NOTES ON HISTORICAL FREEMASONRY
Robert Freke Gould
OUR WRITTEN TRADITIONS
"Pray we now to God almyght,
And to Hys moder Mary bryght."
In December, 1877, in consequence of the removal by the Grand Orient of France from its "Book of Constitutions" of the paragraphs affirming the existence of a "Great Architect of the Universe," the Grand Lodge of England appointed a special Committee, composed of the following members to consider the proper course to be pursued: — The Earl of Carnarvon, Pro. Grand Master; Lord Skelmersdale (afterwards Earl of Lathom), Deputy G.M.; Lord Leigh, Prov. G.M., Warwickshire; John Hayes, Lord Tenterden, and the Earl of Donoughmore, Past Grand Wardens; the Rev. C. J. Martyn, P.G., Chaplain; Aeneas J. Macintyre, Grand Registrar; John B. Monckton, President, and H. C. Levander, Vice-President, Board of General Purposes; and Robert F. Gould, P.M., Moira Lodge, No. 92.
Two months later, the Committee, in their report, declared the "alteration to be, in their judgment, opposed to the traditions, practice, and feelings of all true and genuine Masons from the earliest to the present time." Similar action was taken in other jurisdictions, and wherever the English language is spoken, the Grand Orient of France has long been regarded as having parted with all claim to be looked upon as a Masonic body.
Recently, however, the whole question of what it will be most convenient to term the "Mason's Creed" has been revived, and as the action of the Grand Lodge of England in the matter has been deemed of paramount interest by the Fraternity at large, the conclusion to which it was led by the report of the Special Committee appointed in 1877 (of whom the present writer in now the only surviving member) has been subjected to much criticism and remark. But I notice with surprise that among the widely divergent views which are expressed with respect to the true theology of the Craft, there are none that rest on any other basis than the "Old Gothic Constitutions," not indeed as actually used by the Masons and Lodges of earlier date than the Grand Lodge, but, alas! as "digested," that is, as misquoted and given an entirely false colouring, by James Anderson in his publications of 1723 and 1738.
Before going any further, I shall proceed to make use of a comparison. Let us try and imagine a History of Philosophy, which should begin with a notice of Adam Smith, and omit any mention whatever of Hobbes and Descartes, or the philosophers of more remote antiquity, Aristotle, Plato, and Pythagoras, — at whose hands the science received its name. Or, perhaps, what is even more to the purpose, let us picture to ourselves a history of Geometry, which should open with an account of the labours of Monge, Poncelet, and Chasles, and pass over in utter silence not only those of Descartes, Newton, and Leibnitz, of the mediaeval Geometry, Adelard of Bath, but also of Ptolemy, Euclid, and again Pythagoras, who according to Proclus, was the first to give geometry the form of a science.
The Written Traditions, or Manuscript Constitutions of the Freemasons, carry us back to the fourteenth century. From what earlier date they actually speak as unwritten traditions must of course rest largely on conjecture, but that they could boast of a then respectable antiquity about the year 1400 A.D. there seems to be no room for doubt, and perhaps the day may yet arrive when fresh discoveries will enable us to trace their assured origin to Egypt and the East. The Manuscript Constitutions have come down to us in numerous channels of transmission, and almost every form or copy possesses characteristics or idiosyncrasies of its own, which differ in some respects, minute or otherwise, from those of all remaining types. The chief features in each are the Legend of the Craft and the Rules or Orders, to the latter of which the title "Charges" is likewise applied. It may be worthy of consideration whether originally the "Legend" stood alone, and was not combined with the "Rules" in a single document — a suggestion I throw out for the attention of the Cognoscenti, as it may tend to explain why the codes of regulations embraced in the several documents exhibit such remarkable discrepancies. And perhaps by a parity of reasoning may remove a portion of the difficulty that besets a student of the Locke MS (referred to in a previous paper), by warranting the inference that the "Questions" and "Answers" (or Catechism) contained in that venerable muniment, were not always associated with, and therefore should be criticised apart from the singular and somewhat fanciful glossary which purports to be explanatory of the text.
