THE OPERATIVE MASONS

History of Freemasonry - Chapter XI
by H.L. HAYWOOD


IF the date assigned by scholarship is correct, the oldest
existing Masonic manuscript, the Regius poem, was penned
in the year 1390. In that year King Richard II was on the
throne of England; the battle of Agincourt had not yet been
fought; the War of the Roses as yet in the future and the first
voyage of Columbus to the New World was not to begin for
more than another century. Almost three-quarters of a
century were to pass before Martin Luther's birth. All over
Europe men were still building cathedrals in the Gothic style,
although that school of architecture had entered upon its
final phases of decline. The guild system was in its heyday in
England and on the continent. It had not yet become
fashionable - in England at least - to burn heretics at the
stake. Legal issues might still be decided in trial by combat.

The Regius manuscript contains a set of rules and
regulations for the government of what was obviously a guild
of craftsmen; in the light of modern research it is possible to
ascertain that the society was organized upon much the
same general plan as were the majority of operative guilds of
that day. But the Regius poem is of far greater importance
than that. It was a patent attempt to account to the English
members of an English institution for an antiquity of that
institution in which they already believed. Presumably it was
to be read to men whose fathers and grandfathers and
probably great grandfathers had belonged. It gave naive
credence to a tradition that the society had been in
continuous existence on English soil since the days of
Athelstan - which was to say since before the Norman
conquest. It is clear from the rhymed narrative itself that its
author had no real sense of the passage of time. What he
did know, however, was that the society was very old - or at
least so old that the traditions and memories of persons then
living did not run back to a time when it did not exist.

In some manner this particular manuscript was lost to sight,
to remain lost for some 450 years. At any rate when the first
Grand Lodge was formed, about 325 years after it was
penned, and diligent search was made for all the writings
having to do with Operative Masonry, this one for the time
escaped attention. There were other and later ones,
however, and these contained substantially the same
material, thus indicating the persistence of the Regius
tradition. At least six of these were in possession of the old
"immemorial" Lodge at York - a lodge which held itself out to
be the direct lineal descendant of the masonry of Athelstan's
day. Not a few such lodges were scattered about England
and Scotland at that time, unmistakable survivors of the guild
system of the Middle Ages. One of the first tasks the new
Grand Lodge set for itself was to gather, digest and publish
in literary form all that could be learned of the operative
guilds and particularly their legends, customs, laws and
regulations. More than a century after that had been done,
the Regius manuscript was rediscovered, to bear eloquent
testimony to the fact that there had been no great alteration
in the practices and beliefs of the operative masons between
the reign of Richard II and the reign of George I, a period of
more than three centuries.

Taking the year 1400 as a point of departure from which to
measure English Masonic history both forward and
backward, it is therefore clear: (1) that before that time, and
probably for a considerable period before it, operative
masonic guilds were in existence in England; that they had a
substantial literary tradition and customs established by
immemorial usage; (2) that they continued to exist for
another 300 years with relatively little change in either
customs or traditions; and (3) that surviving units or "lodges"
of them participated in the eighteenth-century movement
which centered on the formation of the first Grand Lodge,
from which Speculative Freemasonry dates its present form
of existence.

For purposes of discussion it may be assumed that even if
there had been no operative societies coming down from a
remoter antiquity, the guild system itself would have
produced them. When artisans of all other classes and
callings were uniting themselves into such groups, it would
have been strange indeed if the stone masons had not done
so also. If not a single record of their medieval existence
could be found, it still would be safe to infer they did exist. As
a matter of fact there are records of Masonic guilds both in
England and on the continent. The term Freemason occurs
in the fabric rolls of Exeter Cathedral in the year 1396. The
guild at London in 1537 called its members Freemasons; at
Norwich in 1375 masons appear to have been attached to
the guild of carpenters; whether that was a purely local or a
general arrangement at the time there is no way of knowing.

