By Rt. Wor. Bro. Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple, AO RFD, Past Deputy Grand Master of the United Grand Lodge of New South Wales & the Australian Capital Territory.
This is the popular story: in the Middle Ages the artisans who constructed the great European cathedrals and castles were “operative” Masons who carried their credentials in the form of modes of recognition. They lodged on site and shared a social life. Later they were joined as “honorary members” by outsiders interested in the symbolism of building methods and working tools. Eventually the “speculatives” supplanted the “operatives”, and Masonry as we know it was born. Where this took place is not certain: “operative” Masonry seems to have been centred on the European continent but the speculative version developed in England. All we can say about the time frame is that the new version was in place in England by early 18th century.
There have been several serious attacks on the story as told by the so-called “Authorised School”. One such attack was mounted in the NSW Lodge of Research in a series of papers read by Wor Bro ET Rylands beginning in July, 2000 and subsequently published by the Lodge. Wor Bro Rylands argues that the real story is more geographically tenable than the popular version. Put simply, there is “provable evidence of Scottish origin”, though a series of Masonic writers deliberately obscured the facts.
If Freemasonry had arisen in England there would have been evidence there of an ancient craft or trade guild of masons. Masons were certainly found in England in early medieval times, working on the castles and cathedrals required after the Norman Conquest. But without Lodges known for ritual and structure, could England produce the impetus for an intellectual approach to the building trade? Answer: look instead to Scotland, especially Edinburgh, with its intellectual climate and social stability. Scottish operative Masonry had its lodges or chapels which in the 17th century were transformed by “gentlemen” or non-operative masons into what might be called Convivial Freemasonry.
This form of Freemasonry filtered south to Northumberland, York, Bristol and London and across to Dublin, another contemporary seat of learning. In London the members of the Royal Society learnt of the scientific advances developed in Edinburgh, but knew that there could be a price on one’s head for having new ideas. English Speculative Freemasons dared not be seen as too close to the Scottish cause, so Freemasonry had to be seen as an English creation with Continental, non-Scottish, antecedents. The gentlemen’s clubs where Freemasonry had its home could now breathe more easily. Freemasonry next moved to the Continent as part of the widespread Enlightenment concern for knowledge and scientific enquiry.
Why did Freemasonry choose the building trade as its source of symbolism, when other options could have been available (see the next chapter for details)? Because architecture was highly regarded as both a practical and intellectual discipline, it was almost inevitable that it would become central to speculative thinking. Even more significant than Gothic architecture, the Renaissance style of architecture was transforming the face of Europe and stimulating the minds of the scholars.
For more articles on Freemasonic issues by Rt. Wor. Bro. Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple, AO RFD, visit his Freemasonry webpage.
Rt. Wor. Bro. Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple’s book on the history, symbolism and teachings of Freemasonry, enlivened with personal reminiscences and humour.