The Masonic Constitutions will be most conveniently described as consisting of three classes of documents, corresponding as nearly as may be with the period of use to which they can be assigned; or, speaking of them as a whole, coinciding with what I have termed (in my Concise History), their first, second, and third manners, respectively. In the first of these divisions are comprised the Regius and Cooke Codices, which were compiled upwards of four centuries and a half ago, when every book or record was a written one, and the texts of these two manuscripts evidently refer to a period when the forest-law existed side by side with the ordinary law of the land.
The documents in the second class point with equal clearness to an era coinciding with a later stage of English mediaeval law. Lastly, there is a small cluster of manuscripts wherein we meet with what are called the "New Articles" — a series of regulations (to be again referred to), tne exact import of which has yet to be determined.
Of the documents in the first class, the Regius is in metrical and the Cooke in prose form. The former (inter alia) traces the history of Masonry from its foundation by Euclid in Egypt down to its introduction into England by King Athelstan. It also contains rules of decorum which were plainly intended for gentlemen of those days, as the instructions for behaviour in the presence of a lord, at table, and in the society of ladies, would all have been equally out of place in a code of manners drawn up for the use of a guild or craft of artisans. At the date, therefore, from which the Regius poem speaks, it would appear that there was in existence a guild or fraternity which commemorated the science, but without practising the art of Masonry.
The Cooke MS., which, in the opinion of Dr. Begemann, is the original form of all the Manuscript Constitutions now extant, with the solitary exception of the Masonic poem (or Regius MS.), recites the origin of geometry, from which came Masonry, that Jabal, the son of Lamech wrote all the sciences on two pillars to protect them from fire and water, and that after Noah's flood these pillars were found by Pythagoras, the great clerk, and Hermes, the philosopher, who taught and spread the sciences they contained. Nimrod and Abraham then enter into the narrative. Euclid was taught the Seven Sciences by the latter, and after instructing the sons of the lords in the craft of Masonry, gave them a Charge. Masonry was next favoured by David and Solomon, after which we learn that Caeolus Secundus was a Mason before he became King of France. St. Alban gave the English Masons their first Charge, and afterwards both King Athelstan and his son loved Masons well. The latter, who became a Mason himself, obtained a free patent from his father that they should make an Assembly when they thought fit.
Of King Athelstan's reputed son it is further recorded that he loved well the science of geometry, and being aware that "no hand-craft had the practice of the science so well as Masons, he drew him to council and learned the practice of that science to his speculative, for of speculative he was a master." From which it has been contended, that anciently Masonry was both an art and a science that it possessed its operative as well as its free members, and also its peculiar regulations, but that Speculative Masonry implied merely an acquaintance with the science.
It may be incidentally remarked that the letter of Horace Walpole to Sir Horace Mann, which was cited in the first article of the present series, would possibly have dealt with the Looke MS. in a different spirit, had the writer been aware that the celebrated philosopher of Crotona — the founder, moreover, of a mystical brotherhood composed of young men of the noblest families — was a traditionary teacher of the Freemasons; or could his memory have recalled a passage with which, it is probable he was familiar, in the writings of Valerius Maximus, the Roman historian, who, in referring [Circa 30 a.d.) to the Druids of Britain, says; "One would have laughed at these long-trousered philosophers, if we had not found their doctrine under the cloak of Pythagoras."
The Regius and Cooke MSS. have come down to us in book form. Both are Trinitarian in religion, and while the former has been appropriately styled a Roman Catholic manual of devotion, the latter was apparently compiled (from pre-existing records) after the establishment in England of the principles of the Reformation. The Regulations in either volume are divided into Articles and Points (a peculiarity which they share with no other variety of these documents). But in each instance, both the Legend and the Regulations appear to have been used solely as histories of or disquisitions upon Masonry, nor is there anything except the usage of much later times, and under very altered circumstances, from which we may infer that the history of Masonry — or geometry, — either with or without a recital of the Articles and Points, was necessarily communicated to new members on their admission, or at any subsequent period.
To complete this section of the narrative, let me add that in the oldest cluster of documents relating to our Society, we meet with extracts, homilies, and collections which are very far removed from the mental range of the operative Masons to whom the Manuscript Constitutions were rehearsed at a later period. This will accord with the supposition that Masonry, as a speculative science, declined or fell into decay, pari passu with Masonry as an operative art.
In the second cluster of our ancient Craft documents will be found the great bulk of the Manuscript Constitutions, many of which are in roll or scroll form. A gap of more than a century and a half separates these writings from those of the earlier type, during which period the builders almost died out, and the arts lost their vigour and beauty.
