Some Important Features of Doing Masonic Research

Dr Trevor Stewart

PM, Quatuor Coronati Lodge No. 2076 (EC)

Member, Lodge 'Sir Robert Moray', No. 1641

Prestonian Lecturer, UGLE 2004

Some years ago I made a survey of nearly 300 academic papers, a representative sample of all those that had been published in the 1980s and 1990s, which analysed the contribution Freemasonry and freemasons had made to European history. These pieces of research reveal a remarkable and recent emergence of objective and systematic studies of the Masonic phenomenon and of Masonic activities by scholars who are not freemasons. In the former Communist countries (e.g., Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland and especially Russia) this development occurred since the onset of glasnost and perestroika. This new scholarly approach to Masonic studies may help the Craft to acquire some academic respectability eventually. After decades of neglect by academic historians and sociologists for various reasons, Freemasomy is beginning to be appraised critically by European scholars using primary source materials of various kinds.

One remarkable feature of this resurgence of academic interest in Freemasonry is that these studies were and are being carried out by professional historians who are not freemasons, some of whom are women, and who are based in universities throughout Europe. As one might reasonably expect, several studies were full-length doctoral theses. There were also monographs and papers which have focussed on Freemasonry outside of Europe. Most studies form a steady stream of shorter papers published in learned joumals. Most were non-partisan, sympathetic analyses. Collectively they could provide Freemasonry with an invaluable intellectual underpinning. They may even encourage some Brethren in the face of the current fashionable anti-Masonic trends.

Another interesting feature of these studies is their consistent focus on the political and sociological involvement of European freemasons in the general life of their countries. This accumulation of Masonic research provides the clearest possible evidence that Freemasonry has not, indeed cannot, exist in a cultural or ideological vacuum. Like any other human institution, it has been and is a product of its cultural environment. To some extent, therefore, the extemal pressures and contingent forces that impinged on the Craft in the past, and those that influence it now, determine (at least partially) its organisational structures as well as its members' modi vivendi and their self-perspective. These fascinating studies also show that European Freemasonry has hardly been a passive institution. Scholars have come to see that it has been, and perhaps is still, a pro-active force for social amelioration.

What may surprise some Brethren is the range of topics analysed, the frequency of publication and the growing sympathy towards Freemasonry among non-Masonic European academic circles.

One feature that was noticeable immediately was the proliferation ofarticles in French, Italian and Russian journals and others and the relative paucity of similar research projects in English academic circles. This fact confirms that Masonic studies have achieved more legitimacy in European academic circles than they have hitherto in the English-speaking world, particularly in the UK. There are several reasons why this may be so. One would be the founding of separate academic departments, in major universities in France, Spain, Poland, Germany and elsewhere, to study the western occultist tradition generally. These remarkable initiatives have resulted in numbers of young post-graduates doing Masonic research androutinely using primary materials of all kinds.

As long ago as 1969 the late Dr. J. M. Roberts, in a review article [1], drew attention to some of the interesting possibilities of developing quite different perspectives of the 18th century providing that historians focussed on Freemasonry as a social phenomenon. Nearly 40 years ago he noted its historiographic potential. He, a non-mason, saw Freemasonry in the following terms:

It was hardly surprising, therefore, that John Roberts deplored the lack of interest by UK-based scholars when compared with the exciting new insights into French 18th century society provided by French writers such as Pierre Chevallier [2] and Alain Le Bihan [3]. Sadly, not much resulted from his clarion call and we have had to wait until Peter Clark's excellent recent publication [4] to see Freemasonry receive due attention in a British context. In England, apart from two rather quiet Fellowships filled on a biannual basis at Cambridge and Oxford, the nascent Canonbury Centre for Masonic Research in London, the splendid resources of the Warburg Institute (also in London) and a newly established Centre for Masonic Studies at Sheffield under the leadership of Professor Andrew Prescott, there is still nothing much to sustain non-Masonic students who wish to study Freemasonry at a higher level. However, it is a special delight for me there are some post-graduate studies into Freemasonry being undertaken by young female post-graduate students at Edinburgh and St Andrews Universities and elsewhere in Scotland with its remarkable sequences of pre-1600 MSS resources and these particular initiatives no doubt owe much to the well- deserved popularity of the pioneering work of Professor David Stevenson [5].

