Of Societies, Lodges, and Grand Masters.

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We finished our last text with lodges gathering to elect a Grand Master of Masons in 1717. It is important to remember that the main account of such a fact is the second edition of the Constitutions, published in 1738. We also saw that Anthony Sayer was selected as Grand Master and that on every 24th of June, the Grand Lodge (meaning the assembly of Freemasons) would choose a Grand Master of Masons.

According to some accounts, but again, having James Anderson as the main narrative, the Freemasons did so from 1717 until 1720. The succession went as follows: George Payne in 1718, Jean Teophile Desagullier, in 1719, and George Payne again in 1720. The apparently uneventful succession hides a rise in the importance of its Grand Masters. Sayer was a bookseller; although the bookselling business flourished after the end of the 17th century, this trade would hardly pass beyond the nascent middling sort. Payne was First Clerk of the Taxes Office, and Desagullier was a scientific demonstrator and academic. It may be observed that these men, listed as the four first Grand Masters of Masons, were not noble, or even from the high echelons of society. Nonetheless, they made it above the cut, and apparently, they were not only keeping a London club but crafting something, maybe, more ambitious.

            Freemasonry was one of a kind in several aspects, but as stated before, clubs and societies were flourishing everywhere in Europe, especially in England. However, how do we know in which aspects Freemasonry was unique, and what others we are addressing as common features of the time? Historians, not having hard theories to contrast their findings against, and (at least most of us) trussing over the historicity of events, meaning that historical events are firstly characterised by their uniqueness.

            The main way of overcoming such uniqueness of historical events is to compare them with similar events, associations, persons, etc. It is important to clarify that none of the elements of such comparison will serve as a “control group”. A comparison in history has other goals than finding a general theory or a law. Historical comparisons assist to find possible generalizations but also different variations of similar phenomena and see how similar inputs may produce dissimilar outcomes.

            In the case of Freemasonry, as stated before, we see that although the special feature of its rituals, a mix of stonemasons’ craft with philosophical and spiritual meanings, they were evolving into club-like sociability, something common at the time. As also seen before, several Freemasons were also members of other clubs, societies, and fraternities. This fact takes the lodges and their quarterly assembly, the Grand Lodge, from a position of isolation, meaning that practices, procedures, elections, and so on, were not being made from scratch.

            Another element that may lead us to know better the early days of this new model fraternity, is one of the possible already mentioned sources: diaries of learned masons. On the matter, one diary is key: the diaries of William Stukeley. Stukeley had the profile of those interested in joining Freemasonry in the 17th and 18th centuries, a learned man, a polymath. Physician, antiquarian (the historians of the time), and Anglican priest. He was not only an antiquarian but one of the founders of the Society of the Antiquarians in 1707, ten years before the alleged Grand Lodge (an assembly) which elected a Grand Master. Stukeley was also the first Antiquarian’s secretary when of its formal establishment in 1717. Yes, there is something about this year…

            Of the many things that Stukeley wrote about Freemasonry, and to which we might come back in due time, one is of relevance for this scenario. Like Elias Ashmole, Stukeley registered in his diaries his initiation on the 6th of January 1721 at the Salutation Tavern in London. His entry registers as “I was the first person in London made a free mason in that city for many years. We had great difficulty finding members enough to perform the ceremony.” Surely, as with any testimony, Stukeley’s accounts must be taken with a pinch of salt. However, these remarks add an extra layer to our perceptions of the early days of organised Freemasonry in England. Stukeley was well-connected, especially when it came to fraternities and societies, so his observation that it was difficult to find people to perform the ceremony gives us at least two important pieces of information. One is the reinforcement of the lodge as an assembly, rather than a permanent group, since it was hard to find “members enough to perform the ceremony”. Similar descriptions may be found in the writings of Ashmole, and others. The second is that, apparently, Freemasonry was not as vibrant as one may think. Even if the claim that he was “the first person in London made a free mason in that city for many years” is not entirely precise, the whole entry gives the impression of scarcity.

