I believe that I am required to start this post with a reference to the pandemic, here it goes: In times of uncertainty there are always restrictions, but also several opportunities. One of them is being offered by Professor Andrew Prescott (university of Glasgow), prominent and influential scholar on the History of Freemasonry. With first hand knowledge about research and archives, Prescott will be giving an open lecture on resources and opportunities in research about the Craft. Prescott is keen on advancing masonic research, hence his last interventions in congresses have been on going back to the sources. The open lecture will be, obviously, virtual and will take place at openLFM (Open Lectures on Freemasonry) a new initiative that “aims to increase the visibility and accessibility of research into Freemasonry through online lectures“. The lecture will take place on the 25th of April, 18:00 UTC. It will be chaired by the great Dr.Susan Sommers (St. Vincent College). Important to remark that you need to registerto participate. So, if you want to stop chasing the red hering, tune it on next Saturday.
The other day I posted on my Instagram account a picture of a book of mine soaked by a typical English heavy rain. So far, so good. However, some friends came to me to make an interesting observation: Why was I reading “an introductory” book on History? I mean, next to the completion of a Ph.D., why should one bother on reading introductions?
I couldn’t recommend the introductions more. If you don’t know anything on the topic, they are a nice and soft path to bolder readings. If you know a fair amount about the topic, they operate as a quick and enjoyable recapitulation of the main points and themes.
Students of all sorts use to dislike the introductions since they give away their supposed beginner status on some topic or skill. Nonetheless, the introductory books were also reinvented in the form of “1.000 [insert substantive] you need to [insert adjective] before you [insert here a catastrophic event]”.
The introductory books may also be historicised, which means to be transformed in the centre of a historical narrative. From the 19th century onwards, with the expansion of press, there was, consequently, the expansion of things to be learned. The manuals were a sensation in every branch of knowledge, trade, and even life. The marriage manuals, for husbands, wives, brides, mothers-in-law, are just an example of that; and to not leave Freemasonry aside, let’s not forget Carlile’s Manual of Freemasonry.
Another part of this history is the series “Que sais-je?” (What do I know?) published since 1941 by the PUF (PrèssesUniversitaires de France), which inaugurated sundry series of the same kind, and similar name, worldwide. Fast-forwarding to the nineties, more precisely 1991, comes the series “For Dummies”, also translated in several languages. Among my favourites are the series “For Beginners” and “A graphic guide”, since they mix cartoon (in an Al Jaffee meets Robert Crumb style) with snippets of condensed information. To introduce, accessibly, Sartre, Foucault, Logic, or Chaos Theory, is pure art and mastery of didactics.
The question that every introductory book sparkle is “where do I begin?”. The mandatory savvy quote from Alice in Wonderland “Begin at the beginning…”, make us chuckle, but brings more confusion for someone trying to find something, as Alice. To write an introduction is an effort of concision, it is to make hard choices, to create a common ground for newcomers Also, is to promote a safe harbour for the ones already familiar with the topic but wishing to revise, reinforce or remember the basics. Yes, because to forget what is fundamental in a topic is almost inescapable after you are in it for a long time.
Regarding the two topics of this blog, History and Freemasonry, I recommend two introductions that are from the same collection: the “Very Short Introduction” series from the Oxford University Press. No, this is not a paid post. The History one, is written by Professor John H. Arnold (Cambridge), it brings a well-flown discussion on the topic and addresses the questions that every historian must answer from the rest of his life, inside the classroom and elsewhere, like family dinners: Is history an opinion matter? History is the past, right? Are the historians judges of the truth? And so on, and so forth.
The one about Freemasonry (and I would stress, mainly History of Freemasonry) is in the capable hands of Professor Andreas Önnerfors (Gothenburg), a well-known name for the regulars of this blog. I strongly advise this book to researchers (professionals and amateurs) thirstily going through documents from the 18th, 17th, and even 15th century (!), to find “hardcore” evidence on some “mind-blowing” fact that will produce a “ground-breaking” article on Freemasonry. And why? Because of one thing that my Ph.D. made me realise is that research on Freemasonry needs common ground.