On the Continent, however, non-Masonic scholars have become much more open to the possibility that Freemasonry is a clearly identifiable social phenomenon with a long history and, as such, susceptible to objective analysis. The consequence of this is, of course, that in European academic circles particularly, the Craft has acquired some 'respectability'. Furthermore, European scholars, wishing to investigate the Masonic phenomenon in its various manifestations, have realised that Continental freemasons themselves share a tradition, within the customs and practices of their Lodges, of treating the Craft with much more intellectual rigour in order to progress up through the various series of Degrees or Grades. This has also contributed to the reputation for serious-minded analysis of Freemasonry, especially among freemasons themselves — a fact which is often reflected in the sheer variety of MSS essays, or pieces d'architecture, and orations preserved in the archives of the oldest Lodges. One important fact which helps research by non-masons until this huge accumulation of MSS material is the open shelf policy adopted from quite early time by the Library of the Grand Orient de France.

Another reason for the sustained external scholarly interest in investigating Freemasonry in various European centres could be that there are many secular depositories of Masonic materials available to students there. Unlike as in most of the English-speaking world, these sources are not occluded by over-protective freemasons determined to preserve their traditional secrecy at the cost of denying anyone who is not a freemason access to their MSS.

From a historiographical point of view, one obvious very useful advantage which the early Lodges have over other such contemporary voluntary associations is that there are easily identifiable as distinct bodies. Even so one important question arises immediately. If that is so, why has there been so little research into Freemasonry done in UK academic circles? What explanations can there be for this apparent lack of academic interest in Britain among many scholars with fonnal training? Some of this neglect may be due to the fact that UK Lodges were patently voluntary associations and this may have led scholars to assume that they were quite private bodies and therefore entitled to their privacy, outside the scope of proper investigations by outsiders. There may have been another underlying, largely mistaken assumption that only initiates could ever really understand the history and purposes of the Lodges and that such research should be properly left only to them. If no initiates did the research then so be it!

Then in the UK generally there is the patent lack of available MSS sources (e.g., Lodges' records of various kinds). Very few primary sources have been deposited in non-Masonic archives, unlike on the Continent. According to Jean Léglise [6] in France, for example, there are at least 80 municipal libraries and Department archives outside Paris with Masonic materials on open deposit. At least 11 of these are major collections containing many Masonic MSS. What is more, each has a comprehensive catalogue facilitating access to anyone. That pattern has been repeated in university libraries and state archives in Poland, Denmark, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and elsewhere. Indeed, this extraordinary assembling of Masonic materials in open-access collections is one of the most fortunate bi-products of the European-wide restitution of historical libraries and artefacts which has been undertaken in various UNESCO- funded projects under the auspices of the Bremen based Koordinierungsstelle der Länder für die Rückführung von Kultürgütern. In contrast, it is sad to have to report that in England, for instance, there are to date only 11 separate entries relating to Masonic topics in the digital catalogue generated by the Historical MSS Commission.

In the UK most Masonic material still remains securely held in Masonic hands and access is still not granted readily to non-masons. The oldest Lodges do tend to guard their documentation very carefully indeed, even if (sadly) they themselves still don't know how to exploit them as historically important documents. Those few Provincial Grand Lodges with libraries have relied on well-intentioned amateurs, freemasons who worked unpaid and with little or no training. They may have dusted the books and artefacts but few of them managed to produce catalogues. The exceptions are in Worcester, Sheffield and York.