            In 1721 we have notice of five lodges. However, the only coeval report is Stukeley’s report, which, as the text indicates, was an assembly which gathered for that meeting at the Salutation Tavern. The other four, are up to James Anderson’s account (late at its best, apocryphal at its worse), being the ones meeting at the Goose and Gridiron Ale-house in St. Paul’s Church-yard, the Crown Ale-house in Parker’s Lane off Drury Lane; the Apple-Tree Tavern in Charles Street, and the Rummer and Grapes Tavern in Channel Row, Westminster. These accounts by Anderson started to be scrutinized only recently, although previous masonic historians cast doubt on it before. Scholars such as Andrew Prescott and Susan Sommers are carrying out extensive research on Anderson’s life and works, so probably more on that to come soon. For now, one important piece of information that gives us some perspective on the veracity of the 1738 Constitutions’ story is that one of these places in which one of the four lodges allegedly met has not existed on Charles Street.

            One may argue that this is a minor mistake. However, Prescott and Sommers dedicate a whole article to explaining how that makes the whole story more fragile.[1] To that, I would add that the scenario of lodges meeting regularly at pubs also resembles developments of a later date. Stukeley, in 1721, still mentions the necessity of gathering masons to perform a ceremony rather than attending a specific lodge meeting regularly somewhere.

            Being so, it is essential to keep in mind what the sources are telling us. First, a lodge was still, at that point, an assembly of masons. Second, some assemblies did not have a regular meeting place, being something like impromptu lodges. Third, late or apocryphal papers mentioned the election of a Grand Master of Masons at the end of the 1710s, more specifically 1717. Fourth, such Grand Master was elected annually in the General Assembly, called Grand Lodge. Fifth and final, in 1721 something changed in the structure of governance of the Masons. This change will be the rupture that will prompt a new terminology for the history of Freemasonry.

[1] Prescott, A.  and Sommers, S. M. (2017) Searching for the apple tree: revisiting the earliest years of organised English freemasonry. In: Wade, J. (ed.) Reflections on Three Hundred Years of Freemasonry: Papers from the QC Tercentenary Conference. Lewis Masonic.

The path to modern Freemasonry

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In my last post, I discussed the importance of establishing differences between operative and speculative masonry. I suggested five traces that may be observed as the distinguishing aspects of speculative masonry, whether they were the cause or consequence of that phenomenon. I also observed that although speculative masonry has some characteristics of what we know today as Freemasonry, the term cannot manage to characterize its later evolutions. By later evolutions, I am referring to the first quarter of the 18th century onwards. What happens at that point in England makes the definition of “speculative masonry” become not useless, but insufficient.

We left our speculative masons at a point in which that new sociability was spreading from Scotland to England and Ireland. From and to where it sprouted, migrated, returned, or was revamped, is a matter for another discussion. The convoluted nature of the history of operative and speculative masonry, and the amount of amateur writing on it, cast a fog into all these discussions. Nowadays, something similar happens with Wikipedia articles, a usually accidental confusion called wikifogging.

Back to England, at the beginning of the 18th century. What sources tell us is that there was some form of survival of English lodges practising the acception. Important to highlight that whenever we are talking about lodges, we are referring to speculative masonry. Why? Because operative masons were not organised in lodges. The contrary is affirmed by a hindsight will of associating operative and speculative.

There are three main sources to understand what was happening at this point. One is the reports of travellers, a type of learned literature common in the Early Modern Period. Books such as the famous The Natural History of Strafford-Shire, by Dr Robert Plott. The other type of source is the diaries of men who were accepted into masonry at the time, like Dr William Stukeley, who was made a mason in 1721. Another interesting source is the exerts of rituals practised at that time. Exerts since there were no printed rituals or exposures circulating, but aide-memories, small extracts of parts of the ceremonies with not many specifics. From these sources, we may affirm that speculative masonry, or the acception, developed into a completely independent practice from rituals that guilds may have had. This was noticeable already in the last quarter of the 17th century.

It becomes clear that some lodges started to grow in membership and to become more organised in their procedures. This was not a unique and unprompted event, socially and culturally speaking, since clubs, fraternities, and societies were sprouting everywhere in England, especially in London. Many of the London masons themselves were from a unique and exclusive club, the Royal Society, a mix of academy of sciences with learned society, a one-of-a-kind at the time of its foundation, the year 1660. There was not only the inclination but also the experience to transform the organic acception into something more structured.