Introductory books have the power to put together such grounds, or the discussion about what is fundamental. The manuals end up giving an accessible starting point, preventing a random out-of-ones’-depth book followed by a dilettante understanding of what was read. The latter is probably one of the ingredients for conspiracy theories.
Why all this fuzz about the existence or not of an “English Rite”? We are losing ourselves in semantics, some would say. Well, I can even agree if we are talking about Freemasonry for the practitioner – in this case, a Freemason. For a member of a lodge in Bristol or in Kent, the name by which his rituals are called may be of less or no importance since they are performing it regardless. But before I make a case for the importance of definitions for any academic (or just committed) study, let me address the significance it has for Freemasons.
Clifford Geertz, an American anthropologist, published in 1973 a book called “The interpretation of cultures”. This work was a game changer not just for the Anthropological Studies but its effects were felt in the field of Historical Studies as well. From all the important ideas that he put forward in this book we can pick some to explain why the concept of “masonic rite” is important, also why it is also crucial to know if this concept may be applied to the English system of Freemasonry, and last but not least, if English Freemasons recognise themselves in this concept that is a Masonic rite.
In the aforementioned book, to oppose the Structural Anthropology of Claude-Levi Strauss, Geertz proposed an Interpretative Anthropology, and what that means? Among other things, Geertz states that an interpretation should not distance from what is happening, that is to say, from the object of study. He also alerts that to understand a culture it is not necessary to become a “native”, but that it is indeed necessary to talk to them, to understand, to get a grip of their concepts. That’s why the conceptual precision is so important and rigorous in the interpretative anthropology, and by extension, in History nowadays.
That being said, I will bring my own experience that was not ethnographical in its nature, but that has an ethnographical value, especially for this topic. I am from Brazil, so, on a regular basis, some Freemason asks me how’s Freemasonry in Brazil. And guess what part is the hardest, almost impossible, one to explain? Yes, the notion of “Rite”. Because for the so-called “Continental Freemasonry” the concept of rite is crucial since the Craft degrees are worked into a rite tradition, there is to say, the Craft degrees are basic degrees of a bigger system which works vertically. For English Freemasonry, rite is an alien concept, overall when referring to the Craft degrees. Does that mean that there are no rites in England? No, they exist, but a rite is one path out of many possibilities allowed by the English system.
The notion of Rite is laudable in its ecumenicity, however, I understand to be inaccurate when it comes to the structure of English Freemasonry. There are rites – i.e. a group of degrees conferred inside a particular order in an established sequence – inside the English system. An English Freemason may join the A&AR (Ancient and Accepted Rite), for instance. Nonetheless, after the Craft degrees, the Freemason is not obliged to progress in a particular path. Some will say that the English Master Mason is strongly encouraged to join the Holy Royal Arch and etc. Notwithstanding this fact, a Master Mason can join, after one year, the A&AR, or the Order of Mark Master Masons, or the SRIA, or the Royal Order of Scotland… The point is: there is not a vertical, necessary, mandatory sequence.
The other point is that the “higher degrees” in the English System work inside Orders, rather than in the body of a rite controlling them all. Most of these Orders work from one (as the Holy Royal Arch) to five degrees (as the Allied Masonic Degrees), and every order, or the combination of association in two of them may serve as pre-requisite to join even other bodies. Some will see in that evidence to suffice the name “rite”, but again, we have to remember the history of Freemasonry and its rites. Most rites started as a group of degrees already existent, and that was at some point compiled, enhanced and organized to give it a structure and a philosophical rationale.
What I aim to expose here is a view seeking more accuracy, what is always needed in academia, and I believe that it is very welcome in any other field, professional or amateur. There is nothing terribly wrong in calling what happens in England (or places that emulate this system) as “English Rite”, however, it may lead (and by personal experience, I can say it did) to an understanding that there is a mandatory or enchained sequence between the rites and orders that compose the English system.