Even if scholars can be granted access by UK Lodges to the original Minute Books etc., these are often in sadly neglected states. The earliest, and therefore the most interesting, are often illegible and scrappy in content having been compiled desultorily by the local schoolmaster or clerk (i.e., the member who could write and who could be dragooned into record keeping of a sort) and there are very few early examples of Lodges' transactions and financial affairs. Until recently, even the magnificent collections housed in the Libraries and Museums at the Freemasons' Halls in London and Edinburgh were not being properly administered. But it is pleasing to be able to report that now skilled non-masons have been appointed by the UGLE, under a separate Library and Museum Trust, to take over the enormous task of properly cataloguing and administering their wonderful collections. Work there is progressing rapidly on the digitisation of the catalogue and, in the not too distant future, it should be fully integrated with other European collections which have already made those essential adjustments.

Even if scholars do manage to gain access to UK Lodges' records, they have to bear in mind that such primary sources may not be their anticipated treasure troves. Obviously, if a body is entirely scientific in purpose and intellectual in its membership then one might reasonably expect that its records would be fully detailed even literary, of some intellectual thoroughness because the society's raison d'être would need to explain phenomena, describe discoveries, provide experimental evidence. However, such was not the aim of speculative Freemasonry in Britain even though freemasons were enjoined to make the hidden mysteries and secrets of Nature as well as the Seven Liberal Arts and Sciences their proper daily study. Besides, the Lodges' Minute Books were not compiled for external readers. They were purely for intemal purposes and Lodges' secretaries in the early days at least did not feel themselves obliged to make verbatim records of the transactions. Furthermore, the Lodges' early procedures were usually much less elaborate than today. Besides, all subscribing members then were obliged to attend on pain of fines so they did, in practice, attend the meetings and so all would be familiar with the proceedings of the previous meetings and would not necessarily have needed detailed written accounts.

Another reason why so little interest has been shown so far in UK universities must lie in how Freemasonry has been perceived in most academic circles as having:

There has been an added deficiency. In spite of the well-publicised fact that many aristocrats, even royalty, have been freemasons, there has been a commonly accepted tradition in most liberal circles that, in the UK at least, Freemasonry is perceived by non-masons to be somehow disreputable. This may have been due in large measure to the British tradition of lampooning it in print and cartoons. It is a well-established tradition of ridicule which started in days of the English speculative Craft's earliest manifestations in London (e.g., with Ned Ward's A Compleat and Humorous Account of All the Remarkable Clubs and Societies in the Cities of London and Westminster, 1709-1756), continued with Benoit's famous cartoon Scald Miserable Masons (1741) and went though the rest of the 18th century to figure in the anonymous comedy The Ugly Club (1798).

The intellectually restricted perspective among most modem UK freemasons (which some may even label as anti-intellectual) may be due in large measure to the way British Freemasonry has been conducted at a Lodge level generally: with a concentration on mere formalities and ceremoniality. There are indeed many commendable so-called Lodges of Research but often these are mere 'Lecture Lodges'. Members seldom undertake research and, meeting at irregular intervals, merely listen passively and often unquestioningly to papers, most of varying quality. Throughout Europe, however, freemasons seem to approach their membership of the Craft much more intellectually and more systematically. Furthermore, they appear to be untrapped by the materialities which fascinate most UK freemasons. This different approach may have been due in part to the fact that in Europe the Craft has been perceived by its members to have been subject to widespread persecution from both secular and ecclesiastical authorities from time to time — from the mid-18th century until almost the present day. All minorities, among whom we might include freemasons, do tend to acquire more introspective, philosophical attitudes (without necessarily becoming merely self-referential). If one might lose one's liberty or even one's life, then one takes one's membership of the proscribed organisation much more seriously. Consequently, in Europe the Lodges seem to have evolved a more philosophic Freemasonry. Their overt activities seem to be much more socially purposive.

Unlike UK freemasons, who are reminded strictly to be peaceable subjects of whichever country affords them its protection and to remain unquestioningly loyal to the sovereign of their native lands, European freemasons have been much more active politically, even radical, in their outlook and societal involvement. This may have been because of the kind of articulate social classes who were drawn to seek membership of the Lodges. This has tended to produce great quantities of evidence at Lodge level of freemasons' sustained social involvement. Hence, scholars in Europe have huge amounts of data about Masonic political commitments, including the ambitious programmes for radical social reform and the publishing of reformist literature and journals. Diligent readers will findample evidence of this Masonic social involvement on the Continent in the archives of most Lodges that date from the 18th and 19th centuries.

