Operative Masonry, Speculative Masonry, what do these terms stand for anyway?

Keep this page caffeinated, buy me a coffee buymeacoffee.com/cortereal

©The Two Crafts

Freemasonry, like any topic struggling to properly make it into academia, lacks definitions, or academic agreements. This is due to several factors, which I will highlight three main ones. The first is what I call “Dan Brown syndrome”; many writers, and, sadly, academics, see Freemasonry as a pot of gold. They dream to be the sole voice explaining Freemasonry to the world. No criticism of Dan Brown here, who does a great job in his books and as a philanthropist.

The second is the amount of material written on the topic. Different from what is commonly thought, Freemasonry always attracted incredible amounts of ink into paper. The hush-hush about its secrecy just made increased sales about its alleged secrets. Additionally, the poor record keeping and organic way in which Freemasonry spread makes it harder to trace any sort of organised and linear evolution.

The third is the lack of rationality which topics like Freemasonry are able to produce, in academics and non-academics, pros and cons, lovers and haters. Having been used as a political tool for various groups, the idea of Freemasonry is the perfect scarecrow argument, which some very reasonable people will use shamelessly.

Regardless, I have been trying to establish some ground rules, or housekeeping announcements, whenever I give a talk. The first and constant notes are on the definitions that give a title to this article: operative and speculative masonry. Although these terms were coined long ago, there is still much confusion on what they stand for, or even if some of them are different names for the same thing.

In the present day, the distinction between the craft of stonemasonry, and the fraternity of the Freemasons, is quite clear.  To stay within England, not only they are governed by distinct bodies (The Worshipful Company of Masons and the United Grand Lodge of England), as they tell different stories about their past. The Worshipful Company of Masons even says on its page, “The ‘Masons Company’ should not be confused with the comparatively modern fraternity of Freemasons which is entirely separate.”

            However, as explained in the previous post, Freemasonry saw and still sees a necessity to link the fraternity to the guilds of builders. Part of this claim is due to the fact that the group we know as the Freemasons are derived from builders’ guilds, as seen by its historical evolution. Nonetheless, the narrative adopted by Freemasonry, and most Freemasons, does not correspond to what the sources tell us.

            Studies like the ones conducted by Dr Ian Stone, on the history of The Worshipful Company of Masons demonstrate that although its records show a movement of accepted masons within its ranks, the story crafted from this historical fact is not quite what it is purported. Especially, if we take into consideration the book by Edward Coder Jr. published in 1894, “Records of the Hole Crafte and Fellowship of Masons.”

            The term “speculative masonry” comes to light as a way to differentiate and at the same time bind masonry and Freemasonry. However, when the such separation took place? Here, as with any historical question, we are looking at two different events. First is to ask when, in fact, Freemasonry started. Second, when the rhetorical divide “operative x speculative” started to be used. 

Although the term “speculative masonry” appears in some stances during the eighteenth century, starting in the 1720s, it is in the second half of the nineteenth century that it gets traction. Its usage is mainly to differentiate the work of the Freemasons from that carried by the stone workers, which, by opposition, would be the operative masons. According to John Kersey’s Dictionarium Anglo-Britannicum, from 1708, Speculation was defined as follows:

            “Speculation, the Act of Speculating, contemplating, &c.an Espial, a Notion: Also, the Theory, or study of an Art, or Science without regard to the Practice” (bolds, capitalizations, and italics from the original).

            Nonetheless, what does “speculative masonry” defines? From contemporary masonic literature, amateur and professional, one can infer that speculative masonry is everything that it is not operative masonry. Meaning that from the seventeenth century until 2023, we would be talking about the same phenomenon. A mere observational approach could dispel such an overarching tag. Surely, historical research dismays any will of semblance between non-operative masonry from the 16th, 17th, 18th, 20th, and 21st centuries. No historical subject would be static for so long to deserve the same nomenclature.

            If speculative masonry is such an overarching term, the very thing that is defined by it must also be general, without many specifications. Therefore, it must be used as an umbrella term to state general things. And which general things the term “speculative masonry” may define?

            First, as stated before, the occurrence of a break between traditions of and the actual trade of masonry. At first, a bifurcation, more than a schism. This moment could be defined by the already mentioned Shaw Statutes, the first in 1598, and the second in 1599. As exposed scholarly and extensively by Professor David Stevenson, that moment is the culmination of several traditions that, being developed separately, found common ground in the re-organization of the operative masons in Scotland.

            Second, the acceptance of gentlemen from outside the stonemasons’ craft as members of masonic lodges. This movement also does not represent, at first, a divorce between builders and non-builders. Certain is that such separation increases with time. Nevertheless, it would take more than a hundred years from the Shaw Statues for this divide to be clear-cut.

            Third, the elaboration of masonic rituals. Surely the operative masons had ceremonies of initiation, when a young man was admitted as an apprentice, and some sort of elevation of that apprentice as a full guild member. The accounts of such ceremonies are scarce, but the sources led us to believe that although wrapped in religious features and some sort of commensalism, these ceremonies were brief and had a basic frame.

            Fourth, an increasing separation between the guilds and the lodges, now, formed by the so-called “accepted masons”. This movement was so subtle that tracing it is a difficult task. Even the well-documented history of The Worshipful Company of Masons does not establish a name for this social wing of the guild, as Professor Andrew Prescott called it. For the lack of a better word, this period has being called in etic and emic terms, “acceptance”.

            Fifth, the development of moral and esoteric elements within the previous four elements. If the operative masons had the history and practice of their trade linked to a religious and professional code of morality, the speculative masons would take it further. Such elements added into speculative masonry would come from the educated background of the middling sort, such as the developing Natural and Moral Philosophy. Also, the taste for symbols and allegories is inherited from the pedagogical support of the Emblems tradition. It is also important to highlight that these advancements meant a deepening of religious and mystical feelings for most individuals. These “new masons” would synthesize several traditions into a fashionable social frame: the club.   

            In conclusion, the divide between operative x speculative masonry is significant and useful for the study of history and of Freemasonry. However, it cannot serve as a blank cheque, given when definitions prove challenging. We observed here that speculative masonry stands for a development that started in the late sixteenth century, leading to the formation of a new sociability and a new practice. Nonetheless, it is noticeable that it does not cover countless other and late developments, especially those that will define Freemasonry. This is where we are heading: to the logical necessity of a different and non-interchangeable term if we are defining something distinct.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s