Origins of Freemasonry

Initiation of Robert Burns.png

The Initiation of Robert Burns

Many people, including Freemasons, ask the question: What are the origins of Freemasonry? This is a difficult question to answer, because the simple truth is that we don’t know for certain! Many hours have been spent by Masonic historians in pursuit of answers to this question and there are various theories, many of which conflict with one another or include elements of supposition and guess work. The reason for this is that as historians go farther and farther back in time, there are fewer and fewer written records from which they can draw firm conclusions. What we can say is that Freemasonry did not emerge from history fully formed as it is today, rather it evolved over time. With this in mind, it is beyond the scope of this paper to look at all the possible competing theories, so we will confine ourselves to just one and even what follows only scratches the surface of this fascinating topic!

The most popular theory is that Freemasonry is derived from medieval stonemasons’ guilds. However, at that time, most of the population could not read or write, hence the absence of written records. Nevertheless, the medieval stonemasons have left us enduring examples of their craft in the buildings they constructed. This was a time when most buildings were of wood, with only buildings such as churches, cathedrals, castles and the manor houses of wealthy lords being built from stone. Hence it seems likely that these stonemasons and their profession were accorded a degree of respect and, as we look at the many buildings that still stand today, we can only marvel at the beauty and strength of their design and thus the great skill of these craftsmen.

This was also a time when many men were not free, living instead in bondage or servitude to a feudal lord or master, whereas these stonemasons, or some at least, were free men and thus able to travel from different building projects in search of work.  It is from this that we believe is derived the word “Freemason”, i.e., a contraction of the words “free” and “mason”.

To achieve their great works, the medieval stonemasons used hand tools and employed geometry and mathematics to produce designs and plans and to calculate how to distribute the weight of the stone and prevent their buildings from falling down, much as modern architects and construction engineers do today. However, they worked without the benefit of modern machinery and computers.

Nevertheless, it is highly likely that they understood and used principles derived from such great thinkers and mathematicians as Pythagoras and Euclid and that they saw this knowledge as something they needed to safeguard; both to protect their livelihoods and also their reputations. As many of the larger buildings would take many years, decades even to complete, we can easily envisage the stonemasons forming very close knit groups, both to protect and safeguard their skills and knowledge and to support one another, particularly in times of sickness or perhaps after one of their number suffered the misfortune of a disabling accident whilst at work.

Over time, we can see these close knit groups introducing formal rules and codes of conduct for members to abide by and thus forming themselves into guilds to protect themselves and their profession in much the same way as we see today with professional qualifications and trade bodies. In such an environment, we can imagine the possibility that the stonemasons used their working methods and tools as a means to explain to their apprentices not only the geometry and mathematics and skills of their work, but also the rules and codes of conduct members were expected to live by.

If this theory is correct, at some point and we can’t say when with any certainty, but certainly by the 1600’s, these guilds began to allow non-stonemasons to join. By this time, the Renaissance (14th to 17th centuries) was well established and the great thinkers of the day were exploring science and nature and the seven liberal arts and sciences, namely; grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy. Perhaps the geometry and mathematics used by the stonemasons was of interest to them in their research, as it gave them insight into its practical application? Again, we cannot say.

Nevertheless, as these thinkers met to discuss their ideas and findings with like-minded individuals, the concept of the “speculative” Freemason, as opposed to an actual or “operative” stonemason, was born and, perhaps impressed with the operative stonemasons’ customs and traditions and methods of teaching and organisation, they decided to adopt and then adapt them for themselves. Then, as time passed, these new Lodges became purely speculative and gradually evolved into the Freemasonry we know today.