Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Stonemasons of the Middle Ages

The history of the origin and progress of the Brotherhood of Stonemasons in Europe, during the Middle Ages, is of great importance, as a study, to the Masonic scholar, because of the intimate connection that existed between that Brotherhood and the Fraternity of Freemasons. Indeed, the history of the one is but the introduction to the history of the other. In an historical excursus, we are compelled to take up the speculative science where we find it left by the operative art. Hence, whoever shall undertake to write a history of Freemasonry, must give, foe the completion of his labor, a very full consideration to the Brotherhood of Stonemasons.

In the year 1820, there issued from the press of Leipsic, in Germany, a work by Dr. Christian Ludwig Steiglitz, under the title of Von Altddeutscher Baulkunst, that is, "An Essay on the Older German Architecture." In this work the author traces, with great exactness, the rise and the progress of the fraternities of Stonemasons from the earliest times, through the Middle Ages, until their final absorption into the associations of Freemasons. From the labors of Dr. Steiglitz, collated with some other authorities in respect to matters upon which he is either silent or erroneous, I have compiled the following sketch.

It is universally admitted that, in the early ages of Christianity, the clergy alone were the patrons of the arts and sciences. This was because all learning was then almost exclusively confined to ecclesiastics. Very few of the laity could read or write, and even Kings affixed the sign of the cross, in the place of their signature, to the charters and other documents which they issued, because, as they frankly confessed, of their inability to write their names; and hence comes the modern expression of signing a paper, as equivalent to subscribing the name.

From the time of Charlemagne, in the eighth century, to the middle of the twelfth, all knowledge and practice of architecture, painting, and sculpture were exclusively confined to the monks; and bishops personally superintended the erection of the churches and cathedrals in their dioceses, because not only the principles, but the practice of the art of building were secrets scrupulously maintained within the walls of cloisters, and utterly unknown to the laymen.

Many of the founders of the Monastic Orders, and especially among the St. Benedict, made it a peculiar duty for the brethren to devote themselves to architecture and church building. The English monk Winfrid, better known in ecclesiastical history as St. Boniface, and who for his labors in Christianizing that country, has been styled the Apostle of Germany, followed the example of his predecessors in the erection of German monasteries. In the eighth century he organized an especial class of monks for the practice of building, under the name of Operarii, or Craftsmen, and Magistri Operum, or Masters of the Works. The labors and duties of these monks were divided. Some of them designed the plan of the building; others were painters and sculptors; others were occupied in working in gold and silver and embroidery; and others again, who were called Coementarii, or Stonemasons, undertook the practical labors of construction. Sometimes, especially in exstensive buildings, where many workmen were required, laymen were also employed, under the direction of the monks. So exstensive did these labors become, that bishops and abbots often derived a large portion of their revenues from the earings of the workmen in the monasteries.

Among the laymen who were employed in the monasteries as assistants and laborers, many were of course possessed of superior intelligence. The constant and intimate association of these with the monks in the persecution of the same design led to this result, that in process of time, gradually and almost unconsciously, the monks imparted to them their art secrets and esoteric principles of architecture. Then, by degrees, the knowledge of the arts and sciences went from these monkish builders out into the world, and the laymen architects, withdrawing from the ecclesiastical fraternities, organized brotherhoods of their own. Such was the beginning of the Masonic fraternities in Germany, and the same occurred in other countries. These brotherhoods of Masons now began to be called upon, as the monks formerly had been, when an important building, and especially a church or a cathedral, was to be erected. Eventually they entirely suspended their monkish teachers in the prosecution of the art of building. To their knowledge of architecture they added that of the other sciences, which they had learned from the monks. Like these, too, they devoted themselves to the higher principles of the art, and employed other laymen to assist their labors as stone-masons. And thus the union of these architects and stone-masons presented, in the midst of an uneducated people, a more elevated an intelligent class, engaged as an exclusive association in building important and especially religious edifices.

But now a new classification took place. As formerly, the monks who were the sole depositories of the secrets of high art, separated themselves from the laymen, who were entrusted with only the manual labor of building; so now the more intelligent of the laymen, who had received these secrets from the monks, were distinguished as architects from the ordinary laborers, or common masons. The latter knew only the use of the trowel and mortar, while the former were occupied in devising plans for building and the construction of ornaments by sculpture and skillful stone-cutting.