The notion of rite is ubiquitous, as I tried to demonstrate in this sequence of posts. Also, the notion of rite is really dear to most Freemasons because it eases things out. Nevertheless, it can work as a pitfall when we are in need of understanding a specific Masonic system, different from the ones that we know. To exemplify: it is like to arrive in someone else’s house and presume that they eat the same things as your family does, that they call their dog by the same name, that they go for vacations to the same places, etc, just because they are a family (like yours) and because they live in a house (like you).
Names are not just a tag, they are embedded in values, notions, and meanings. As it is often said, “if everything is art, nothing is art”. So, if every set of rituals in Freemasonry is a rite, so nothing is a rite. In order to study something, sometimes we need generalizations and sometimes specifications. However, the generalizations cannot lead to massification, flattening obvious differences, and the specifications cannot single out to the point of becoming the knowledge of the object impossible.
Research and my amateur “ethnographic” experience in England led me to understand that what exists in England is a system of Freemasonry. This system fosters rites and orders, but it is a stretch to call the whole ensemble of the English Freemasonry, a rite. However, I don’t criticize the efforts made in the past to propagate the English system by calling it a rite. Hughan and others did an amazing work “translating” how the passage of degrees and other aspects of the Craft were conducted in England.
Nevertheless, since then, masonic studies grew in importance, scope, and complexity. It is about time for us researchers, amateurs and professionals, to be more thorough with the specifics of Freemasonry. At the same time, the tools offered by theory (of humanities and social sciences) may be used to understand this phenomenon that it is far from being “niche” or for Freemasons’ only.
 In England, the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite is normally called “Ancient and Accepted Rite”, my guess is that it is called this way to not be confused with the workings under Scottish Constitution (GloS)
The “poking the beehive” series will come back with its season finale, or not… Meanwhile, I would like to share my most recent article, published in the last volume of REHMLAC+ (Revista de Estudios Históricos de la Masonería Latinoamericana y Caribeña).
The whole journal is worth reading, and you will find amazing articles on the theme “Freemasonry and Mass Culture”. “Rehmlac+” is an Open Access Journal and you can find it HERE.
From all the definitions and attempts to sum up what a masonic rite is, it is possible to learn that its meaning transitioned from a segment of the masonic ritual to a concept of a collection of degrees in a specific order – brought by the arrival of higher degrees, specially the Continental ones. Since the vocabulary spread, the concept of rite ended up having a broader significance, encompassing every masonic system, being those similar to what a rite originally meant, or not.
However, what the books that we consulted until now have to say about the existence of an “English Rite”? As we know, many of them bring the list of rites known to its authors up to that point. Reverend George Oliver in his “Dictionary of Symbolical Masonry” (1853) does not mention the English Rite, i.e. it does not constitute an entrance in his dictionary.
Robert Macoy and his “General History, Cyclopaedia and Dictionary of Freemasonry” (1870), lists an “English Rite” and defines “adopted by the United Grand Lodge of England and Wales, at the Union in 1813, and is now practiced by the Lodges under that jurisdiction.” (p.327). Under the entrance “Rite” of the cyclopaedic part of his work (remembering the dictionary segment was a republishing of Oliver’s book), he enumerates several rites, among them the “English rite” with the aforementioned definition. Nonetheless, all the named rites will have their own entrance in the Cyclopaedia, something that didn’t happen with the intended “English Rite”.
Therefore, one pattern that starts with Macoy and will continue until today: the “English Rite” will be listed but not detailed. Mackey, in his crucial “A Lexicon of Freemasonry” (1873) also lists an “English Rite”, but doesn’t offer further explanation. Still, Mackey has an entrance for all the other rites he lists.