The sources point to the second half of the decade of 1710 as the turning point for Freemasonry. At that point, the practice of acception was already institutionalised into lodges. However, different from what can be assumed by the common and anachronistic interpretation that lodges were physical places with regular meetings, they were in fact regular assemblies of masons. This detail will help us to understand why there will be a rupture later.[1]

This understanding of a lodge may be verified in the way that lodges were described at the time. Minutes and official papers usually describe them as “the lodge meeting at the Devil’s Tavern”, or “the lodge at Queen’s Head”. Therefore, the lodge is a collective noun, a concept. Differently from what is deduced, anachronistically, there was no “Devil’s Tavern Lodge” or “Queen’s Head Lodge”, as a thing, a noun, an assembly with a name.  The process of numbering and naming lodges is of a later date, and we will go back to that in a future article.

This detail is relevant because it allows us to understand what happens next. These lodges, meeting regularly at these pubs and taverns, apparently, perceive the need for a wider organization. At this moment, is when the narrative written by James Anderson in 1738 comes into play. The famous account that in 1716 four lodges found themselves neglected by Sir Christopher Wren, “thought fit to cement under a Grand Master as the Center of Union and Harmony”. Therefore, the four lodges, meaning, four established assemblies, that met at regular places, decided to elect a Grand Master. Additionally, Anderson’s accounts say that they revived the “Quarterly Communication of the Officers of Lodges (call’d the Grand Lodge).”

From these exerts, some things become quite clear if the accuracy of what James Anderson is narrating is taken at face value. First, Sir Christopher Wren was an accepted mason, at the time around 84 years old, and performed some sort of overseer role for the lodges now performing the acception.  Second, these four lodges were probably the prominent or more active ones in the region of London and Westminster, since they took the initiative of reviving what is recounted as a tradition and establishing some structures for the governance of the lodges. Third, they decided to elect a Grand Master, someone who would perform a figurehead role for the accepted masons, now living a separate life from the guilds of builders. Fourth, the assembly, held every trimester, was the Grand Lodge. As the lodges were assemblies, and regarded as such when united, later to be understood as a permanent group, so was the Grand Lodge at the beginning. A meeting, an assembly, which will become a permanent institution under the same name later.

The first Grand Master, still, according to James Anderson’s account was Anthony Sayer. His title was “Grand Master of Masons”. So, not a master of a Grand Lodge, but of the masons as individuals, which, in turn, gathered in their lodges. These lodges were, only then, becoming more of a permanent and regular assembly, thus identifiable by the name of the place in which they met.  

[1] For historical studies, rupture may be understood as a breach of some kind of established situation, but not necessarily caused by dissent. We use the term rupture to mark that there is another situation, environment, or organisation emerging. Therefore, it requires different considerations from the previous situation.

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

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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.

Freemasonry in the 18th century (I am the son and the heir…)

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            Freemasonry, like any human invention, or social fact if you like, has a date of creation. This idea is battled by some Freemasons, and non-Freemasons, who believe in some sort of divine revelation. Ideas like the one that the Craft was handed down to Adam by God, and that the grape leaf was the first masonic apron. Allegedly, this was the very understanding of James Anderson when of the first Constitutions, in 1723. However, it is necessary to remember that what the narrative of the Doctor of Divinities tells us is in accordance with the historical mentality of the time. It does not mean that things, or Freemasonry for that matter, could not be handed down by God, but, usually, even those can be dated.

            Dr Anderson had good reasons to locate the beginning of Masonry in the Garden of Eden and to date it at 4003 BC. He describes, even with some moderation, how God “must have had” inserted the Liberal Arts, among them Geometry, into Adam’s heart.  The theoretical keys for that piece of historical information were two, which not only Anderson but any other scholar at the time would probably make use of: scholastic logic and the respectable “Annals of the World” by James Ussher. The book, published in 1650, was a study of the Old Testament and a credible source for the time. A version of this book was part of Dr James Anderson’s library, bien sûr.[1]

            The date of creation was a serious pursuit in the Early Modern period. Some figures forced into the ‘hard sciences box’ by today’s interpretation of history, such as Sir Isaac Newton, also dedicated their work to calculating the exact year, month, day, and time in which Genesis 1:1 happened. This is not a historical anecdote but an important reminder that the eighteenth century, and the whole Early Modern era, is an in-between of the Middle Ages and modern times.  Hence, having characteristics of the precedent era, and signs of the age to come. Freemasonry, alongside our political and moral compasses, including the plethora of Christian and Esoteric beliefs, were, if not created at, enhanced incommensurably in this period.