These brotherhoods of high artists soon won great esteem, and many privileges and franchises were conceded to them by the municipal authorities among whom they practiced their profession. Their places of assembly were called Hutten, Logen, or Lodges, and the members took the name of Freemasons. Their patron saint was St. John the Baptist, who was honored by them as the mediator between the Old and the New Covenants, and the first martyr of the Christian religion. To what condition of art these Freemasons of the Middle Ages had attained, we may judge from what Hallam says of the edifices they erected - that they "united sublimity in general composition with the beauties of variety and form, skillful or at least fortunate effects of shadow and light, and in some instances extraordinary mechanical science." (Mid. Ages, iv. 280) And he subsequently adds, as an involuntary confirmation of the truth of the sketch of their origin just given, that the mechanical execution of the buildings was "so far beyond the apparent intellectual powers of those times, that some have ascribed the principal ecclesiastical structure to the Fraternity of Freemasons, depositories of a concealed and traditionary science. There is probably some ground for this opinion, and the earlier archives of that mysterious association, if they existed, might illustrate the progress of Gothic architecture, and perhaps reveal its origin." (Ib., 284.) These archives do exist, or many of them; and although unknown to Mr. Halla,, because they were out of the course of his usual reading, they have been thoroughly sifted by recent Masonic scholars, especially by our German and English brethren; and that which the historian of the Middle Ages had only assumed as a plausible conjecture has, by their researches been proved to be fact.

The prevalence of Gnostic symbols - such as lions, serpents, and the like - in the decorations of churches of the Middle Ages, have led some writers to conclude that the Knights Templars exercised an influence over the architects, and that by them the Gnostic and Ophite symbols were introduced into Europe. But Dr. Steiglitz denies the correctness of this conclusion. He ascribes the existence of Gnostic symbols in the church architecture to the fact that, at an early period in ecclesiastical history, many of the Gnostic dogmas passed over into Christendom with the Oriental and Platonic philosophy, and he attributes their adoption in architecture to the natural compliance of the architects or Freemasons with the predominant taste in the earlier periods of the Middle Ages for mysticism, and the favor given to grotesque decorations, which were admired without any knowledge of their actual import.

That there ever was any association of the Knights Templars with the Freemasons is still an uncertain and an undetermined point of history. If it did take place, it must have been a very late period; and if any community or similarity of symbolism is to be detected among the two Orders, it is more reasonable to ascribe it to the circumstance, that the Templars always associated a body of architects with themselves for the erection of their own churches and other buildings, and that these architects were united in one and the sane fraternity with the Freemasons, whose secrets they possessed, and whose architectural opinions they shared.

Steiglitz also denies any deduction of the Builders' Fraternities, or Masonic Lodges of the Middle Ages from the Mysteries of the old Indians, Egyptians, and Greeks; although he acknowledges that there is a resemblance between the organizations. This, however, he attributes to the fact, the Indians and Egyptians preserved all the sciences, as well as the principles of the architecture, among their secrets, and because among the Greeks, the artists were initiated into their mysteries, so that, in the old as well as in the new brotherhoods, there was a purer knowledge of religious truth, which elevated them as distinct associations above the people. In like manner, he denies the descent of the Masonic Fraternities from the sect of Pythagoreans, which they resembled only in this: that the Samian sage established schools which were secret, and were based upon the principles of geometry.

But he thinks that those are not mistaken who trace the associations of Masons of the Middle Ages to the Roman Colleges, the Collegia Coementariorum, because these colleges appear in every country that was conquered and established as a province or a colony by the Romans, where they erected temples and other public buildings, and promoted the civilization ofn the inhabitants. Theu continued until a late period. But when Romae began to be convulsed by the wars of its decline, and by the incursions of hordes of barbarians, they found a welcome reception at Byzantium, or Constantinople, where they subsquently spread into the west of Europe, and were everywhere held in great estimation for their skill in the construction of buildings.

Inj Italy the association of architects never entirely ceased, as we may conclude from the many buildings erected there during the domination of the Ostrogoths and Longobards. Subsequently, when civil order was restored, the Masons of Italy were encouraged and supported by popes, princes, and nobles. And Muratori tells us, in his Historia d' Italia, that under the Lonbard kings the inhabitants of Como were so superior as masons and bricklayers, that the appellations of Magistri Comacini, or Masters from Como, became generic to all of those of the profession.

In England, when the Romans took possession of it, the corporations, or colleges of builders, also appeared, who were subsequently continued in the Fraternity of Freemasons, probably established as Steiglitz thinks, about the middle of the fifth century, after the Romans had left the island. The English Masons were subjected to many adverse difficulties, from the repeated incursions of Scots, Picts, Danes, and Saxons, which impeded their active labors; yet were they enabled to maintain their existence, until, in the year 926, they held that General Assembly at the city of York which framed the Constitutions that governed the English Craft for eight years, and which is claimed to be the oldest Masonic record now extant. It is but fair to say that the recent researches of Brother Hughan and other English writers have thrown a doubt upon the authenticity of these Constitutions and the very existence of this York assembly has been denied. But these are historical problems, the true solution of which must be waited for until the further researches of Masonic archaeologists shall present us with the necessary data for determining them. Until then it is safer to adhere to the traditional theory which admits the genuineness of the Constitutions and the fact of assembly.