It is interesting to observe, however, that in the year 1350
two separate classes of masons were recognized. A statute
of that period describes a mestre mason de franche pere - a
master mason of free stone - as being different from other
masons and entitled to higher pay. That distinction is
maintained in a statute of 1360 except that in the later one
the preferred workman is called a "chief mestre" of masons.
The common mason appears to have been classified
generally with "carpenters, tilers, thatchers, daubers and all
other labourers." As late as 1604 an incorporation at Oxford
included freemasons, carpenters, joiners and slaters. It is
evident from the records of smaller towns that mason guilds
were not numerous or particularly important, a fact which in
itself is illuminating. It marks one great respect in which
these bodies differed from all other craft organizations, for
they were essentially local institutions, made up of workmen
who remained in one town and usually in one quarter of the
town, whereas the skilled masons who worked in the
building of the Gothic cathedrals had from the nature of their
calling to be more or less itinerant, moving about from place
to place as work was to be found.

In an enumeration of the guilds entitled to representation in
the Common Council of London in 1370, a Company of
Freemasons was listed and a Company of Masons, standing
respectively as No. 17 and No. 34 on a roll of forty-eight. The
Company of Masons appears to have been of greater
numerical strength than the Company of Freemasons, since
it had four representatives as against two for the other.
Whether, as Mackey's History of Freemasonry suggests, this
indicates that the Freemasons formed a smaller and more
select society, is pure speculation, since no proof one way or
the other has been found, but as a guess it is decidedly
plausible. In any event, the list establishes the existence of
two separate guilds. Ultimately they were merged, taking a
coat of arms which displayed three white castles with black
doors and windows on a black field, together with a silver or
scalloped chevron and on it a pair of black compasses.

It is therefore possible to be reasonably sure of the following
facts pertaining to the general situation of Operative
Masonry at the time the Regius manuscript was presumably
written, that is, in the year 1390:

I. That it was occasionally divided into two general classes
respectively mentioned as Freemasons and as Masons;

II. That town guilds of masons were small and relatively
unimportant as compared with town guilds of other kinds;

III. That town mason guilds frequently united with, or formed
parts of, guilds of other workers employed in the building
trades;

IV. That it is probable no wide gulf separated the two classes
of Masons, since separate guilds of them in London found
no insuperable obstacle in the way of union and particularly
since the Old Charges mention their common art as
Masonry, without drawing invidious distinctions between
Masons and Freemasons;

V. That the rules laid down for practical guidance of
members of the Craft corresponded in the main with similar
rules laid down in other craft guilds of that period.

But when the Regius poem was drafted, the active period of
Gothic architecture was already drawing to a close. That
period for centuries had given to the stone masons of
Northern and Western Europe their principal occupation. Its
work required a high degree of skill, which for the most part
could not be acquired except by actual practice in the labor
of building just such edifices as the great churches
themselves. The stonework of successive cathedrals
discloses that as fast as problems of construction were
solved, the solutions were passed along to succeeding
builders. From quarry to the finished task every stone had its
separate purpose, and preparation of every stone involved
conscious and more or less skilled direction at the hands of
every workman through whose hands it must pass.

When the curtain first rises on the stage of organize
Operative Masonry, it discloses a society proudly an
profoundly self-conscious. It is a society of aristocrat among
workmen, boasting of an ancestry of incredible age and
distinction. It has noble traditions, and it has dignity of a high
order to maintain. Moreover, it has secrets which at all costs
must be preserved, and a esoteric philosophy which is
rooted in the lore of the past. True, it is a guild and in many
respects like all the other guilds which then flourished as
such societies had not flourished before and as they have
not flourished since. But it is more than a guild; it is also a
cult, for it practices mystical rites which are now known to
have been survivals of magic rites and religious
observances, coming down from a past which was
indefinitely remote.