            If on the one hand, the premise adopted by James Anderson was a straightforward one at the time he wrote the Constitutions,[2] on the other, it is no less than anachronic today.  Another feature that was part of the historical mentality of the time, and part of the purpose of that document, was to link the craft of building (Masonry) with Freemasonry. Although in several languages, especially in the masonic milieu, Masonry and Freemasonry are used interchangeably, it is a far-fetched idea that Freemasonry exists since the first construction site was set in history. It would be equally questionable to set it at the beginning of the guild system. Here a clear definition makes itself indispensable: historical heritage and claimed heritage.

            Historical heritage is the one that a clear line may be traced for matters of nationality, religion, trade, or any other connection that leaves small room for subjectivities. For instance, the DeMolay Order is a youth organisation created in 1919, in the United States. It has its name to honour Jacques DeMolay, the last Grand Master of the order of the Temple, and in its rituals mentions values and legends related to the Knights Templars. However, there is no line of succession between Jacques DeMolay, who burned at the stake in Paris, in 1314, and the first DeMolays.  The order claimed the values and history of the Templars as theirs, as a guide, a homage. This is all legitimate, however, as a historian, it would be a mistake to trace an unmistakable historical line from DeMolay to Frank Sherman Land, if the topic history of the Knights Templars. What was done was the claiming of a heritage, meaning that there was a will to associate the emerging order with that legacy.

            Freemasonry is a bit of both, nonetheless, it is necessary to establish which bits are claimed and which ones are the fruit of historical development from the guilds. Freemasonry developed from the associative life and traditions of the guilds, especially, of course, masons’ guilds. However, there is a fundamental rupture which started what is usually called speculative masonry, a term coined by Freemasons to differentiate the trade of building, called then operative masonry, from the fraternal society.

            The fundamental rupture, different from the beginning of times, has a date and place: Edinburgh, 28th of December 1598. This was when William Schaw, decided to act on his appointment as Master of Works to the Crown of Scotland. On that date, he introduced statutes for the governing of lodges in Scotland, which re-organised their structure and added some renaissance bits to their rules. As with any position traditionally held by courtiers, it was more a sinecure than an actual position of overseer of works, having occasional practical duties. Schaw was interested in architecture, like many other savants of his time, as a science connecting all liberal arts.

            It is fundamental to understand that this phenomenon spread through the very porous borders between Scotland and England. In the mid-seventeenth century, the Mason’s guild in London already had its accepted masons, meaning people from outside the trade who were accepted as part of a social wing of the construction society. Indisputable is that in the late 1710s, these lodges of speculative masons were already having a life of their own, detached from the operative masons, the actual construction workers. Rather than a singular phenomenon, this was the result of a boom in associative life that took England, and especially London, by storm.

            When the time came for writing its Constitutions, which was a bold move that marked a more serious approach to that club, the choice of James Anderson and the tone of the narrative informs us of its intent. Anderson was a genealogist, an intellectual profession, but that usually involved claiming heritages that were not clear, or not at all, established. The tone of the Constitutions follows the tone given by the stone workers in the fifteenth century when they produced a document called the Old Charges. In sum, the document claimed a divine and mythical heritage to the trade of building, in response to a cap in payment stipulated by the government due to the Black Death.[3] To make their request, the historical and juridical mentality of the time was used: claiming antiquity and royal charters, both unable to be proven by documents.

            James Anderson wrote in a more comfortable position. Freemasonry was a clear Georgian society, meaning that they not only supported the recently established Hanoverian monarchy but also that the Grand Lodge was regarded as a respectable club. This even led to speculations that the letter G in Freemasonry would stand for George. Anderson then traced a line from Adam to the Duke of Montagu, then the Grand Master, merging Masonry with Freemasonry, and everything sacred and respectable in between.