In France, as in Germany, the Fraternities of Architects originally sprung out of the connection of lay builders with the monks in the era of Charlemagne. The French Masons continued their fraternities throughout the Middle Ages, and erected many cathedrals and public buildings.

We have now arrived at the middle of the eleventh century, tracing the progress of the fraternities of Stonemasons from the time of Charlemagne to that period. At the time of the architecture of Europe was in their hands. Under the distinctive name of Traveling Freemasons, they passed from nation to nation, constructing churches and cathedrals wherever they were needed. Of their organization and customs, Sir Christopher Wren, in his Parentalia, gives the following account:

"Their government was regular, and where they fixed near the building in hand, they made a camp of huts. A surveyor governed in chief; every tenth man was called a warden , and overlooked each nine."

Mr. Hope, who, from his peculiar course of studies, was better acquainted than Mr. Hallam with the history of these Traveling Freemasons, thus speaks, in his Essay on Architecture, of their organization at this time, by which they effected an identity of architectural science through all Europe:

"The architects of all the sacred edifices of the Latin Church, wherever such arose, - north, south, east, or west- thus derived their sciences from the same central school; obeyed in their designs to the dictates of the same hierarchy; were directed in their constructions by the same principles of propriety and taste; kept up with each other, in the most distant parts to which they might be sent, the most constant correspondence; and rendered every minute improvement the property of the whole body, and a new conquest of the art."

Working in this way, the Stonemasons, as corporations of builders, daily increased in numbers and in power. In the thirteenth century they assumed a new organization, which allied them more closely than ever with that Brotherhood of Speculative Freemasons into which they were finally merged in the eighteenth century.

The most important event in the cultivation and spread of Masonic art on the continent of Europe was that which occurred at the city of Strasburg, in Germany, when Erwin of Steinbach, the architect of the cathedral, summoned a great number of master builders out of Germany, England, and Italy, and in the year 1275 established a code of regulations and organized the Fraternity of Freemasons after the mode which had been adopted, as is maintained by many writers, three hundred and fifty years before, by the English Masons at the city of York. Lodges were then established in many of the cities of Germany, all of which fraternized with each other; but of these the precedence was conceded to the Lodge of Strasburg, because that city had been, as it were, the central point whence German Masonic art had flowed. Erwin of Steinbach was elected their presiding officer, or Grand Master. Three grades of workmen were recognized - Masters, Fellow Crafts, and Apprentices; and words, signs and grips were created as modes of recognition to be used by the members of the Fraternity, a part of which was borrowed from the English Masons. Finally, ceremonies of initiation were invented, which were of symbolical character, and concealed under their symbolism, profound doctrines of philosophy, religion and architecture.

Of these ceremonies of initiation used by the old German Stonemasons of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Findel gives the following interesting account:

"On the day fixed, the candidate went into the house where the assemblies were held, where the master of the chair had everything prepared in due order in the hall of the Craft. The brethren were then summoned, (of course bearing no weapon of any kind, it being a place dedicated to peace,) and the assembly was opened by the Master, who first acquainted them with the proposed inauguration of the candidate, dispatching a brother to prepare him. The messenger, in imitation of an ancient heathen custom, suggested to his companion that he should assume the demeanor of a supplicant. He was then stripped of all weapons, and everything of metal taken from him; he was divested of half his garments, and, with his eyes bound and breast and left foot bare, he stood at the door of the hall, which was opened to him after three distinct knocks. The Junior Warden conducted him to the Master, who made him kneel and repeat a prayer. The candidate was then led three times around the hall of the Gild, halting at last at the door, and putting his feet together in the form of a right angle, that he might in three upright square steps place himself in front of the Master. Between the two, lying open on the table, was a New Testament, a pair of compasses, and a mason's square, over which, in pursuance of an ancient custom, he stretched out his right hand , swearing to be faithful to the duties to which he pledged himself, and to keep secret whatever had been, or might be thereafter, made known to him in that place. The bandage was then removed from his eyes, the three great lights were shown to him, a new apron bound round him, a password given him, and his place in the hall of the Gild pointed out to him." (Hist of Freemasonry, p. 65.)