A.F.A Woodford and his opinion on this matter published on the Kenning’s Masonic Cyclopaedia (1878) was quite explicit. On defining rite, he started with “Though in our English Craft Masonry we only know of or recognise the Three Degrees and the Royal Arch, yet in a Cyclopaedia we have to recognise that, for good or evil, there are so-called Masonic Rites in the world” (p.578). Needless to say that there is no entry or mention to an “English Rite”. Notwithstanding, under the letter E, there is the entry “English system” that I reproduce here in full:
“English System, The. – The English system of Masonry is in one sense indigenous and peculiar, in that it is both in its theory, its unity, and practical development, unlike any other known system. We mean by this that it rests upon the three symbolical grades, but makes the Royal Arch the completion of the Masonic edifice. We in England, knowing well the value of our system, would not exchange it for any other, neither would we enlarge it or alter it. Such as it is we have received it from our Masonic forefathers, and such we mean to hand it on to our Masonic children. It is a system which after all the foundation of every other European, American and Asiatic system; and in our opinion, whenever others have deviated from it, or contracted it, or expanded it, they have done wrong. The English system is, in its practical development, cosmopolitan and universal; and while it is both reverential and religious in all that appertains to the great truths of divine wisdom, it deprecates all controversial contention and ignores all denominational declarations.” (p.200)
The questions to be observed here are varied. First, as a historian there is no value judgment to be made, that is to say, we have to value Woodford definition by what it is: the opinion of an eminent English Freemason and masonic author living in the nineteenth century. Second, his entry makes clear that for an important stratum of English Freemasonry at that time, there was no “English Rite”, but an English system of Freemasonry. Third, that the pride coming from it, was due to an established ancestry of the English system over any other system in the world. Besides his strong views, what Woodford brings to the table is a better definition of what the English Freemasons were understanding by system, and in my view, this word may be a better way to define the Masonic structure in England.
But to pinch a little bit of salt in the English discussion, there is William James Hughan. He was one of the abnegated researchers on Freemasonry that flourished from mid-19th to the early 20th century. Hughan was an accomplished Freemason being Past Grand Rank (Craft and Chapter) in the Province of Cornwall, and a Past Senior Grand Deacon at the UGLE.
Among his works, one is of special importance here: “Origin of the English Rite of Freemasonry”, from 1884. I was really curious to read what Hughan would reveal about the “English Rite”, since it is really hard to understand the English system as “progressive degrees of initiation” as Mackey conceptualized. William James Hughan wrote a fine piece about the evolution of Craft Masonry in England, and the developments on the Holy Royal Arch. However, it seems that the expression “English Rite” was used to give the book breadth outside England, and/or an attempt to bring the term to England.
Analysing the book, it is noticeable that Hughan uses the expression “English Rite” only five times, on a 150 pages book. Even the expression “rite” is used only 10 times throughout the whole work. These numbers reveal that the notion of rite, or the existence of an English Rite, is not so pivotal to explain the masonic system existent in England, let alone Craft Masonry. Even Hughan, in the last page of that book, writes: “Hence the English ‘Rite’ of Freemasonry…” (my emphasis). So, even Hughan was orthographically admitting that to call Craft Masonry, plus Royal Arch, an English “Rite” was a stretch. William James Hughan was an international Freemason, an honorary member of several Foreign Lodges and Societies. His book was, most probably, trying to present the English masonic system to a broader audience in a way that they would relate to it and understand it.
About Arturo de Hoyos article “Masonic Rites and Systems”, suffice to say that the expression “English Rite” is not used even once, despite the “ecumenical” definition given by the author to the meaning of rite. But since de Hoyos brings us a more sophisticated definition, I will bring his discussion in the next part of this series of articles.
For now, we can see that there has been more of a will to frame English Freemasonry into the Continental understanding of “Masonic rite” than an accurate perception of this system on its own terms. More than a historical filigree, to understand a group on its own terms, idioms and customs is key to any historical analysis. However, more on that in the next part.
Before reading this post, I advise you to read (or re-read) part 1, and part 2. Otherwise, it will not make much sense.