            Although speculative masonry has its origins in the 16th century, it is only in the 1710s, probably in 1717, that Masonic lodges decided to formalise their difference to the Masons’ guild and to other fraternal societies. Additionally, it is in 1721, that their General Assembly, called Grand Lodge, start to be an institution responding by the same name. The first edition of the Constitutions of the Free-Masons, published in 1723, tells the mythological part of that story. The second one, published in 1738, sheds more light on the development of Freemasonry and the historical mentality of the eighteenth century. It demonstrates, more than the history (or stories) that it tells, the necessity to legitimise the institutional and historical discourses.

[1] Again, I must thank Professor Susan Sommers for her intellectual generosity and diligence.

[2] There are speculations, based on quite sound reasoning, that Dr Jean Théophile Desagulliers wrote the Constitutions, or that he gave the main directions. However, that is not enough sources to back that theory. Hence, I will be crediting the Constitutions to its named author due to the harder evidence of his authorship.

[3] The Black Death caused a severe shortage in Labour that caused a rise in wages. In 1351, the English Parliament passed the Statute of Labourers that prohibited salaries above Pre-plague levels, and also limited workers’ movements for better conditions.

The Masonic Aggiornamento (Final)

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It is with reluctance that I restart this series on what I have been calling masonic aggiornamento. Usually, we, academics, have the impression (normally a right one), of being talking to ourselves. This is just natural since the goal of our career is to seek for specialization, just to be told later, often by publishers, that we should write for the public. One of the many academic oxymorons. 

Academic blogs look for this in-between. A place to write more freely, to pitch or ‘test’ topics, and, not rarely, to vent. With some luck, you get some readers, and with luck, they comment on what you are writing about (on the page, via messages or email). With greater luck, you have readers, like two friends of mine, who ask you to continue. I must, therefore, resume my blog writing by finishing the topic in which we (in case there are more of us, me, and my friends) stopped. Maybe there are more people who are interested in this comparison.

It is momentous to compare the process taking place in English Freemasonry with what happened during the Second Vatican Council. For two reasons: one is the 60th anniversary of the council in 2022, and the other is the death of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. The anniversary of the council marked the seniority of the aggiornamento promoted by it. However, the maturity of that landmark, instead of settling down disputes, made them more alive. This is to such an extent that there are even fears of a schism within the Catholic Church, especially coming from the United States and Germany. The former resents what they understand as a liberalization of the church, the latter, its alleged conservatism.

It is possible to observe that an updating of practices and beliefs does not occur without friction and eventual fissures. Nonetheless, there are also important questions that are often disregarded, in Catholicism and, in Freemasonry. Should practices and beliefs be updated?  Are these institutions, which the very existence sounds absurd for some political positions, fitted for modernization? Is it not their very essence, even their appeal, the fact that they offer a space in which a tradition may be preserved? For some critical voices, to save Freemasonry by modernizing it is like throwing a bucket of water for someone drawing.

This brings us to the second momentous event for this comparison: the death of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. A controversial figure, Benedict XVI was foremost a theologian, and in this capacity, served as one of the counsellors in the Second Vatican Council. By the age of 35, he was one of its youngest advisors, and by the time of his death, maybe the last live testimony of those debates. Representing modernisation for the traditionalists in 1962 and conservatism for the liberals in 2022, the Pope Emeritus represented better than anyone this crossroad.

The public debate, especially because of the enhancement of technology, is less and less prone to nuances, caveats, contradictions, and ponderation. All the things that are necessary for a real debate. This is one of the problems in trying to adjust to an agenda that moves daily, and that, regardless of anyone’s efforts, is impossible to meet. Perhaps this is the challenge of these two institutions, despite their very different ‘business’. Guided by marketing, opinion pools, headlines, likes, etc., both institutions are using the tools provided by capitalism to fight not necessarily for survival, but for relevance.

