Masons in the Middle Ages

Medieval historical records report the existence of  professional corporations of merchants and craftsmen who congregated in guilds to mutually support themselves and their professional interests, much in the style of modern trade unions.

People in those days considered the world as being exclusively governed and guided by divine providence, and saw the chief aim of daily life as being to serve god. The remit of these guilds, therefore, was not only professional but also covered other aspects of life, such as promoting solidarity between members and providing a spiritual framework.

In corporations of building masons, a book of “Ancient Charges” would specify the regulatory statutes needed for the practical running of the guild whilst also framing their craft within some mythological and morally edifying historical context. Thus, freemasonry would be described in lofty terms, such as the “daughter of geometry, founded by Euclid in Egypt and brought to Europe by Pythagoras”… Inspired by such grandiose ideas, the medieval Mason came to set his manual work and indeed his life within the framework of the struggle between the forces of Light and Darkness.

In seventeenth-century Scotland, some lodges of masons began accepting non-craftsmen within their midst. It is now believed that these “accepted masons” were the precursors of modern speculative freemasons. The sudden surge of such “Accepted” members suggests that it might have been deliberately motivated, although the exact circumstances are not certain.

1717: The birth of speculative Freemasonry

The seventeenth century in Great Britain thus saw a growing number of lodges made up of “Accepted” masons who had little to do with the original manual professions. It is possible that these lodges provided a haven for men of good will at a time when England was torn by religious and dynastic wars.

In 1717 London, four lodges (it is not known whether they had existed for days or for years) joined forces to form the Grand Lodge of London and Westminster.

Despite their own claims to the contrary, the leaders of the new Grand Lodge had in fact formed a profoundly novel organisation. There were existing affinities between many of the members, who notably included the French Huguenot Jean-Théophile Désaguliers and members of the Royal Society and of Newtonian circles. The disciples of Newton, in particular, advocated religious tolerance and the study of nature.

By 1723, the newly formed Grand Lodge published its new Constitutions and bylaws, drafted by the Scottish Pastor James Anderson. Anderson’s Constitutions were inspired, at least in part, by the Ancient Charges of the old corporations but they also made significant innovations, such as the affirmation of the Freemasons’ freedom of conscience.

Indeed, the first article of the Constitution, “concerning God and Religion,” stated that: “Though in ancient times Masons were required in each country to be of the religion of that country or nation, whatever it was, today it is considered more expedient only to oblige them to that religion in which all men agree, leaving their particular opinions to themselves; that is to be good men and true, or men of honour and honesty.”

Throughout the eighteenth century, the number of lodges in Great Britain increased, affiliated to either the Grand Lodge of Scotland (founded in 1736) or that in England (founded in 1717). In 1751 in England, a separate rival Grand Lodge was formed, referred to as “the Antients.”  

1725 : Establishment of Freemasonry in France

The first lodges in France appeared around 1725, in the liberal and Anglophile atmosphere that was fashionable during the Regency period. These lodges initially included only members of the aristocracy.

Establishing the authenticity of the lineage of their rituals has always been a subject of concern amongst freemasons. Lodges that were formed prior to the foundation of the Grand Lodges often sought to derive their legitimacy from older and well established lodges. This led to the coexistence of various lodge networks.

Prior to 1738, the early Grand Masters of French Freemasonry were – probably like most brethren– British exiles living in France. In 1743, the Comte de Clermont was elected Grand Master, a function he retained until his death in 1771. Being of the high nobility, his role was that of a ‘protector’. He had no direct personal involvement in the day-to-day management of the Order, a task delegated to his deputies.

In 1738, the pope issued a series of papal bulls excommunicating Freemasons. He criticised the Order’s religious tolerance, on the basis that ‘truth and error should not be served on the same plate’. However, these bulls were never ratified by national parliaments and therefore never gained legal. Indeed, lodges included a significant number of clerics.

For a while, the government of Cardinal Fleury tried in vain to ban Freemasonry, which he saw as a ‘den of Jansenists’. Jansenists were seen as opponents of absolute monarchy and advocates of freedom of conscience. It is in this period that ceremonies and secrets of Freemasonry were leaked to the public in books and prints.

From 1740, Freemasonry spread widely throughout France. Only a few small towns had no lodges. In fact, lodges were welcoming places where – in the spirit of the times – the brethren celebrated virtue and equality. Over time – and probably unconsciously – a liberal and democratic sociability was developed, laying the foundation for the advent of new ideas.

The Grand Orient of France

From 1736 to 1755, lodges in France were connected via a loose allegiance to the ‘Grand Master of the Lodges of the Kingdom’, in effect a prestigious protector who nonetheless allowed complete freedom. Between 1755 and 1766, the Worshipful Masters of the lodges in Paris united to form a ‘Grand Lodge of the Masters of the Orient paris Paris’, also known as the Grand Lodge of France, and sought to impose their clout over the whole of French Masonry. However, this first Grand Lodge of France did not last, owing to constant disputes between rival systems of higher degrees, each vying for control. It was put to rest in 1766.