"The Symbols of the Sages," as Albert Pike so truly remarks, "have always at last become the idols of the common people; and when the meanings of old words and phrases have been lost, legends have always been invented, accommodated to suppositious meanings, which have become oracles, and the legends articles of religious faith."
The mythology of the Craft descended to a lower plane. It seems inherently probable that the Written Traditions of Masonry gradually become the inheritage of the operative element, and that in course of time no English Lodge of any importance was without a copy of the Manuscript Constitutions.
These were transcribed again and again, often by ignorant scribes, some of whom altered the phraseology in one way and some in another. New features were engrafted on the legendary history. For example, the singular story that at the building of King Solomon's Temple there was a "curious man," Naymus Graecus, whose days were indeed long in the land, as the adventurous Greek, having completed his studies at Jerusalem, afterwards abandoned the Orient and passed into France, where he taught the science of Masonry to Charles Martel.
It is commonly supposed that from about the close of the sixteenth down to the eighteenth century the legend of the Craft, together with the Regulations (or Charges) of the Fraternity, were read to new members on their admission, but there is room for doubt whether the practice, even in England, was of a uniform character. In Scotland it certainly was not, and equally with regard to North and South Britain, it remains an open question whether at the entry of non-operative members, any recital of our Written Traditions constituted a part of the "formality" of their reception.
In all the copies or versions of the "Constitutions" which are placed in the second or the third classes the principal Charge is, "To be true to God and the Holy Church."
The third cluster of documents consists of the "Roberts" group or family, containing some "New Articles," and by one of these it is ordained that the "Society Company, and ffraternity of ffree Masons shall be governed by one Master and Wardens," to be chosen "att every yearely assembly."
But in the second edition of the Book of Constitutions published by Dr. James Anderson, with the sanction of the Grand Lodge of England, in 1738, this "Article" was made to read; "That the said Fraternity of Free Masons shall be govern'd by one Grand Master and as many Wardens as the Society shall think fit to appoint at every Annual General Assembly." A belief consequently sprang up that prior to the formation of a Grand Lodge there was a General Assembly which met once a year, and was presided over by a Grand Master.
The "New Articles," in the opinion of William James Hughan (with whom I am entirely in accord), "appear to have been agreed to by some company or body of Free-masons, having jurisdiction in one form or other over a number of Lodges, about which at the present time we are wholly without information."
It will now be convenient to mention that while the mandate entrusted to Anderson in 1721 — that he should digest "the old Gothic Constitutions" in a new and better method was carried out by the publication of his first "Book of Constitutions" in 1723, no account of the proceedings in the Grand Lodge from its formation down to the latter year has ever been given to the world, except what was supplied by Anderson himself in the "New Book of Constitutions" which appeared in 1738. Between 1723 and 1738 many things happened. Upon these I must not linger, yet the remark may be made that while ignorance and perversity were alleged to constitute his failings as a writer in 1723, old age, infirmities and straitened circumstances were certainly among his misfortunes, when engaged on the subsequent work, which appeared in 1738. Whether, indeed, leaving out for the moment the awkward fact of their discrepancies, the two Books of Constitutions, for which Dr. Anderson was responsible, are to be taken not only as the basis of Masonic history but also of Masonic law, is the question which I shall ask each reader of this article to try and determine for himself. To assist him in so doing I have sought to present the general features of the old Manuscript Constitutions of the Fraternity, within the smallest possible compass, wherein the characteristics of the leading types can be made reasonably clear.
The two Books of Constitutions, however, the curious reader, if such there be, must examine for himself. He will find, unless my judgment is wholly at fault, that Dr. Anderson, like Dr. Bentley (though without his erudition), united two things that are very incompatible, dogmatism and whim, and was at the same time both conjectural and dictatorial. He often substituted creation for correction, invented where he ought rather to have investigated, and gave us what he conceived a copyist of the Manuscript Constitutions should have written, rather than what he did write.
Some day, should my span of life be sufficiently prolonged, I hope to write an essay on the "Philosophy of Masonry," and, if this aspiration be fulfilled, I shall at least be justified in affirming, that before the era of Grand Lodges, every member of the Society was necessarily a believer in the Christian faith.