With the results of the Second Vatican Council, we learned that most people adapt to the aggiornamento. Most Catholics or Freemasons are not equipped with the knowledge, time, patience, or interest to discuss the destiny of their Church or Grand Lodge, respectively. Some have one or several of those assets, but then those discussions are portrayed and conducted as something “for the big fish.” Nonetheless, some people may find the updated forms of worship, or forms of living their Masonic experience, not matching what they are searching in it. Then, it becomes a problem of expelling the old to attract the new.

Apparently, by the campaigns in the media and by the constant transmission of the ‘radio corridor’, the UGLE will continue its aggiornamento. By the same ‘radio’ we learn that most masons do not care that much if, all things considered, they keep receiving their Grand Lodge, Provincial or Metropolitan honours, and as long as Freemasonry keeps donating to charity sumptuous sums.

The liberals (despite the reductionism of this adjective) inside the Craft usually celebrate, what in their perception may be seen as small advancements. Some policies and initiatives help to build a case for Freemasonry in front of their detractors or discontents. Nonetheless, such discontent with Freemasonry typically comes up from anti-masonry, thus being impossible to sacrifice enough goats to praise this many-headed monster on the altar of ‘public opinion’ (whatever that is). One mason that frowns upon this agenda told me, “It is like the thing meme”. I went to find it, see below.[1] So, yes, maybe amidst this media battle for hearts and minds a basic element of ‘catering for your audience’ has been lost.

However, the disquieting of such masons only comes after some libation when fear and bravery, both in their rhetorical form, appear in equal measure. There is a small, but buzzing, group growing in discontent with the aggiornamento. For those, the public scrutiny sounds less like accountability and more like an auto da fé that would stop once there were ‘tickets being sold to watch initiations’, according to a bacchian point made by a critical voice. It remains to be seen who the Lefebvrians of English Freemasonry will be.[2]


[2] The Lefebvrians (Society of Saint Pious X) is a fraternity of catholic priests that started after the Second Vatican Council. The name derives from Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, a main voice against the reforms promoted by that council. The Lefebvrians keep their liturgy, rites, and values, in a pre-Vatican II state. Between confrontation (John Paul II even excommunicated some of its bishops in 1988, later reverted) and reconciliation, the Lefebvrians stand as a traditionalist group despite its small membership.

The masonic aggiornamento (Part 2) 

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

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The other day I went to the Freemasons’ Hall to say hello to a few colleagues (five years of research in their archives and counting) and to attend a Quatuor Coronati meeting. I was truly impressed with the new Café: spacious, bright, drinks and coffee in separated stands and crews, comfortable seats. I sat with a pint and thought about how easier my Ph.D. research would have been if I had a pub to gather my thoughts inside Freemasons’ Hall. However, I decided to do what we do nowadays: to text my excitement to a friend. 

Me: We need to schedule a trip to the Freemason’s Hall in London. They even have a café now. 

Friend: My God!!! A secret society with a cafe?!?!! What’s next a crèche? 

Me: Well, a shop? Hahaha. (Trying to cover my shame after having my excitement bashed by my friend’s view of how Freemasonry should present itself) 

My friend is not alone. A number of masons and non-masons have been treating the recent efforts to make Freemasonry more accessible with derision. One can only ask why since the public always demanded transparency from Freemasonry, even though not understanding why they are demanding it, most of the time. At the same time, Freemasons often claim to be treated with prejudice or suspicion if they reveal their membership. So, what is potentially ludicrous about the whole PR strategy of the UGLE? Maybe the ontological awkwardness of something traditional trying to acquire new clothes and present itself to the “youngsters”, or absorbing new interpretations of old doctrines. One example, to use the Catholic Church again, is the Charismatic Renewal, a movement that started in 1967 and that was highly impacted by American Protestantism. The charismatic renewal became the main bridge between young people and the catholic faith.  

From the enigmatic “to be one, ask one” to the more traditional marketing strategy of “apply here”.

Such strategy has proven effective, for instance, in 2007, 54% of the Latino Catholics were charismatic,1 however, one may argue that, still, the selling point of Catholicism is tradition. A non-stop apostolic chain from Peter to Jorge, a headquarters that runs in their own version of temporal time, an Estate where the official language is Latin, a place where decisions take more time and are often taken behind closed doors. Although the charismatic renovation is being responsible to keep the catholic trenches within steady numbers, their fair representation cannot be seen in the college of cardinals, the top priests who, among other things, elect the new Pope.  

