After all, how is research done anyway?

©The Two Crafts

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

©The Two Crafts

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?