If you spend much time hanging out in the eighteenth century, you are forced to consider the question of Freemasonry. * Everywhere you turn, you find a major historical figure up to his Whig in Masonic craft.
Today Masonic lodges don’t look that different from the various fraternal orders that appeared in America’s Gilded Age like dandelions in the spring: a combination of boyish high spirits, social service, serio-comic ritual, and distinctive regalia.** However, a quick tour on Google or your local library catalog will reveal a fundamental difference: a search on say, the Elks, does not turn up references to symbols, secrets, legends, and mysteries. No one argues that Kiwanis was affiliated with ancient Druids. Freemasonry, unlike Modern Woodmen of America, was born as a more-or-less secret society.
It’s hard to unravel fact from fiction where freemasonry is concerned. Some accounts claim the “craft of masonry” began with Euclid in Egypt*** and came to medieval England via the Children of Israel–a chronological mishmash that makes a historian’s head ache. Others link freemasonry to the building of King Solomon’s Temple or claim the Crusaders discovered lost secrets of the craft in the Holy Lands and brought them back to Europe. Personally, I find it fascinating that these creation myths all place the roots of Freemasonry in the Middle East, which was seen as the home of mysterious knowledge from the Renaissance through the Enlightenment.
More sober minded Masonic historians claim the order has its roots in the guilds of small-m masons in the medieval period. (Hence the symbols of compass, t-square, and apron.) The transition from masons to Masons is murky. It appears that around the sixteenth century, cash-strapped guilds accepted non-masons as dues-paying members–the so-called speculative masons apparently intrigued by the scientific aspect of geometry as well as the mysticism and ritual.
The first clearly documented Masonic lodges appeared in London in 1717.**** By the mid-eighteenth century, Freemasonry had spread to France (home of the Scottish Rite), across Europe, and overseas to the West Indies and the American colonies. Mozart may well have been a Mason (The Magic Flute is stuffed with Masonic allusions); George Washington certainly was. Not to mention Franklin, Voltaire, Lafayette, Goethe, and the other hundred thousand educated men–and a few thousand educated women–that historian Margaret Jacob estimates took the Masonic oath in the eighteenth century.
If we don’t understand Freemasonry, how can we understand the Enlightenment, not to mention the American and French Revolutions?
* Or at least you do if you hang out in eighteenth century Europe. Despite the order’s own mythology and Rudyard Kipling’s creative speculations in “The Man Who Would Be King”, freemasonry was a European phenomenon.
**To be fair, Masons do not wear funny hats. They wear embroidered aprons, based on the leather aprons that was the precursor to safety gear for skilled tradesmen. Picture a blacksmith.
***We think of Euclid as a Greek mathematician. He taught in Alexandria in the fourth century BCE during the rule of Ptolemy I Soter, one of Alexander the Great’s generals who became the king of Egypt when Alexander’s empire fell apart. The Ptolemies ruled Egypt until Cleopatra’s defeat in 30 BCE. Nationalism as we know it is another eighteenth century idea. But I digress.
**** The conspiracy theory view of Freemasonry points out that it was a secret society for centuries so of course it left no paper trail. Until it did.