The Old Charges bear abundant witness to all these things.
Most of them prescribe the ritualistic manner in which oaths
of secrecy must be administered. One reveals that the
candidate was compelled to swear, "in the presence of
Almighty God and my Fellows and Brethren here present"
that he would not by any act or under any circumstance,
"publish, discover, reveal or make known any of the secrets,
privileges or counseIs of the fraternity or fellowship of Free
Masonry." (Harleian MSS.) Those secrets were indeed well
kept; so well, in fact, that the modern Freemason is much in
doubt as to what many of them were and can only suppose
that they had to do with the mechanical science of the
operative calling. As Operative Masonry fell into disuse,
some of them undoubtedly became imbedded in the
symbolism and allegory of rite and ritual, where they remain
to this day. Of their origin, practical use, and indeed of their
scope, the present day knows almost nothing. It is by no
means unlikely that as cathedral building masons merged
with the guild masons of the towns, they saw no reason to
impart to their less skilled companions more of their own
secret art than was necessary to give it symbolical or
emblematical preservation; and as "accepted," or non-
operative, masons came in time to outnumber them both, the
value of purely mechanical secrets naturally tended diminish
and ultimately to disappear.

The modern student must bear in mind also that from their
very nature it was unlawful for these things to be written,
carved or engraved upon any movable or immovable thing,
in such fashion that they might become legible or intelligible
to a "cowan," or outsider. The Old Charges must therefore
be studied for what they may suggest "between the lines" as
well as for what they openly say. In actual practice Masons
appear always to have been singularly tenacious of their
secret ritualistic "work." Although no particular care appears
to have been taken to keep the Old Manuscripts from public
inspection, secretaries of many immemorial lodges burned
their records rather than have them fall into the hands of
historians appointed by the first Grand Lodge. Even today
conservative brethren, fearing improper disclosures will be
made, look askance upon public discussions of esoteric
matters, and although various Monitors have been published
officially for guidance in the ritualistic labors of the Craft, by
far the greater part of modern ritual may not be lawfully
written even in cipher; Masons who compose ciphers for that
purpose or make use of them are subject to the severest
penalties. The only legal method of passing these secret
things from man to man and from generation to generation is
that of mouth-to-ear communication. It is truly astonishing
how accurate and uniform these oral transmissions have
been, and this accuracy is in itself the best justification of a
jealous zeal which forbids oral alteration or other innovation
upon the fundamentals of Craft Masonry.

In the operative days it is clear that mason guilds arose in
towns where there was enough work to support resident
craftsmen. Medieval cities for the most part, however, were
built not of stone but of wood. In such places carpenters
were far more in demand, and it is not surprising to find that
carpenter guilds were more numerous and more important in
local affairs than were those of the workers in stone. Indeed,
the stone worker was likely to be only an auxiliary to the
carpenter, performing incidental tasks in laying foundations
for houses, shoring up banks, lining the walls of excavations,
and here and there constructing a small bridge or culvert.
Sometimes there were not enough of them in a town to
conduct their own mystery plays in connection with great
pageants. At Exeter the masons shared a play with the
goldsmiths; at York with the hatmakers.

But when great churches, monasteries, castles or manor
houses were toward, it was a different story. Here the stone
worker came into his own; the carpenter, tiler, slater, glazier,
sank into subordinate positions. Resident mason guilds were
neither numerous enough nor possessed the necessary skill
to conduct enterprises of such magnitude. From afar off,
perhaps from foreign countries, would come the master
builder to take the work in hand. In many instances he
brought with him a few especially skilled assistants who
possessed his confidence and who knew how to do
important parts of the work as he liked to have them done.
The bishop, abbot or lord might have in mind a few
especially skilled craftsmen of his own and these of course
would be employed. Masons hearing of the undertaking
would begin to drift in from all directions. They came afoot,
making their way from town to town, visiting local lodges by
the way, sure of refreshment and hospitality and even of
financial assistance if they required it.