Continuing the “quest” for definitions of rite, we start with no less than Albert Mackey. His life is worthy of a full post, dedicated to his talents and deeds. Suffices to say that Mackey was a physician, a journalist, and most importantly, an educator. Mackey dedicated most of his life to the study of languages, the middle ages, and Freemasonry, among other topics.
From his extensive bibliography, I picked two that will fit our purpose here: find definitions that were written to be definitions. For the distance of both works in time, it is also interesting to notice the adjustments made by Mackey. In the first work selected, “A Lexicon of Freemasonry” (1845, but the quote is from 13th ed. 1869), he defined Rite in a paragraph constituted of two phrases. In the first one, he defines rite in masonry, in the second one, a Masonic rite. Although complementary, they bring different pieces of information.
“RITE. A modification of masonry, in which the three ancient degrees and their essentials being preserved, there are varieties in the ceremonies, and number and names of the additional degrees. A masonic rite is, therefore, in accordance with the general signification of the word, the method, order, and rules, observed in the performance and government of the masonic system.” (p.410)
Here, Mackey brings a word that will be mingled with rite quite often across masonic literature: system. However, Mackey brought the term without specifying what he meant by “Masonic system”. But let’s fast forward some years and consult Mackey’s masterpiece “Encyclopaedia of Freemasonry and Its Kindred Sciences” (1873), in which he establishes a more concise, and polished definition.
“Rite. A method of conferring Masonic light by a collection and distribution of degrees. It is, in other words, the method and order observed in the government of a Masonic system.” (vol.2, p.626)
To match our previous post, it is pivotal to bring an English author with his definition of rite. He was writing at almost the same time, but on the other side of the pond. A. F. A. Woodford was one of these nineteenth-century Freemasons that through research took the Order to another level. Besides being a reverend of the Anglican Church, Woodford was an avid Masonic practitioner and researcher. He was behind the formation of the Quatuor Coronati Lodge, and of English publications on Freemasonry, such as “Freemasons” and “Masonic Magazine”. The publisher of these two magazines, George Kenning, sought the editorial niche of Freemasonry and issued the “Kenning’s Masonic Cyclopaedia”, in 1878. The book was edited by Woodford, by the time a Past Grand Chaplain of the UGLE, and shows a view as authorial as well-supported of the topics to be defined. He wrote
“Rite – Though in our English Craft Masonry we only know of or recognise the Three Degrees and the Royal Arch, yet in a Cyclopaedia we have to recognise that, for good or evil, there are so-called Masonic Rites in the world. Some of us may be disposed to reject this multiplication of Rites; others may look favourably upon some, at any rate; and therefore, in a work of reference, we have to mention them, whether we approve of them or not, whether we believe in them or not. It is impossible to give all here, as it would, we think, be profitless. Some say there are 108 rites and 1400 grades; but many of them are clearly only quasi-Masonic, and some not Masonic at all. We therefore only propose to give today those we have considered in our studies, or which our readers are likely to meet with in Masonic works…” pp.578-579
Other works, like “The Royal Masonic Cyclopaedia” (1877), by Kenneth Mackenzie, just bring some considerations about rites (as something implicit) without any definition other than the dictionary one. However, the theme “rites”, or “rituals” for that matter, gained several publications over the twentieth century. A list of these works would be fascinating but terribly extenuating. Let’s fast forward to 2014, to a chapter on the “Handbook of Freemasonry”named “Masonic Rites and Systems” written by one of the finest researchers on Freemasonry of this day and age: Mr. Arturo de Hoyos.
As in any handbook, de Hoyos had few pages to give an introductory, but deep, account of that topic. Instead of a single definition, he broadened the explanation, showing the differences of understanding that “rite” could acquire to Freemasonry, and for Freemasons. Nevertheless, he inserted in the title the word systems, as a separated although conjoined matter: “Masonic Rites and Systems”. I shall go back to that in the next post.