These fraternities or associations became at once very popular. Many of the potentates of Europe, and among them the Emperor Rudolf I, conceded to them to considerable powers of jurisdiction, such as would enable them to preserve the most rigid system in matters pertaining to building, and would facilitate them in bringing masters builders and stone masons together at any required point. Pop Nicholas III. granted the Brotherhood, in 1278, letters of indulgence, which were renewed by his successors, finally, in the next country by Pope Benedict XII.

The Stonemasons, as a fraternity of Operative Freemasons, distinguished from the ordinary masons and laborers of the craft, acquired at this time great prominence, and were firmly established as an association. In 1452 a general assembly was convened at Strasburg, and a new constitution framed, which embraced many improvements and modifications of the former one. But seven years afterwards, 1459, Jost Dotzinger, then holding the position of architect of the Cathedral of Strasburg, and, by virtue of his office, presiding over the Craft of Germany, convened a general assembly of the Masters of all the Lodges at the city of Ratisbon. There the code of laws which had been adopted at Strasburg in 1452, under the title of "Statutes and regulations of the Fraternity of stonemasonsof Strasburg," was fully discussed and sanctioned. It was then also resolved that there should be established four grand Lodges, - at Strasburg, at Vienna, at Cologne, and at Zurich; and they also determined that the master workmen, for the time being, of the Cathedral of Strasburg should be the Grand Master of the Freemasons of Germany. These constitutions or statutes are still extant, and are older than any other existing Masonic record of undoubted authenticity except the manuscript of Halliwell. They were "kindly and affably agreed upon," according to their preamble, "for the benefit and requirements of the Masters and Fellows of the whole Craft of Masonry and Masons in Germany."

General assemblies, at which important business was transacted, were held in 1464 at Spire, while provincial assemblies in each of the Grand Lodge jurisdictions were annually convened.

In consequence of a deficiency of employment, from political disturbances and other causes, the Fraternity now for a brief period declined in its activity. But it was speedily revived when, in October, 1498, the Emperor Maximilian I. confirmed its statutes, as they had been adopted at Strasburg, and recognized by its former rights and privileges. This act of confirmation was renewed by the succeeding emperors, Charles V. and Ferdinand I. In 1563 a general assembly of the Masons of Germany and Switzerland was convened at the city of Basle by the Grand Lodge of Strasburg. The Strasburg constitutions were again renewed with amendments, and what was called the Stonemasons' Law (das Steinwerkrecht) was established. The Grand Lodge of Strasburg continued to be recognized as possessing supreme appellate jurisdiction in all matters relating to the Craft. Even the senate of that city had acknowledged its prerogatives, and had conceded to it the priviledge of settling all controversies in relation to matters connected with building; a concession which was, however, revoked in 1620, on the charge that the priviledge had been misused.

Thus the Operative Freemasons of Germany continued to work and to cultivate the high principles of a religious architectural art. But on March 16, 1707, up to which time the Fraternity had uninterruptly existed, a decree of the Imperial Diet at Ratisbon dissolved the connection of the Lodges of Germany with the Grand Lodge of Strasburg, because the city had passed into the power of the French. The head being now lost, the subordinate bodies began rapidly to decline. In several of the German cities the Lodge undertook to assume the name and exercise the functions of Grand Lodges; but these were all abolished by an imperial edict in 1731, which at the same time forbade the administration of any oath of secrecy, and transferred to the government alone the adjudication of all disputes among the Craft. From this time we lose sight of any national organization of the Freemasons in Germany until the restoration of the Order, in the eighteenth century, through the English Fraternity. But in many cities - as in Basle, Zurich, Hamburg, Dantzic, and Strasburg - they preserved an independent existence under the statutes of 1559, although they lost much of the profound symbolical knowledge of architecture which had been possessed by their predecessors.

Before leaving these German Stonemasons, it is worth while to say something of the symbolism which they preserved in their secret teachings. They made much use, in their architectural plans, of mystical numbers, and among these five, seven, and nine were especially prominent. Among colors, gold and blue and white possessed symbolic meanings. The foot rule, the compasses, the square, and the gavel, with some other implements of their art, were consecrated with spiritual sigification. The east was considered as a sacred point; and many allusions were made to Solomon's Temple, especially to the pillars of the porch, representations of which are to be found in several of the cathedrals.