The gathering of so many strangers in one place would
naturally bring to local authorities unwonted burdens of
housing and policing. In those days, when serfs were tied to
their soil and a considerable proportion of the population of
every country was made up of bondsmen, the masterless
man was everywhere suspect. He might be locked up or
even be put to death if he couldn't give a satisfactory
account of himself. An apprentice not yet free of his
indentures was in most respects a bondsman; only master
workmen and fellows, free of their guild, might travel about in
safety, and it was essential that these have with them the
means of proving their identity. It could be assumed, even if
there were no traditions to support the theory, that these
traveling craftsmen possessed methods of making
themselves known to local craftsmen who would vouch for
them to the civil authorities. As few could either read or write,
and as written certificates, even if they existed, might be lost
or stolen, they would need to know a method of proving
themselves free craftsmen which would be independent of
articles to be concealed in the clothing or carried about the
person. The method would have to be more or less secret to
prevent its use by impostors.

Common laborers and other classes of workmen would be
recruited from the neighborhood and would be under the
direction of their own masters. The masons, on the other
hand, would have to be subject to other arrangements. But
this was an old experience to them; they knew precisely
what ought to be done in such an emergency.

Their first care was to set up a "lodge." Nearly every craft
guild had its building or other place of work, where the men
sometimes slept or gathered for social intercourse as well as
for labor, but the masons appear to have been alone in
applying the term "lodge" to the organization or assemblage
itself as well as to the place of assembly. In town guilds, as
at Aberdeen, where resident brethren were sufficiently
numerous, lodges were housed in permanent structures. On
the site of construction, however, it was usually sheltered in
a temporary shed or lean-to. Here it was a custom for the
craftsmen to take counsel on all matters pertaining to their
general welfare. Here also, apprentices were placed under
strict obligation to preserve the secrets of the logge; to hele,
or conceal, the counsel of their brethren.

Whether initiatory ceremonies were performed in those
rooms is not altogether clear. Survivals in the ritual make it
most certain that at some time lodge meetings were held in
the open air, the roof being nothing lower than the clouded
or star-decked canopy of the heavens. If this was the case,
such congregations must have been in secure places away
from the general body of the work, perhaps on the tops of
hills or in deep valleys where sentinels might observe the
approach of "cowans" - that is, non-organized workers or
"scabs" as they are now termed in labor parlance - and
eavesdroppers. Some arrangement of the kind would at
least seem reasonable, since the working hut was usually
situated at the heart of a busy camp surrounded by those of
other crafts. Some of the ceremonials which have come
down to modern times manifestly had their origin in magical
practices - practices maintained because they were
supposed to bring "good luck," long after their primitive
function of appeasing the divinities of nature had been
forgotten. Such exercises would serve to impress the novice
with the solemnity and inviolability of his undertakings in
addition to providing him with means of identifying himself
should he afterwards become a sojourner among stranger
masons. They naturally would be screened with the greatest
care from the eyes of the profane.

The principal function of a lodge at the scene of labor was to
bring the masons under a central government, responsible to
the general overseer or superintendent of the work, who
might be the master builder, his agents, the ecclesiastical
authorities, the civil authorities or a committee of laymen.
The lodge chose its own presiding officer, sometimes known
as a master, sometimes as a warden, sometimes, and
especially in Scotland, as a deacon. A box master, or
treasurer, was chosen to take care of the common fund.
There were bookkeepers or rolls keepers, whose duty it was
to keep track of the workers and the pay due them or
received by them. In general the officers were as few as
might be. Local conditions sometimes dictated increasing or
diminishing the number. There are no records showing the
employment of tylers at that early day, although it is
apparent that some method must have been employed to
keep the lodge free from intrusion when it was engaged
upon its private business. Some of these officers
disappeared entirely in later days, hen the need for them no
longer existed; other officers were created as circumstance
might decree.