For now, it is important to close this series on definitions of Masonic Rite. I strongly advise everyone to read de Hoyos’ chapter (actually, the whole book is precious) since, to the purpose of my reasoning, I will be cherry-picking some of the definitions for “rite’ that he offers. After the lexicographic definition, de Hoyos informs, among other things:
“There are two main types of rites in Freemasonry: (1) a procedure with a symbolic or defining nature, such as the rites of circumambulation, discalceation, or investiture, which may be grouped to form a larger ceremony (or degree), and (2) the linking of masonic degrees, for initiation or instruction, under administrative or governmental authority. This chapter focuses on the latter application. […] In a general sense a Rite is any number of degrees grouped together. A Rite may be compared with a staircase, which is comprised of individual steps. The steps represent individual masonic degrees, whereas the staircase as a whole is analogous to a Rite. The degrees of a Rite will usually, although not always, have a numerical designation or fixed position on a calendar or schedule. The Rite may be further divided into sub-organizations (‘lodges’, ‘chapters’, ‘councils’,and so on), just as a staircase may be divided by a number of ‘landings’ which connect the stairs between floors. The degrees which comprise a Rite may be arranged in a particular sequence for any number of reasons, including mythology, chronology and/or tradition, or they may appear to be unrelated to each other, having been derived from various sources, or having been aggregated at different times.” pp.355-356
It is possible to verify how Arturo de Hoyos condensed and sophisticated the definition of Rite to comprise all the variations of conferring Masonic degrees. However, in the same article, he points out some differences that I understand as pivotal for a narrower definition of Masonic rite. In the next post, I will try to condense these understandings of Masonic Rite and check what these same authors have to say about the existence of an “English Rite”.
In the last post, I have introduced the question of whether there is an “English Rite”. As I also stated in the previous text that the inverted commas and the questioning itself are enough to show that I am casting doubt over an expression that is used by some researchers, and some Freemasons.
I demonstrated, briefly, the definitions of the word rite in the dictionary and that such definitions were enough for us to say that yes, there is an “English Rite”. However, Freemasonry is complex as any old institution, have a history, vocabulary, idioms, customs of its own, and on top of that, the broadening of the Masonic phenomenon across the globe added some more terms, customs, degrees, etc.
So, a next step is trying to establish what a Masonic Rite is, mostly for the Freemasons. For this purpose, some Masonic reference works should be used. I will bring them forward in chronological order so it will be possible to follow the development of this understanding of rite for Freemasonry.
Of course, this small research is far from exhaustive, being limited by works which I have instant access to and that bring some definition of rite. Like the “A Dictionary of Symbolical Masonry”, from 1853, which was “compiled from the best Masonic authorities” by the Rev G. Oliver. According to the title page “A Past Deputy Grand Master, and Honorary Member of Many Private Lodges and Literary Societies; Author of ‘The Historical Landmarks of Freemasonry’ Etc. Etc.”
In his definition it is possible to see the bifold interpretation that will prevail, as a structure, to explain until today what is a Masonic rite. Oliver wrote that a rite “is an item in the ceremonial of conferring degrees” (p.311), that is, every Masonic meeting is formed by a set of small rites put together. In the English case, examples would be the procession, the circumambulation, the opening of the lodge, etc. To this definition he added “[…] although in some countries it is extended to include a number of degrees and orders, as in the French rite ‘ancien et accepté’ which comprehends […]” (p.311) then enlisting some of the degrees of that rite.
Robert Macoy was one of these American phenomena when it comes to Freemasonry. Not only was he a prominent Mason, but also the founder of a Masonic publishing and supply company. Like that was not enough, Macoy is also known for his “General History, Cyclopaedia and Dictionary of Freemasonry”, first published in 1870, with several other editions until today. In the encyclopaedic part of his work, he expands the definition of (Masonic) rite, after giving a dictionarist definition, like I did, adding: “Freemasonry, although uniform and immutable, in its principles and general laws, exists, nevertheless, in a variety of methods or forms, which are called rites.” (p.326)
According to Macoy, we could characterize rite as one method or form in which Freemasonry presents itself. One out of many. Further, he concludes that these differences are unimportant since they don’t affect in the least the fundamental plans of the order, nor disturb their harmony. Still, he writes about “legal” rites, implying the existence of “illegal” ones. In its first edition, available at the webpage of the Hathi Trust (hathitrust.org), on the “dictionary part” of his work, he republished Rev. G. Oliver’s “A Dictionary of Symbolical Masonry”.