In 1773, another attempt was made to provide French Masonry with a common forum and acknowledged authority. Two principles were agreed upon: firstly that officers should be elected; secondly that all lodges should be represented. On this basis, representatives from all lodges – including, for the first time, those from provincial lodges –  were summoned. After seventeen general meetings, the Grand Orient of France was formed. On behalf of the Grand Master, the Duc de Chartres, and under the de facto authority of the Administrator General, the Duc de Montmorency-Luxembourg, the Grand Orient was governed by three institutions, each made up of elected representatives from the lodges. A statement issued in 1788 declared that ‘the Grand Orient is run on fundamentally democratic principles’. Nine out of ten lodges in France joined this new structure.

The creation of the Grand Orient prompted a return of the liberally minded nobility and the free-thinking bourgeoisie to the governing bodies of French Masonry. They certainly played a significant role in the political revolutionary climate of 1789. Masons contributed in all forums and on all the sides of the French Revolution. However, they were particularly strongly represented among the Girondins. Despite individual Masons pursuing personal agendas, there is little doubt that the ethos of Masonic conviviality and the codes regulating the functioning of lodges (based on open debate and democratic elections), contributed – perhaps in unconsciously – to the dissemination of new ideas. In the years leading to the French Revolution, prestigious lodges, such as Les Neufs Soeurs, Les Amis Réunis, or La Candeur, recruited members from the ‘Parti Philosophique’.

Masonry under the Bonapartes

Between 1800 and 1815, Masonry was both held in esteem and highly regulated. The bourgeoisie saw Napoleon as a bulwark against the return of the Ancien Régime and the excesses of the Revolution. The bourgeois elite who came to power thanks to the Revolution and the Empire were often themselves Masons during the Ancien Régime. Predominantly, they remained faithful to the Order. Seventeen lf the twenty five marshals of the Empire were Freemasons. The Grand Master was Joseph Bonaparte, the Emperor’s brother.

It is during this period that the Grand Orient underwent a significant development throughout the 139 ‘departments’ (regions) that constituted imperial France at its peak. However, Masonry was one of the few settings where (politically moderate) opponents of the Empire were tolerated. Thus, ideologists like Cabanis, Destutt de Tracy,and Garat, who, during the Directoire period, had tried to establish an American-style republic, could continue their Masonic work. Throughout the European Napoleonic empire, French imperial Masonry served in effect as a tool for disseminating the philosophical principles of the Enlightenment, to which the highest institutions of the Empire were overwhelmingly loyal. The philosophical and religious principles of the Revolution were placed on a pedestal, whereas discussions of political issues were totally banned. Jérôme Bonaparte, King of Westphalia, and Murat, King of Naples, were also Grand Masters in their respective kingdoms.

The imperial era saw a rich development of Masonic rites and regalia. The French Rite was the most popular. The Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite was also introduced with much enthusiasm, but there were also the Scottish Rites of Philosophy, of Kilwinning Heredom, of Perfection, or of Primitive Scots … Masonic aprons became lavishly decorated and prestigious printmakers, like Brother Coquardon, produced exquisite works for their lodges.

Following Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt, Masonry was swept with a wave of Egyptomania. In ‘Freemasonry restored to its true origin’, Alexandre Lenoir described the seven grades of the French Rite in the light of the mysteries of Memphis, framed as the sanctuary of the ‘eternal ‘initiation’. In 1813, the Rite of Misraim or Egypt emerged.

Underground progress of Republican ideas

How then was it that, within a few decades, the politically conformist Masonic institution of Napoleon’s Empire evolved into becoming a major testing ground for new ideas? During the period of restoration of the French monarch, only few lodges had an explicitly progressive and political edge, but they were closely linked to militant groups such as the Carbonari. Nonetheless, by proclaiming and implementing a model of liberal society inspired by the ideals of virtue and human brotherhood, most lodges were in effect a repository (if only unconsciously) of the principles of the Revolution of 1789.

In 1830, many Masons were involved in the 1830 Revolution (nick-named ‘Les Trois Glorieuses’), and the left-of-centre ‘Parti du Mouvement’, with Brother Lafayette at its helm, was also significantly influenced by Masonic circles. The political failure of the progressive liberals from 1834 onward, spurred the blending of ideas within lodges. The lodge ‘Les Elus de Sully’ in Brest (unsuccessfully) petitioned the Grand Orient in 1836 to change its name to ‘Les Disciples de Fourier’. The lodge ‘La Clémente Amitié’ in Paris organised courses on ‘Fourierism’. Interest in political and social issues thus became common ground in lodges. The first generation of politically active lodges emerged in 1848. Many Masons who served in the government of the Second Republic, including Flocon, Crémieux, Garnier-Pagès, Pagnerre, Carnot, and Shoelcher, who brought his fight to abolish slavery to fruition.

The failure of the social-democrats from 1849 onward dealt a heavy blow to dozens of lodges in the Grand Orient. The conservative prefect of Yonne complained that lodge ‘Le Phénix’  ‘initiates … the evil doctrines of socialism’. The fact that many lodges remained committed to a social model of the French Republic became problematic for the management of the Grand Orient, in the light of the return of the conservative party to power. Freemasonry became a target for opponents. Thanks to the diplomatic skills of Brother Perier, the Secretary of the Grand Orient, only five or six of the most politically active lodges were permanently closed and only a few dozen more were temporarily suspended. Political refugees of the 1848 Revolution, exiled in London, formed lodges that were highly critical of Napoleon III.