In France the history of the Free Stonemasons was similar to that of their German brethren. Originating, like them, from the cloisters, and from the employment of laymen by the monkish architects, they associated themselves together as a brotherhood superior to the ordinary stone-masons. The connection between the Masons of France and the Roman College of Builders was more intimate and direct than that of the Germans, because the early and very general occupation of Gaul by the Roman legions: but the french organization did not materially differ from the German. Protected by popes and princes, the Masons were engaged, under ecclesiastical patronage, in the construction of religious edifices. In France there was also a peculiar association, the Pontifices, or Bridge Builders, closely connected in design and character with the Masonic Fraternity, and the memory of which is still preserved in the name of one of the degrees of the Scottish Rite, that of "Grand Pontiff." The principal seat of the French Stonemasonry was in Lombardy, whence the Lodges were desseminated over the kingdom, a fact which is thus accounted for by Mr. Hope: "Among the arts exercised and improved in Lombardy," he says, "that of building held a pre-eminent rank, and was the important because the want of those ancient edifices to which theu might recur for materials already wrought, and which Rome afforded in such abundance, made the architects of these more remote regions dependent on their own skill and free to follow their own conceptions." But in the beginning of the sixteenth century, the neccessity for their employment in the further construction of religious edifices having ceased, the Fraternity began to decline, and the Masonic corporations were allfinally dissolved, with those of other workmen, by Francis I. 1539. Then originated that system which the French call Compagnonnage, a system of independent Gilds or brotherhoods, retaining a principle of community as to the art which they practiced, and with, to some extent, a secret bond, but without elevated notionsor general systematic organizations. The societes of Compagnons were, indeed, but the debris of the Masonic Lodges. Freemasonry ceased to exist in France as a recognized system untilits revival in the eighteenth century.

In England, we have already seen that the stone-masons, under the distinctive appellation of Freemasons, held a general assembly at the city of York, in the year 926, and there adopted those constitutions which have always been looked upon as the fundamental law of English Masonry. Of course, the very calling of this assembly proves that the Freemasons were previously in activity in the kingdom, which is, in fact, otherwise proved by the records of the building of an earlier period, by them, of cathedrals, abbeys, and castles. But we date the York assembly as the first known and acknowledge organization of the Craft in England into a national body, Grand Lodge. Their history differs but little from that which has already been detailed. Stonemasons, in fact - but in the possession of many professional secrets originally derived from their monkish teachers, as well as from the Roman colleges, with which, like the Masons of France, they had an intimate communication through the legions which had been encamped for so many years in England - they called themselves Freemasons, to be distinguished from the ordinary laborers and common stone-masons, who were generally of a servile condition, and had neither the intellectual elevation, nor the devotion to high religious art, which belonged exclusively to the "freeborn" fraternity.

After the organization at York, annual assemblies, it is said, were regularly held, and the transactions of several of them have been transmitted to us by historical records. The Fraternity experienced, as in other countries, its alternative periods of prosperity and decay. Finally, about the end of the seventeenth century it had so far declined, that only seven Lodges were to be found in the whole of London and its suburbs. It is to the glory of the English Masons that they now adipted that bold and wise policy which alone could have saved the Brotherhood from absolute dissolution. In 1703 a statute was enacted, which entirely changed the objects of the institution. From an operative society, it became wholly speculative in its character. It ceased to build material temples, and devoted itself to the erection of a spiritual one. It retained the working tools and technical terms of art of the original operative institution, simply because of the religious symbolism which these conveyed. And its members invited to their assemblies men of learning and science, who might find in their discussions topics congenial with their intellectual labors.

The happiest results speedily followed; and in 1717 the Grand Lodge of England was organized, or rather restored, on the on the new basis of a speculative society. The effect was soon seen in other countries; for through the instrumentality of the Grand Lodge of England, which became, indeed the Mother Lodge of the world, Freemasonry was everywhere revived. Lodges on the English model, which afterwards gave rise to the establishment of Grand Lodges in their respective countries, were organized in France in 1729, in Holland in 1731, in Germany in 1733, and in Italy in 1735. It spread in other countries with more or less activity, and was established in 1733 in America. From that time to the present day the history of freemasonry has been entirely seperated from that of Stonemasonry.

We se, then, in conclusion, that the Stonemasons - coming partly from the Roman College of Architects, as in England, in Italy, and in France, but principally, as in Germany, from the cloistered brotherhood of monks - devoted themselves to the construction of religious edifices. They consisted mainly of architects and skillful operatives; but - as they were controlled by the highest principals of their art, were in possession of important professional secrets, were actuated by deep sentiments of religious devotion, and had united with themselves in their labors men of learning, wealth, and influence - they assumed from the very beginning the title of Freemasons, to serve as a proud distinction between themselves and the ordinary laborers and uneducated workmen, many of whom were of servile condition.

Subsequently, in the beginning of the eighteenth century, they threw off the operative element of their institution, and adopting an entirely spectulative character, they became the Freemasons of the present day, and established on an imperishable foundation that sublime Institution which presents over all the habitable earth the most wonderful system of religious and moral symbolism that the world ever saw.

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