The Old Charges furnish indications of the kind of rules and
regulations to which the members were subject. From
another source, the Fabric Rolls of York Cathedral, comes a
sidelight upon the working conditions of that period. It is a
decree establishing "Orders for the Masons and workmen,"
and reads as follows:

"The first and second Masons, who are called masters of the
same, and the carpenters, shall take oath that they cause
the ancient customs underwritten to be faithfully observed. In
summer they are to begin to work immediately after sunrise
until the ringing of the bell of the Virgin Mary; then to
breakfast in the fabric room (logium fabricae), then one of
the masters shall knock upon the door of the lodge, and
forthwith all are to return to work until noon. Between April
and August, after dinner, they shall sleep in the lodge, then
work until the first bell for vespers; then sit to drink till the
end of the third bell, and return to work so long as they can
see by daylight. In winter they are to begin work at daybreak,
and to continue as before till noon, dine and return to work
till daylight is over. On Vigils and on Saturdays they are to
work until noon."

Masons of the lodge kept themselves strictly apart from
unskilled workers in stone, who were known as rough
setters, wallers, plasterers, layers, cowans and masons
without the word." Apparently there was free intercourse
among members of the cathedral builders' lodges and those
of the local mason guilds, but no master might lay out plans
or display trade sets in the presence of workers of the cowan
class. As certain amount of intercourse between the
craftsmen and the directors of the work was essential, it was
a custom to give the "freedom of the lodge" to the more
notable of these, as a bishop, an architect or a man skilled in
the mechanical sciences. In Scotland persons so
distinguished came to be known as Geomatic Masons and
Gentlemen Masons. This appears to have been one of the
earliest plans for "accepting" non-operatives. There can be
little doubt that these honorary members, coming thus in
contact with the esoteric practices of the society, were vastly
interested by them, and it may be that some of these learned
brethren were able to explain to the less erudite mechanics
certain meanings of their quaint ceremonials which had long
since been forgotten.

Occasions for this must have been numerous. These
working masons were constantly surrounded by symbols
and other reminders of the past. The cathedrals which they
built, from "turret to foundation stone," were full of
symbolism. The arches, the windows, the gargoyles, were
luminous with it. Strange and secret markings were chiseled
into the stones; a master mason himself might employ a
mark which had been used by his father before him, the
original significance of which he had perhaps lost. Stained
glass, mural decorations, altar cloths, priestly vestments,
were employed to teach to an illiterate populace the most
treasured doctrines of Church and Bible. The ceremonial of
the Mass was symbolical in every detail, with every gesture
and intonation carefully prescribed so as to bear its proper
place in this great drama of the Passion of the Blessed
Saviour. To wits skilled in the reading of such things there
was scarcely an object upon which the eye could rest which
did not have its own esoteric significance. Even to-day the
Gothic cathedral is an open book to those who know how to
read it rightly.

Operative lodges did not employ the system of degrees in
use in modern Freemasonry. They recognized three classes
of workmen, apprentices, journeymen or Fellows, and
Masters, but the distinction between the Fellow and the
Master was not that which now differentiates the Fellowcraft
from the Master Mason. Apprentices were precisely what the
name implies. They were learners, bound over for a term of
years to serve their masters, in return for which service they
were to receive food, lodging and clothing and to receive
instruction which would enable them afterwards to earn their
own livelihood at the trade. They began as mere boys of
from twelve to fourteen years of age and usually they served
for seven years. Their relation to the lodge appears to have
varied in different localities; perhaps also as the lodge to
which they were attached was one of cathedral builders or
merely a town guild and therefore stationary. In at least one
instance it is known that apprentices were present at the
making of a master, but whether that means they witnessed
the induction of a master into his new rights or participated in
some investment with the secrets of the lodge is in doubt,
the probabilities strongly favoring the former suggestion.