It worth remarking that Oliver was an English Freemason and Macoy an American Freemason. More than cultural differences, there were dissimilarities of Masonic practices between the two authors. Oliver is careful to put (Masonic) rite as a collection of degrees and orders, as something practiced in “some countries”. Although rather insignificant now, we will highlight this information again in the future. Macoy, adopts a more ecumenical stance towards Freemasonry which will characterize the American Craft (South, Central, and North American) until today. We will get back to that as well.
Coming next… Mackey, Kenning, and others
 I refer here to word combinations that have a different figurative meaning
Going for conferences on Freemasonry is not just an opportunity to learn, meet researchers, establish a network, make friends, meet brethren and taking pictures in which you look very important. It is also a chance to spot where the research community on Freemasonry agrees or disagrees, which topics are getting more attention, so on and so forth. As I wrote in my first post, the “disagreements” show the multiplicity of Freemasonry as a Social Fact, and as a cultural phenomenon.
Alas, most disagreements do not come from a theoretical or literary (in the bibliographical sense) concern. Often, researchers just cling onto the bits they agree on and overlook the parts they disagree on. A “kind of inverted” situation from the strictly academic seminars, the conferences of Freemasonry tend to spread the beauty of fraternal tolerance to situations in which questions and disputes are just not desirable, but necessary. For the sake of research to progress.
In a review for a Brazilian Journal, I wrote: “researchers on Freemasonry are separated by a common theme”. And what I want to say with that? That we lack a higher dose of conceptual uniformity, due to the multiplicity of “Freemasonries”, but more so, due to the perception that the reality, analysis, and vocabulary of one branch – the ones one knows – are automatically applicable to others.
This leads to the expansion of terms that, besides not being accurate, are widely spread since the Masons think “It is not actually like this, but my public knows what I’m talking about” and the non-masons think “It is accurate since the Freemasons themselves are using it”. Well, I cannot highlight enough that research on History, is like any other, in the sense that: on one hand, we need to establish consensus, on the other hand, we need to challenge the ones that we think (based on at least some acceptable, non-diversionist, rationale) are wrong.
That being said, I would like to develop with you, my dear reader, a question to which the answer will be barbarically transformed into one footnote one day. The question is: Is there an English Rite?
My answer: Yes, and no.
Calm down, I am not intending to diverge from the question, or to offer a paradoxical response. But the answer, my answer, is not blunt. And by the inverted commas you, smart reader, can guess what it will be.
If we look in any dictionary, the answer is yes, there is an “English Rite”. Consulting our good old Oxford Dictionary, we find, among other definitions “solemn ceremony or act” (check), “set of customary practices” (check), and come on! The word comes from the Latin ritus, meaning “(religious) usage” (definitely check!).
So, now that we did our Sunday research, we can go home happy, there is an English Rite. But wait, if you check my previous post (wink wink), you will see that we should be more cautious. Let’s “slice” the question: what rite means (great, we did that); what a “masonic rite” means (uuhh); do the English Freemasons understand themselves as being part of a “Masonic Rite”? (hummm) And, finally, is there an “English Rite”?
I could call upon my Masonic practice, but it is always better to offer a less biased (and less solipsistic) way of answering it. Let’s check what masonic dictionaries and Encyclopaedias say about Rite, and/or Masonic Rite. And, spoiler alert, they are going to beat the hell out of my proposition.
I heard one very interesting testimony from a colleague yesterday. He was telling me about a fellow Mason asking him about the origin of a specific tendency on Freemasonry. The question was rather interesting, but it was one of these cases of a simple question, with a complicated answer. One of the points which turned his questions into something more complex was that it involved tendencies, intellectual influence, the formation of culture, and other less tangible matters.