The Second Empire

Following the coup d’état of 2nd December 1851, the Grand Orient was compelled to pledge allegiance to the Empire as a matter of survival. Lucien Murat, who had close ties with Napoleon III, was appointed head of the Order. He sought to create an ‘official’ brand Masonry that would be restricted to the performance of ritual, charitable causes, and the study of morality. During his leadership, the old Hôtel du Maréchal de Richelieu was purchased and remains to this day the headquarters of the Grand Orient of France in Paris. Nonetheless, Murat’s authoritarian grip on the Grand Orient generated much antagonism, leading to his resignation in 1861.

Freedom of conscience and women

The consolidation of the Third French Republic in the 1880s secured the return of Masonry to the social arena. It enjoyed a significant revival. By 1880, the progressive trend initiated in 1860 by Massol (dubbed the “prophet of independent morality”) reached a high point in the Grand Orient. During this period, the “blue lodges” of the Supreme Council finally broke loose to form a new body, the Grand Lodge de France. The young leaders of the new French Republic, influenced by positivist philosophy, also wanted to reform the Order to turn Masonry into a genuine tool in the service of human progress.

From the joint legacies of Enlightenment deism and the spiritualist tendencies of 1848, the Constitution of the Grand Orient had come to declare the foundations of Freemasonry to be “the existence of God and the immortality of the soul”. However, at this time when the intellectual elites were profoundly influenced by the philosophical agnosticism of Auguste Comte, such religious inclinations were hardly observed in practice. The General Assembly of the Grand Orient de France therefore abolished this requirement in 1877. This year marked the birth of liberal – or adogmatic – Masonry, which asserted that Masonic duty did not have a religious underpinning and granted to its members the freedom to have a faith or not. To this day, this vision remains the distinctive guiding principle of the Grand Orient. It is this stance which makes it either, in the eyes of some people, a leader of Universal Freemasonry, or, in the view of others, a rule breaker.

Freemasonry aspires to lead humanity toward its emancipation. The issue therefore arose as to whether women could also be initiated. Both within the Grand Lodge of France and the Grand Orient of France, discussions on the admission of women intensified between 1880 and 1920. Two new groups emerged. In 1893, an Order was created, welcoming both men and women on an equal footing, called the ‘Ordre Maçonnique Mixte International Le Droit Humain’. In 1901, the Grande Loge de France revived the concept of ‘lodges of adoption’, consisting exclusively of sisters. These lodges subsequently became independent and formed the Grande Loge Féminine de France. In addition to the ‘Droit Humain’, other mixed Orders, such as the Grande Loge Mixte Universelle (GLMU) or the Grande Loge Mixte de France (GLMF) were also established.

The inter-war period: a moment of self-questioning

The aftermath of the First World War was a period of uncertainty and self-questioning throughout Europe. Social progress, science, and democracy had failed to prevent the horrors of trench warfare that had savagely decimated the youth. Masonic circles themselves were equally self-critical. The apparent stability of the French Republic, achieved through struggles and sacrifices, had yielded many worthy benefits in terms of civil liberties, education, and an early form of social security. Yet, certain abuses of power still remained. The “Cartel of the Left” became the last major political battle in which Lodges became directly involved.

Brother Arthur Groussier played an important symbolical role in this period of introspection. Having begun as a political activist (a socialist member of parliament), he introduced labour law. He invited Masons to reflect upon their history and to refamiliarize themselves with their symbolic heritage. Various publications, such as Oswald Wirth’s magazine ‘Le Symbolisme’ and Edmond Gloton’s ‘La Chaîne d’Union’, fed this resurgent interest for Masonic topics. Within this mind-set, the Grand Orient revived the ‘Régime Ecossais Rectifié’. Masonry’s chief concern, as always, remained Man’s place in society, but by an approach that sought to be more philosophical than directly political. This refocusing of principles went hand in hand with an policy that aimed to federate masonic bodies at an international level. Through the ‘Association Maçonnique Internationale’, French Freemasonry established friendly ties with most major European Masonic Orders.

Anti-Masonic attacks date back to the days of the very first Lodges in the eighteenth century, but they reached a high point in 1870. The Roman Catholic Church and the French ecclesiastical establishment depicted Masonry as the ‘Synagogue of Satan’ and, in a display of brash anti-Semitism, denounced a presumed ‘Judeo-Masonic conspiracy’. From the French Revolution to the advent of the Third Republic, Lodges were accused of spearheading humanist and modernist ideas. As dictatorships took hold of power in Italy, Germany, and France during the Nazi period, Lodges became banned and Masons persecuted. The collaborationist regime of Vichy passed anti-Masonic laws and plundered temples. Many brothers died in concentration camps. Ultimately, Freemasonry became a major constituent of the French Resistance during the Second World War.