And what does this have to do with Freemasonry? A similar trade-off between tradition and renovation. According to the numbers of UGLE’s National Digital Marketing Campaign, in almost a year of an increased digital presence, they received 2.516 enquires, and had a result of 989 membership leads. However, it is impossible to qualify what these new potential members are seeking within Freemasonry. Even though the UGLE has been championing progressive positions, there is a backlog that makes the sole act of joining Freemasonry a potential political statement. This is true, especially for people who used to not see much difference between the Apostolic Palace and the number 60 at Great Queen Street. 

According to public opinion (this amorphous and ideological entity), the backlog that I mention would be in two aspects of the matter: secrecy and aspects of its sociability. These two topics can be quite hazy; however, we need to address them in order to understand the ways sought for promoting this aggiornamento.  

The Masonic Aggiornamento (Part I)

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Even if you are not a Roman Catholic, you are familiar with one outcome of the Second Vatican Council that came about in the Holy See from October 1962 to December 1965. This outcome is the aggiornamento, an Italian word popularized during that period meaning “bringing up to date”. Most of the current Catholic masses and practices reverberates the aggiornamento that took place after the council. Priests facing the congregation, celebrating the mass in vernacular, singing pentatonic tunes, even priests recording and selling albums, all of this would not take place before the Second Vatican Council and its aggiornamento.[1]

Freemasonry is not a religion, but it is a tricentenary institution[2] at least its most ancient body, the Grand Lodge, based in London, nowadays the United Grand Lodge of England (UGLE). As any old institution based on tradition, regardless of how and when they were invented, Freemasonry suffered with the acceleration of history brought by the end of the Second World War. If a century ago Freemasonry carried within and around the values of the British Empire, nowadays the institution suffers backlashes due to the very same reasons.

Attendance of the Second Vatican Coouncil was of over 2000 clergymen per session.

The past three years have been full of journalists, critics, academics and even some Freemasons pointing out issues with the way the Craft is conducted, portrayed and displayed. From critics arguing that Freemasons should not occupy public positions to others claiming that Freemasonry has gone “woke”; the masonic aggiornamento is a reality.[3]

The UGLE may be regarded as a Masonic Vatican for a more traditional branch of Freemasonry. It is fair to say that they carry the flag of Freemasonry as being a Teist, Royalist, male-only sociability. As much as the UGLE repeatedly highlights the diversity of masonic institutions in England (Order of Women Freemasons (OWF) and the Honourable Fraternity of Ancient Freemasons (HFAF) and so on ), there is little doubt that even its critics see the UGLE as being the most traditional branch, therefore ‘the original’ Freemasonry.

It is important to highlight that academics, including the author of this post, advocate for a broader interpretation of Freemasonry, mostly as a practice with several possible combinations. A more holistic view of the masonic phenomenon demonstrates that the term “freemasonries” is more accurate than its singular form. Being so, in a logical effect, holding the UGLE as accountable for more representative or progressive values, even when there are other forms of masonic practice, is to give them the sceptre of masonic authority. Great Queen Street became, somehow, the Masonic Holy See.

As everything in Freemasonry, a Bible reference is needed. Here, the parable of the faithful servant (Luke 12:48) is suitable. The lesson of that story is mostly known under the name of Peter Parker principle “with great power comes great responsibility”. The idea is similar: UGLE’s Freemasonry stood for a pattern of masonic practice, called ‘regular’ by its practitioners, and now sees itself obliged to update some of its policies.

The Quarterly Communication is UGLE’s periodical meeting to, among other business, communicate recognitions of foreign Grand Lodges, changes of Masonic Rank and of Masonic policies. (Picture from Crescamus Lodge No.7776)

The changes in their headquarters have been largely publicised, mostly by their own Public Relations Team. However, the changes in the structure of the UGLE are something far more interesting from a historic point of view. In 2018, a physician, Dr. David Staples, was hired to be UGLE’s first CEO. Yes, a Chief Executive Officer, that would now offer the guidelines for everything that happens outside the four lines of the ritualistic world. Although not publicised, and not understood by most media, the creation of a parallel structure to manage “the business of Freemasonry” was a shift in the history of Friendly and Fraternal Societies.