The historiographical importance of these research studies is that they demonstrate very clearly several important points that should resonate with all committed members of the Craft today:

These studies also show that one of the main historiographical uses of Freemasonry is that it touches so obviously and directly so many different aspects of European social life (intellectual, political, iconographic, religious, cultural and artistic). Hence, it is possible for impartial observers to use Masonic materials in order to revisit and even reinterpret existing questions from hitherto neglected perspectives. New, refreshing perspectives and judgments can, therefore, be made.

But that wonderful work was done by professional, or at least semi- professional, historians. And Brethren might be inclined to ask: 'What of the research work that any enthusiastic freemason can do — provided he has sufficient time, energy, commitment, and adequate access to the necessary sources?'

The most useful thing that 1 can do, in the time available, is to pass on some basic principles of history research derived from my professional experience.

Motivation for doing Masonic research

First of all, it may be worthwhile examining honestly your reasons for wanting to get involved in Masonic research. Your levels of motivation will inevitably affect your choice of topic. So, before you even start, you might try answering such questions as:

Indeed, your motivation can be affected by one or more of the following factors:

Topic Size

Another methodology question which ought to be faced early on is the whole matter of topic 'size'. One of the key skills in choosing a topic for Masonic research is being able to select one of the 'right size'. So don't aim at solving all of the problems about Freemasonry in one go; others have tried and they weren't successful either! The trick is to limit your intended project to manageable proportions.

In not being too ambitious you should apply the Goldilock's principle: it should be not too big, not too small, but 'just right'! And in determining that you may need to consider relevant factors such as:

What about originality?

How original should you be? Proper, worthwhile research in any subject, not just Freemasonry, ought to try to be original. Having to be original will inevitably help to decide what topic you select. What you research and write about ought to be an original project; it ought to make an original contribution to our knowledge about Freemasonry; in itself it ought to be evidence of your original thinking.

But what is meant by 'original'? Indeed, any or all of the following might serve to define that tenn:

Research is usually a solitary obsession. There is an underlying psychological expectation that you will be able to produce your research project; it will be identifiably yours; you will take whatever plaudits arise therefrom etc.

However, some topics are too large or the manipulation of data is too technical for just one researcher to handle alone. Teams (of as few as two) may become necessary for fruition and sometimes research into Freemasonry can generate far too much data for one person to handle especially within the pre-determined time-scale. Working with a partner might be the answer to this problem. But what are the comparable advantages of working with someone else and working alone?

Team Research

Individual Research

Possible 'Audiences'

The question of what sort of 'audience' you are aiming at may influence

your choice of research topic. There may be different 'audiences', or readerships, each of them bringing different levels of previously acquired skills, interests, expectations etc. Some research in Freemasonry will be of quite limited appeal (e.g., a Lodge history); Wider topics will naturally have a wider appeal (e.g., Mark tokens, or the design and construction of Lodge rooms); while those dealing with broad concepts (e.g., Masonic symbols, or the possible social functions of Freemasonry) will have even more general importance. These will inevitably influence how your efforts are received. Allowing for the fact that conducting research is enjoyable in its own right, this reception will, in turn, determine, at least partially, its success for you. It will almost certainly influence your choice of expression and the physical format of your final product.

Time and Time Management

All research tends to be a rather slow pre-occupation. You will need to allow for this. You will need plenty of quiet time, whenever and however you can 'grab' it.

Fortunately, researching into Freemasonry is usually done voluntarily (i.e., it is not subject to the time constraints imposed by external agencies). It is self-induced stress since you will be setting your own deadlines.

However, some Lodges celebrate anniversaries and may require copies of your report to be available for sale at pre-specified times. Popular Masonic magazines (e.g., The Ashlar which has a commendably wide distribution here in Scotland) also work to deadlines. So, you may be under some extra pressure from editors. How well can you work to such deadlines imposed by others, especially at what is supposed to be done in your 'spare time'?

