Medieval Masonry

There is and has been much loose talking as to the Operative Craft of Masonry during the Middle Ages. An admitted connection of the long-lived guild or association of builders with the later Speculative society, tenuous though it may be, gives to the subject an importance beyond the satisfaction of mere curiosity. Yet in the endeavor to prove a continuous history, and to emphasize the antiquity of the institution, much mistaken zeal has been manifested. The exaggerations given currency as to the most fruitful period of Operative Masonry are only to be equaled by fanciful claims made for the present fraternity. Because writers and speakers are impressed with the place and prestige of Freemasonry in the world they have distorted history and ignored plain facts, that so their own theories of succession or inheritance might find support.

Because of such unwillingness to subordinate prepossession to the logic of fact, Freemasonry has lost credit in the world of thought. And, also, because of this tendency, the fraternity has been made unmilling sponsor for all sorts of wild theories, the statement of which has excited the contempt of men who are to be influenced only by real evidence. It is cause for encouragement that later Masonic scholars, at all worthy of the name, are taking the readings of history rather than repetition of the fables persisting from a more credulous time. Admitting that our organization derives its being, at least so far as outward form is concerned, from the building associations that survived to beginning of the eighteenth century, we certainly have a legitimate interest in the anterior history of that artisan society, and are justified in seeking to ascertain its methods and meanings. But we speedily find ourselves dependent, in very large part, upon the researches of those whose scholarly interests and points of view are different from our own. Men who find in the development, glory and decadence of architectural ideals their focal points of study, have gone deeper and more thoroughly into the subjeect matter than any of our own students. Their conclusions are the more valuable, in that they have no pet theory to uphold, upon which the real or imagined position of a later society hinges. And thus we find as the best of Masonic historians those who draw most freely from the researches of non-Masonic investigators.

But for the most part men who have considered the subject of the great building period – the work of “the ages of faith” – even altogether apart from Speculative Masonry, have confined themselves, whether because of method or mental limitation, to the superficial facts. From them we have gained a full and satisfying knowledge of architectural forms, and the progressive steps that have marked off one style of building from another. But the fundamental and deep-lying motives have escaped the investigators who have thus limited their inquiries. It will not need to be impressed upon any brother of intelligence that an association whose work has lasted to our own time, and is today unapproachable in beauty and technique, had something of motive that cannot be explained in mere terms of the schools. We have wanted a showing of the spirit that animated the cathedral builders, not an elucidation of dry architectural details that would explain all things by figures and the rules of art. Yet at times we are able to catch glimpses of the motives and the meanings of medieval Masonry. I take the same in this case, not from Proceedings of a Lodge of Research, as might be expected, but from a secular publication.

In the October number of the Contemporary Review (London) I find an article – “The Two Ways of Building” – worth much to the latter-day Mason who has some tincture of learning of the Craft, with the proper admixture of imagination. For I know no way to reconstruct the past but by giving the subliminal memory that is within each of us, and which of distrust and ignorance we call imagination, the laying on of colors in any pictures of forgotten years. The writer of this careful and informed article is Mr. L, March Phillipps. His is attempt to draw distinction between the creative and imitative methods of building, and his pages are rich in information and still richer in suggestion. Our Masonic writers, or some of them, have discoursed, with what may pass for learning, on the Gothic style, and have correctly attributed its development to the genius and skill of the builders associated under the middle age churchmen and designers. Our author makes a broad distinction, as thus: “Creative art has identified itself with the Gothic style. Imitative art has identified itself with the classic style.” Yet at the outset he is careful to distinguish between real spirit and mere form. With a dwelling upon the importance of the Gothic style, he adds “The fact to grasp about Gothic architecture is not its structural detail the shape of its vaults and arches, and so on, but that it was evolved by the creative instinct of a race.”

It is in seeking out this creative spirit that Mr, Phillipps gives matter worthy of being here reproduced, as having interest for Speculative Masons. His gathered information, and the conclusions based thereon, are of value as throwing light upon the impulses under which our predecessors wrought, and, incidentally, why their organization assumed the form familiar to us and peculiar to itself. He asks the reader “to make the effort, to struggle out of the lethargy of acquiescence in conditions that happen to exist, and to recapture, if he can, the point of view of a less perplexed generation…. To seize, to realize, the medieval theory as a widespread active influence in the life of its age – that should be our endeavor. Simply stated” [and here is the true Masonic meaning] “the contention of medieval builders was that architecture was a native product to be directed and carried out by the intelligence of native workmen. The reader must put architects’ plans entirely out of his head.” The following paragraph is excellently put to show the writer’s point of view:

The fabric accounts of Westminster, it appears, are singularly systematic, specifying every man’s trade, and distinguishing between the master craftsmen and their workmen so exactly that there is but little difficulty or danger of error in following the career of Master Henry, the king’s Master Mason’, or Master Alexander, ‘the king’s carpenter.’ In some cases Mr. Lethaby [a writer on the craftsmen of West minster Abbey] has been able to trace back these great artists, the architects of our Gothic monuments, to a time when they were working as journeymen. A quaint illustration, in a life of the Confessor, written about 1270, gives a true enough idea of the usual building procedure. It represents the king issuing general instructions. A group of craftsmen stands before him. One is a mason, with his leveling “straight-edge” in his hand; the second, a carpenter bearing an axe, and the third another mason, holding a stone-axe, and turning to repeat the king’s orders to the men behind. The picture summarizes medieval methods. The master masons and master carpenters, who take the royal command and are placed in charge of the work, are “masters” only in the sense that they are the best men among a number of their brother workmen. They still bear the tools of their trade, and are representatives of a knowledge acquired in the practical prosecution of the trade. They were not architects, but the elite of the workers. Far from imposing upon indifferent “hands” the ideas of an academy, they rather prepared for mutual construction designs with which all were more or less familiar.

