Poking the beehive: Is there an “English Rite”? (Part II)

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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[1], 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.”

NPG D13664; George Oliver after Unknown artist
George Oliver, after Unknown artist, stipple and line engraving, mid 19th    century. 8 5/8 in. x 5 3/4 in. (220 mm x 145 mm) paper size. Given by Henry Witte Martin, 1861. NPG D13664. National Portrait Gallery

 

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)

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Robert Macoy depicted in the title page of the first edition of “General History, Cyclopaedia and Dictionary of Freemasonry” (1870)

 

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

[1] I refer here to word combinations that have a different figurative meaning

Poking the beehive: Is there an “English Rite”? (Part I)

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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.

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After all, how is research done anyway?

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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.

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By the way, these are Frock Coats. The image is from the book “What People Wore When”, Consultant Editor Melissa Leventon, featuring artworks of Friedrich Hottenroth & Auguste Racinet.

 

 

History of Freemasonry, an “unexplored” field

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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?