You ought to set aside a specific time each day, or each week at least, when you can work at your project uninterruptedly: a period when you know that you will be able to take it up again; a weekly, or monthly, 'treat' for yourself. If continuing your project ever becomes a chore, then give it up (at least temporarily). You will not do your best work on it then.

Furthermore, like any long-distance runner, you will need to pace yourself — don't expect that you will be able to maintain your initial enthusiastic rush. As has been pointed out already, your motivation levels may fluctuate. You will experience periods of frustration and others of (complete) ineptitude. Starting out on a small-scale research project is like starting out on a (half?) marathon. Endurance is all.

To that end, you will also need a quiet place away from the intrusions of ordinary life. In some ways, conducting a research project may be seen by those around you as a selfish obsession.

If you haven't been able to make sufficient provision for time and do not have a suitable quiet room in which to work, this will inevitably affect whether you can actually choose any research topic.

Possible costs involved in Masonic research

Inevitably, Masonic research will incur expenses and these might influence your choice of topic. Some projects will entail considerable travel. Over the years, these costs could amount to quite large sums.

In the past, most Masonic researchers in the UK have not been involved in, or employed by, universities. They have been private individuals. As such they have been expected to carry the total costs of researching. These expenses include:

Since Masonic research is like any other research it ought not to be done for free. If projects are sponsored or commissioned by someone else (e.g., by a Lodge) then workers should persuade or cajole them into covering (at least part of) the costs. If, say, a Lodge wants its history written then they should be invited to pay for it. If folk get something for free, then they generally d0n't value it. But if it comes with a price tag, however small, then at least that expresses a value to them.

Being sponsored in this way, of course, should add some pressure on researchers; it could entail the setting of deadlines (no bad thing!); it will effect motivation; it will even lend some added status to the finished 'product'.

Resources available

The kinds of sources of information would be available and their ease of access will be factors which will affect your choice of research topic. It's no use attempting to investigate a subject where there are no resources or where what resources are available (e.g., primary MSS sources) will not be made available to you — for whatever reason.

It is a cause for much celebration that here in Scotland would-be Masonic researchers have extremely valuable MSS resources to hand. Prof. David Stevenson has shown in a detailed 'Inventory' that there exist invaluable collections of pre-1701 MSS [7] and his listing emphasizes graphically the remarkable (even unique) extent of this surviving evidence. Some of it (e.g., that relating to the activities of the oldest Lodges) is in largely unbroken sequences from as far back as the later years of the 16th century!

But would-be researchers should be careful in trying to use such MSS. Not everything is as straightforward as one might wish in these Masonic records. Later on, if time permits, I shall illustrate this caveat by referring to a specific incident that occurred in the summer of 1721 in the long, distinguished history of the famous Lodge of Edinburgh.

Support for researchers

Another essential factor that will determine which topic to choose is the kinds and levels of support available. Surprisingly any research is an emotional business. Diligent researchers will be investing their time, money, and their feelings into the whole project. It will be your 'child'; and, like the proverbial demanding, spoilt brat, it will require the parent's patience, love and attention. Research is mostly a lonely, solitary and probably long-lasting pre-occupation (obsession?), something that is usually pursued in 'splendid isolation'. Being human, researchers will need some emotional support at regular intervals.

So here are some relevant questions to ponder:

Changing direction?

In any research project, it may become necessary to change the whole
direction of the investigation. Several factors might bring this about: e.g.,

It's a good idea, therefore, to have an inbuilt exibility to your intended project right from its inception: e.g., being prepared to consider using alternative approaches, methods of data analysis etc. There are several points about change worth remembering:

Formulating a theory and defining key issues

Freemasonry is a societal phenomenon worthy of serious and objective investigation. Speculative Freemasonry was created by a culture and has continued to exist within it. It has achieved some historical importance, if only because (unlike other similar societies which arose in the early 18th century) it has continued to live and operate within a context that is simultaneously social, philosophic, religious and economic.