Mr. Phillipps quotes a French authority to the effect that “what we understand by architecture did not exist in the middle ages – not the name nor the thing. The plans were drawn by the master mason if the work was of stone, by the master carpenter if of wood,” and he continues: “These master craftsmen got their ideas out of a common stock with their workmen, and were themselves supported and aided in their undertakings by the ready appreciation of their subordinates.” Quoting still another high authority he continues:

“I doubt,” says Mr. Bloomfield, “if the necessity of working drawings was seriously felt by the Gothic builders.” Why? Because “between people with full knowledge a hint may be enough,” and “because the tradition of building that undoubtedly existed among workmen” was itself a sufficient guide. All is said when Mr. Bloomfield concludes that “Gothic architecture was essentially a builder’s art; that is to say, its whole scheme and conduct were local, initiated and projected on the spot, not administered from a distance.”

From still another work of conclusive authority this writer takes a judgment as to the ability for scuptural work possessed by the middle-age craftsman, this being accounted as included in the ordinary avocations of the builders. “Such,” he avers, “was the high limit of talent and intelligence which the creative spirit fostered among workmen.”

Again and again, and ever with new re-enforcement of argument, Mr. Phillipps returns to the fact that the splendor and perfection of building in the flowering period of the art in medieval times was owing to the skill and knowledge possessed by the body of craftsmen. They were not slavishly following a set of designs given by an architect, for whom the building art was hardly more than academic. To them the principles of building made up a living science, and the structure upon which a band of masons and other artisans was employed depended for its perfection upon a knowledge of common possession. This writer says: “In the whole sphere and extent of our greatest creative epoch, though many a foreign hint was adopted and assimilated, there is not a sign of a dictate autocratically delivered or passively accepted. The whole of it is due to artisan intelligence, and is a product of labor finding out for itself the best way of doing things.” Taking this view of Operative Masonry in its best days, we need exercise but little of the imaginative function to reproduce the discussions in the Lodges attached to great fabrics, when some foreign workman presented himself and was proven a brother of Craft. Some new detail or improved method worked out by workmen on the Continent would be taken up by these trained builders, rough designs would be drawn, and whether or not the expedient might be adopted would be speedily settled by the voices of those most competent to judge and decide. Here again we quote:

Medieval artisans belonged to a corporation, or guild, of skilled associates who represented the building capacity of the nation, and who cherished and guarded the accumulated knowledge of generations of workmen. The members of the guild freely shared their ideas, traveled much, and encountered and discussed, wherever important building operations were going forward, the latest improvements and suggestions in their art. All these expedients and suggestions were participated in by the whole building trade. The men’s leaders boasted no other authority than the authority of picked men, of men who could do best, and best explain, a job of which all knew the rudiments … The entire body of guildsmen being trained and educated in the same principles and ideas, the most backward and inefficient, as they worked at the vaults which their own skillful brethren had planned, might feel the glow of satisfaction arising out of a conscious realization of their own aspirations. Thus the wbole body of constructive knowledge maintained its unity. What we mean when we say that English working-men built Salisbury is not that any stonecutter or mason employed on the work could have been equal to the task, but rather that the cathedral is the outcome of common knowledge, which some workmen were more proficient in than others, but which all were sufficiently familiar with to recognize as their own mother tongue. Thus it was by free associations of workmen training their own leaders that the great Gothic edifices of the medieval age were constructed. The character of that architecture is familiar to all of us, but let the reader remember, while he wonders at its energy and the boldness of its structural expedients, that these high qualities spring from no individual genius, but are the contributions of commonplace, matter-of-fact toil, feeling and finding its own way. A style so imaginative and so spiritual might almost be the dream of a poet or the vision of a saint. Really it is the creation of the sweat and labor of workingmen, and every iota of the boldness, dexterity and knowledge which it embodies was drawn out of the practical experience and experiments of mere manual labor.

I regret that space will not permit a further drawing upon this unusual and illuminative article. But enough has been given to present Operative Masonry to us from a new viewpoint. There is the thought underlying this presentation of the medieval building guild that may help us to a better understanding of why, in its period of utmost decadence, this society was seized upon by the Speculatives, and turned readily to tneir purpose of conveying moral truths. Is it not possible, but extremely probable, that the sturdy independence and the pride in a common knowledge that had characterized the Craft in its best days, persisted in some degree even to the seventeenth century. With such an outlook we can sense the motives and intentions of those who took over the moribund association, with hope that the Speculative society formed thereupon should be one in which general knowledge and common effort should mean as much for the world of constructive thought as the other had for material building. But as the creative energy of the medieval builders sank to the low level of labor concerned only in following designs prepared by others, so has the Speculative Craft failed in the intentions of its founders. Present-day Masonry slavishly follows upon the behests of those who assume to be Masters, reaching their positions not because they are best among their fellows in knowledge of the Craft, but that because of superior political methods they can push themselves into place. It is needed for us, as Masons of the day, that we note and heed what is well expressed by the writer from whom we have quoted so largely:

The masons who carved the saints and angels of our cathedral arches, which are still the masterpieces of our sculpture, no more called themselves sculptors, while they were about it, than when they raised the walls and vaults they called themselves architects. Their capacity was but little more of personal skill added to the high level at which the sum total of labor was maintained. At this level it was maintained by its resolve to determine its own aims and its own development, and by so doing to foster among all its members not mere manual aptitude and dexterity, but the higher faculties of thought, invention and imagination.

– Source: The American Freemason January 1914