What ceremonies of initiation apprentices were required to
undergo, beyond taking oath in due form in the presence of
the brethren, the present age has no way of knowing; nor is
it known whether initiatory rites were commonly observed.
Immediately after his Admission the newly made Fellow
could begin work as a journeyman, since in England he was
not expected to undertake a travel tour. On the contrary, this
practice was forbidden by laws passed in the fourteenth
century. Wages as a rule were also fixed by law, the wage
scale sometimes requiring an employer to provide his men
with lodging and board and with aprons, gloves and tunics.

The lodges were self-constituting bodies. In spite of efforts
which have been made to show that Operative Masonry was
one big fraternity, as modern Freemasonry is, the evidence
weighs overwhelmingly against that theory. All that seems to
have been necessary for forming a lodge was the presence
of a number of Masters and Fellows. These no doubt had
satisfactory means of proving one another. In later years
lodges which had existed from time immemorial came to feel
they had exclusive jurisdiction over their respective
communities, and at least one of them, acting upon that
theory, proclaimed itself a Grand Lodge with the power to
issue warrants for constituting subordinate bodies.

The Old Charges make it plain that, from time to time,
general assemblies may have been held, but there is nothing
in this connection to support a belief that these were central
governing bodies in the sense that a Grand Lodge is. They
appear to have been district conventions called by officers of
the Craft and sometimes by sheriffs. There is doubt that
even these were exclusively Masonic and not rather general
meetings of all the crafts, masons among the rest. At most
they were - if exception be made of the legendary assembly
at York, spoken of in the Regius poem - county, provincial or
municipal affairs, called to take counsel on matters
pertaining to the welfare or government of the craftsmen.
There are allusions in the Old Manuscripts to such
gatherings at York and to one or two held elsewhere, but
nowhere, with the exception noticed, is there record of one
for the masons of the entire country.

Each Master was under moral obligation to attend these
assemblies when they were held within a reasonable
distance of his place of abode. Some of the ancient
documents fix the distance at fifty miles, and those of most
recent date put it at five miles. On this matter the Regius
poem says:

That every Mayster that ys a mason
Must ben at the generale congregacyon,
So that he hyt reasonably y-tolde
Where that the semble schal be holde;
And to that semble he most nede gon
But he have a resenabul skwsacyon.


That assemblies were sometimes summoned for disciplinary purposes is indicated in the Cooke Manuscript, which sets forth that while lesser excuses might serve for other Masters unable to attend, "those who have been disobedient at such congregations, or been false to their employers, or had acted so as to deserve reproof by the Craft, should be excused only by extreme sickness, of which notice was to be given to the Master is principal of the assembly." What power the assembly may have had to enforce its decrees and to administer punishment is not revealed. Since these were district affairs, however, it is reasonable to suppose that the Masters who did attend were neighbors of those who did not and that by combining against an intransigent brother or
lodge they could exercise something more than moral
suasion. Moreover, as the, lodges were also guilds, with
certain responsibilities to the civil authorities, it is safe to
assume that the decrees of an assembly might expect
support from the secular arm. It was probably to the interest
of the Masters to rule themselves through their own
congregations, as it is certain that the congregations
themselves might, on some matter of public policy, speak to
greater effect than could the separate lodges.

Dependable accounts of the operative days are
unfortunately too scant to enable the historian to do more
than glance at certain general principles. A good deal of
guesswork must necessarily enter into every attempt to trace
Masonry through this tortuous period, uncertain in its
beginning and extended over almost half of the entire
Christian era. There seems reason to believe, however, that
itinerant, cathedral building guilds of masons came into
frequent contact with stationary local guilds and that these
ultimately became amalgamated. The itinerant guilds appear
to have been ma up of men of superior knowledge and wider
experience moreover they had innumerable points of contact
with the world outside of the British Isles. It is therefore to
them that the present age attributes most of the legends,
symbolism and cult practices which so evidently have
descended from remote antiquity. Even so, this is only a
guess - perhaps an intelligent one, certainly plausible, and at
least more credible than the wild and fanciful romances in
which gullible and not over critical writers have sometimes
put their trust.

 

         

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