One important consequence for the Masonic researcher, therefore, is to present the results of the research by relating the specific phenomena under investigation to their full and proper context. Hence, the history of, say, an individual or of a Lodge ought not to be presented solely in isolation as happened in previous generations. Your specific subject ought to be described by you as part of a greater whole.

Furthermore, nearly all research hardly ever breaks new ground but is built on the accumulated efforts of several previous generations. If others have investigated and reported on the same specific topic previously, then some account of their findings must be included before you proceed to describe what you have discovered. This is standard research technique and is expected of all serious would-be investigators.

Part of this essential contextualisation would be the brief definition of key concepts (or 'umbrella terms') and then of subordinate issues (or controversial questions). Thus, in almost every small-scale, well-structured investigation

If it helps, adopt the image of a tasty jam doughnut, with the outer thinner casing (the context) containing the thicker inner 'surprise'. Ideally, a similar proportioning should be reflected in your final report/paper.

Sketching an outline of your intended project

In 'olden days', pupils in secondary schools were often required to compose a précis — an essential and most useful method of concentrating the mind, acquiring and developing an active vocabulary, stimulating and then rening any inherent literary skills. It's a great pity that doing a précis is no longer considered worthwhile in secondary schools. Being able to reduce a passage into approximately a third of its total original word-count while keeping its meaning and structure but without using any of the original expression was a very important and useful method of literary self improvement.

Try out your proposal on someone else

A good idea worthwhile considering is to use a non-specialist, perhaps a reliable friend but who is not a freemason, by showing him/her your outline. It would be an important developmental stage for you, as a would-be researcher, to have to explain your intention in non-specialist language, making no assumptions as to language, ideas etc. You would need to render your proposal into language that almost anyone could understand readily. In doing so, you may have to adjust your ideas about such questions as:

Often an 'outsider' can bring unknowingly a much-needed brand of scepticism, or even a certain level of naivety that will give you cause for further thought. It may even help you to question your assumptions about Freemasonry in general and your proposed investigation in particular.

Some Practical Illustrations of these principles

Let me tell you briey about three Masonic research projects in which I have been involved fairly recently and so illustrate some of these research principles as well as making some worthwhile, more general points which you may want to consider in relation to our membership of the Craft today.

  1. The Dundee installation celebrations in the 1770s
    This tells the story of the increasing elaboration of the parades — what sorts of sources used — Minute Books, contemporary local newspapers, burgh records, law court reports, street maps
    The social significance of the Scottish parades
    The route taken then — why? Masons putting themselves on show.
  2. Desaguliers' visit to Edinburgh, 1721
    Sources used — Lodge Minute Book, newspaper accounts of the event What has been claimed by some for this meeting
    Its significance — masonic and local
    Taking in just anyone
  3. 3. Gustav Petre's fate, 1914.
    The incident raises interesting questions
    First order questions: telling the narrative story
    Second order questions: relating the particular incident to a wider social and historical context
    Third order questions: the wider moral implications — what does our membership mean for us today?


  1. Robert, J. M. 'Freemasonry: Possibilities of a Neglected Topic', EHR vol. 84 (1969), pp. 323-335.
  2. Chevallier, P. Les ducs sous l'acacia: Les premiers pas de la Franc-Maçonnerie française (Paris: Librarire philosophique J. Vrin, 1964).
  3. Le Bihan, A. Loges et Chapitres de la Grande Loge et du Grand Orient de France (Paris: Bibliotheque nationale, 1967).
  4. Clark, P. British Clubs and Societies, 1580-1800: The Origins of an Associational World (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 2000).
  5. Stevenson, D. The Origins of Freemasonry: Scotland's Century, 1590-1710 (Cambridge UP, 1988).
  6. Léglise, J. Catalogue des manuscripts maçonniques des bibliothèques publiques de France (2 vols., Paris: Editions SEPP, 1982 & 1988).
  7. Stevenson, D. The First Freemasons: Scotland's Early Lodges and their Members (Aberdeen UP, 1988), Appendix 2, pp. 184-205.

Grand Lodge of Scotland Year Book, 2005