of "one-upmanship on the 'Moderns'".  But there is more to it than that, because it is well known that nobility and 'born to the manor' aristocracy had their esoteric organisations at the time.  And why pick a Prince (Edwin)?  Why not Alfred the Great e.g. his grandfather?  Or even the King himself - his brother Ethelstan.  It is known that there was a General (Annual) Assembly of operative guilds/masons in 926 which had the approval and encouragement of King Ethelstan. That same valued insight indicated that Rev. Barker-Cryer "Arch and the Rainbow" suggests that (speculative) freemasons' lodges developed concomitantly with (operative) masons lodges.  That is correct.  But they did not develop necessarily as "ne'er the twain shall meet", for it is well documented that both speculative (gentlemen) masons and operative masons were in the same lodges with the 'speculative' growing gradually from the minority through majority to exclusivity. 

It is also well documented that certain over-zealous Freemasons (& Priests) were known to burn books and other materials in the mistaken belief that they were potecting their secrets and mysteries.  Notwithstanding this lack of empirical evidence, it is reasonable to ask:  Was Freemasonry in existence even before and leading up to these reference points?

The first statutory use of the word “Freemason” in England is known to be in the Statutes of the Realm (1495) under Henry VI. Prior to this, the earliest use of the term (‘ffre Mason’) was in a 1376 document re the “Company of ffre Masons” – one of the many London Guilds.

I speculate and submit to you my First Proposition, that Freemasonry – as opposed to operative or guild masonry - has always existed not only as a concept, but as a practice. Only, it remained “in the closet” to guard its perpetuity and protect itself from the assaults and assails of un-initiated Society and Culture which were antagonistic to its overt existence.

Then comes liberation in the form of the RENAISSANCE – literally “a re-birth”. It is the generally accepted consensus, but not unchallenged, that the Renaissance began in Florence, Tuscany, in the 14th century. The politics of the region, the patronage of the dominant Medici family and the migration of Greek scholars and learned literature to Italy, following the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks, all seem to have had some influence on its birthplace.(Encyclopedia Britannica/Renaissance and Wikipedia/Renaissance).

As a social and cultural movement, the Renaissance saw the birth and/or resurgence of learning based on classical sources, the development of linear and abstract perspectives in art and painting and widespread educational reform. It gave life, if only transitory, to the Christian Kabbalah – the interpretation of the mystical aspects of Christianity. This powerful intellectual reform led to the Renaissance being viewed as the bridge from the Middle Ages to the Modern era. It also gave the world such polymaths as Leonardo da Vinci, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Bacon, etc., etc., etc. And the concept of the “universal man” (Homo Universalis [Latin] and Uomo Universale [Italian].

Learning and esoteric knowledge were no longer dangerous to its proprietor and I submit to you my Second Proposition, that it is this 'liberation', ushered in by the Renaissance, which led to the coming out of the closet and the rapid “outing” and development of Freemasonry in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Freemasonry has always projected itself not as a SECRET Society, but as a SOCIETY with secrets (mainly that of recognition of each other). There are constraints and strictures against Secret Societies e.g. U.K. has its (Anti) Secret Societies Act which requires a declaration of membership of certain persons (mainly Civil and Municipal Servants).  Centuries prior to this, Henry VIII had dis-endowed, by an Act of 1547, all religious bodies, which at the time, 'housed' many crafts and guilds.  Despite its best efforts, Freemasonry, as a generality, continues to be seen as a Secret Society in many social and legal jurisdictions.   Even today, in certain religious circles, there is residual resistance to Freemasonry.

As recently as July 2009, Police on the Fiji island of Denerau detained 14 members (including 8 Australians and a New Zealander) at their Tuesday night meeting of a regular and properly constituted Freemasons' Lodge, after the Lodge was “raided” on complaints of "dopey village people" (sic Lodge Secretary) that "...they were practising 'sorcery' with wands, compasses and a skull.."  (UK Telegraph, 16/07/2009).  The Canberra Times reported that their release was ordered by Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama but that investigations were (then) still continuing.  Thank Heavens that our Royal holds it meeting on a Monday night!  And Bro. Lazarus in his Paper abovementioned reminds us that although Freemasonry - through its Grand Lodges' Mastership influence - was specifically excluded from England's 1799 Unlawful Societies Act (repealed only in 1967), in later years, the fraternity had no such luck in Simon Bolivar's South America, where all 'secret societies', including Freemasory, were prohibited (probably because of the political intrigues to which they gave cover.  In fact, according to Bro. Lazarus, two contemporary authors (Robison and Barruel) had openly charged that the French Revolution had been hatched in masonic lodges!

Here is a final example. While conceding that Freemasonry is generally regarded, by adherents and critics alike, as “..a peculiar system of morality, veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols”, Greg Taylor in his book “The Guide to Dan Brown’s Lost Symbol”, describes Freemasonry as “..a secret society, complete with coded words and secret handshakes...”. Makes you want to go back into the closet, does it? But fortunately, it is too late for that. Freemasonry does not have to go back into hiding. It is strong enough and confident enough to stand openly on the certainty of its beliefs.  As Freemasonry was born of Antiquity, so will it continue to Eternity. And that’s my third proposition to you.

Acknowledgements/Biblio.

Close friends for their insights.  W. Kirk McNulty – The Way of the Craftsman.  Bernard Jones – Freemasons’ Guide & Compendium.  Greg Taylor – Guide to Dan Brown’s Lost Symbol.  Encyclopedia Britannica.   Websters’ International Encyclopedia.  Encyclopaedia of Freemasonry by Arthur Edward Waite.  GL Book of Constitutions (Antient Charges). Wikipedia.   Atholls' Warrant.  (Reference to) Rev. Barker-Cryer - Arch & the Rainbow.   Afeef A. Lazarus - "What Inducement Have You To Leave ..?".  W.M. Don Falconer - "The Origin & Evolution of Speculative Freemasonry".  Ken Follett - The Pillars of the Earth.

 In conclusion, I respectfully leave you with the same caveat which I advised in my Paper referred to above, that is, similar to then, my views (in this case, on reconciling the apparent incongruity between the dates for the birth of Freemasonry, i.e., whether it is 14/15th century or time immemorial) are purely speculative.  This Paper is meant only to entertain you and to stimulate depth of thought in the topic.  Thanks for reading.

What say you?

 LLV/July 05,2010

 

 


 

THE MYSTERIES, THE RENAISSANCE & THE CRAFT

(A Paper by W. Bro. L.L. Ventour, PDSGD)

SUMMARY OF THE SPECULATIVE PROPOSITIONS

  1. That Freemasonry – as opposed to operative or guild masonry - has always existed not only as a concept, but as a practice. Only, it remained “in the closet” to guard its perpetuity and protect itself from the assaults and assails of un-initiated Society and Culture which were antagonistic to its overt existence.
     
  2. Learning and esoteric knowledge were no longer dangerous to its proprietor and that it is as a result of this 'liberation' ushered in by the Renaissance which ensured the coming out of the closet and the rapid public “outing” and development of Freemasonry in the 17th and 18th centuries.
     
  3. As Freemasonry was born of Antiquity, so will it continue to Eternity.