During the conversation, he found out that the brother in question was trying to find “a document” confirming that tendency. To clarify, it is like searching for a document in England or France, from the eighteenth century, saying “From now on, Frock Coats will not be just a military and riding coat, but an item of general daywear”. That would be great, but this kind of straightforward statements, let alone official statements, are quite difficult to find; or just inexistent, period.
But back to the “where is the secret document?” question. Most researches are circumstantial, that means researchers besieging a big question, disguised as small questions, pulverized in several different situations, documented (if you are lucky). I am not keen on explaining things etymologically… who am I kidding? I am.
I used the word circumstantial because that is the very movement of research. The term comes from the Latin word circumstantia, which means surrounding, and was also the word for the military term “Encirclement”. This last one designs a strategy in which the enemy forces are isolated until their defeat; blockades and sieges are modalities of encirclements.
That is why the delimitation of the research question and the researched period are so important. They help the researchers to better sharp their questions and their vision of that specific period. And of course, there are rarely “secret documents” or “secret boxes” in which the “truth” is hidden. Most works, even – and mostly – the ground-breaking ones, are product of a dedicated, long, tedious and time-consuming research, in which someone went through several boxes, and sundry documents, to present you with a condensed, thoroughly organized, and time adjusted account of the past, in order to make sense of it. That is why we say that the historian’s task is to make sense of the past.
I know that some “history savvy’s” frown on these things, because “they are so basic”. But the perception of how research is done, mainly historical research, needs drastic improvement, chiefly nowadays. This perception also shows the importance of facing and teaching history as a tool, more than a content provider. How does a historian write History, and more so, does a historian write History? These kinds of questions can bring a better understanding of the world surrounding everyone, I am positive.
After some years of working on history of Freemasonry, doing my Ph.D., going to conferences, and so on, it is clear that researchers in this field, have a characteristic phrase, a conversation starter if you like: “Freemasonry is an unexplored field”. Is this right? Well, yes and no.
First, I must explain something, and this can sound quite naïve. I had no previous knowledge about the way some people choose their topics of research. In my happy-go-lucky, bookworm, humanities lover mind, you would pick a theme by research convenience, or because you have a deep, four-years-worth curiosity about it. Then, I was exposed to a very popular “method”, only a few years ago: to pick the theme by the scarcity of researchers in the given field.
This is definitely a clever way of picking a research topic since a job after the doctorate is highly desirable. However, I’m sorry to inform that Freemasonry is not one of these unexplored, goldmine fields. This, for starters. Additionally, I have to inform that in the entire world we have one, yes, one, university program – hence a chair – on history of Freemasonry.
Passed the “cold shower” announcements, I have to adopt a more optimistic approach. There are several books, papers, catalogs, dictionaries, and conference transactions, on history of Freemasonry. Between professional and amateur research and publications, there is an overwhelming amount of information. After starting its academic rise in the 1980s, mainly with researchers like Margaret Jacob and David Stevenson, nowadays, there is not a year that goes by without an International Conference on the theme.
So why do we have this feeling that Freemasonry is an Antarctica of academic research? Because as Professor José Antonio Ferrer Benimeli (the Dean of academic masonic studies in Europe) emphasized in one of his articles, there is still a “divorce between Masonic History and the Professional Historian”. So, although we have an abundance of studies of the most varied topics on Freemasonry, there is not a culture of research, hence, fewer follow-ups, less disputing, fewer conventions, which I will talk about in a future post.
Amateur researchers look satisfied in their “islands” of knowledge and dilettante ways of, as Phillipe Ariès puts it, “a Sunday Historian”. Professionals are, on the other hand, usually but unconfessably overwhelmed by the specifics of the topic, and are also rapidly drawn to the reality of bigger fields of study in which they must find, a secondary, slot for their studies on Freemasonry.
The fact that we have to build bridges between History and Freemasonry, is indisputable. The question now is how can we build more permanent ones?