The changes within the UGLE, its charities, headquarters, and lodges under its jurisdiction around the world are sundry. The administrative structure of the UGLE was further parted from the masonic, i.e., ritualistic, administration, meaning a professionalization of procedures, responses and compliance. Therefore, the positions created within the administrative structure, and the existent ones that became vacant, were largely advertised and professionals were hired for them (very rarely were these professionals Freemasons). The Museum of Freemasonry, already equipped with a team of professionals, was revamped and reshaped to better serve public research and to reinforce Freemasonry as part of British and world history, and not a world apart. In July 2018, a Gender Reassignment Policy was issued, ruling, among other details that transgender women may stay in their masonic lodges and transgender men may apply for initiation.[4] Recently, dietary requirements are being accommodated at dinners (vegetarian, vegan, gluten free, etc.). And yet, the UGLE went out to the public to confront accusations, its accusers, and to promote Freemasonry, inviting people to see “who we are and what we do” in the words of Dr. Staples, also present on the institution’s annual report, the first in 300 years.[5]

This sets up the scenario for us to dive into the Masonic Aggiornamento. More than a curiosity or its social implications, this is a chance to take a critical look to the history of Freemasonry. Let’s not miss it.

[1] For a concise history of the Second Vatican Council: Alberigo, Giuseppe. A Brief History of Vatican II (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2005). To understand the structure of the Vatican: Reese, Thomas J. Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996).

[2] Certainly after 24 june 2021.

[3]   Some examples are Foster, Dawn. “Secret Freemasons Should Have No Place in Public Life.” The Guardian, 5 Feb. 2018 and Shute, Joe. “Millennials and Vegans welcome: Have the Freemasons gone ‘woke’?” The Telegraph, 26 Jun. 2021.

[4] United Grand Lodge of England. Gender Reassignment Policy (London, 2018). https://www.ugle.org.uk/gender-reassignment-policy

[5] United Grand Lodge of England. Annual Report 2020 (London, 2021).  https://www.ugle.org.uk/about-us/annual-report

Anderson’s Constitutions in Latin America

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The title of the book is “The Constitutions of the Free-Masons; containing the History, Charges, Regulations, &c. of that Most Ancient and Right Worshipful Fraternity. For the Use of the Lodges. London. In the year of Masonry 5723, Anno Domini 1723″. Yes, in 1723, the publishing market still had a lot to learn about catchy titles.

The book that would become known as “The Constitutions” or “Anderson’s Constitutions” would live longer than its, probable, desired impact. The impact of Andersons’ Constitutions varied from country to country as shown by Jacob (1991), Porset and Révauger (2006), and Scanlan (2014). Nonetheless, there is still work to be done when it comes to the influence of the Constitutions in Latin America.

One of the interesting points is to observe how – and if – the Constitutions shaped Latin American Freemasonries, and whether it was used in its entirety. Another relevant aspect is to peruse how and when this book, or parts of it, reached each of the twenty countries grouped in this geopolitical invention.

This is obviously a gigantic task. However, if we break it into small pieces, it may be meneageable. Being so, I am welcoming any information, hints or guesses, on the arrival, reception, divulgation, etc. of the Constitutions in any Latin American country.


Jacob, Margaret C. Living the Enlightenment: Freemasonry and Politics in Eighteenth-Century Europe (New York, Oxford University Press, 2001).

Porset, Charles and Cécile Révauger (orgs.) Franc-Maçonnerie et Religions dans L’Europe des Lumières (Paris, Honoré Champion, 2006).

Scanlan, Mathew D.J., “The Origins of Freemasonry: England” in Handbook of Freemasonry, Henrik Bogdan and Jan A.M. Snoek (eds.) (Leiden, Brill, 2014).

Learning how to fish

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 register to participate. So, if you want to stop chasing the red hering, tune it on next Saturday.


In praise of introductions

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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.

My book, wet by an English rain, was this post starter.

Another part of this history is the series “Que sais-je?” (What do I know?) published since 1941 by the PUF (Prèsses Universitaires 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.