Words With a Past: Strike While The Iron Is Hot

I've always assumed that the phrase "strike while the iron is hot" was simply a term derived from blacksmithing. I recently learned that the phrase has a history beyond the making of horseshoes and sword blades. Who would have thought it was linked to marriage?

Lord Hardwicke's Marriage Act of 1754 changed the laws governing marriage in England. Couples under the age of 21 couldn't marry without their parents consent. Marriage could only take place in an Anglican church, and only after the banns were read in church on three successive Sundays. (The alternative to reading the banns was an expensive special license, obtainable only from a bishop.) The idea was to stop "irregular" marriages and to keep minors from marrying without parental consent.*

In Scotland, a couple could legally marry by simply declaring their intention in front of two witnesses and swearing that they were both over the age of sixteen and free to marry. As any reader of Jane Austen or Regency romances knows, Gretna Green, just one mile inside the Scottish border and on the main road from London, soon became the preferred stop for those who found the English laws inconvenient.

Although anyone could perform the ceremony, Gretna Green's blacksmith, Joseph Paisley knew an opportunity when he saw one and soon established himself as the first of the so-called "anvil priests". Eloping couples often arrived in the village with the bride's angry father in hot pursuit and Paisley was renowned for his speed in performing the service. His motto was "strike while the iron's hot" and he boasted that he could join two people in matrimony as firmly as he welded two pieces of iron together. **

Basically, getting married "over the anvil" was the eighteenth century equivalent of running off to Vegas, without the Elvis impersonator.

* The fictional trope of a wealthy young heiress pursued by fortune-hunters seems to have been a real fear among the political classes in Regency England. I haven't yet figured out whether it was a genuine problem or a bit of class-paranoia. Anyone out there know?

** He also talked about welding the fetters of marriage, a phrase only a few degrees away from "the old ball and chain".

The Ancient Order of Free and Accepted Masons


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.

Bites of Art and History: 82nd & Fifth

I get hundreds of e-mails everyday: business letters, personal notes, notices of FB updates, newsletters, "opportunities". Some I read immediately. Some go straight to the trash. Many I let slide until a someday that never quite comes. But every Wednesday since the first of the year I've jumped on the e-mail titled 82nd and Fifth.

The e-mails bring me two episodes in a charming year-long series produced by the Metropolitan Museum of Art: a curator talking about a work of art that changed the way she sees the world while a photographer interprets her vision. Last Wednesday the pieces were things I'm very familiar with: a painting by Eugène Delacroix* and a Persian miniature. Some weeks the episodes cover works I've never seen by artists I've never heard of. Each lasts only two minutes: a bright pop of pleasure in the day.

If you're interested in the intersection of art, history and ideas,** it's four minutes well spent. Here's the link: http://82nd-and-fifth.metmuseum.org/about/


* Don't ask me about Delacroix and Orientalism unless you are very interested and have some time on your hands.

** And I assume you are since you're reading this blog.