24th June 1721

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The year 1721, like the others in the first quarter of the 18th century, was of major transitions. The United Kingdom, now a political reality, was settling a series of political and economic evolutions, as well as starting new and bold enterprises. The year’s topic was the “South Sea Company”, a financial enterprise that resulted in a financial scheme, which became known as the “South Sea Bubble”. Several people lost lump sums in the burst of the bubble, including Sir Isaac Newton, who lost £20,000 (something around £2.5 million in today’s purchase power). Yes, history does not repeat itself, but capitalism does. The year 1721 also saw the rise of its first and longest-serving Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole. As with many other things, that position, then named First Lord of Treasury (officially still is), evolved slowly, presenting itself in a rounder way under Walpole.

According to the Almanack for the year of our Lord God, 1721, the 24th of June would be a cloudy day, with small winds. The day was propitious for treatments related to bladder issues, and the night would be of a first-quarter moon. The almanacks, which could be found in the form of a book, booklet, or sheet, were the most common way of having essential information for daily chores and seasonal activities. Mixing aspects that nowadays present themselves separately, like the influence of the zodiac on parts of the body, and weather forecast, the almanacks give a sample of the values and beliefs of the 18th century. Not rarely, the “Zodiac Man” figure would be printed on the Almanak.

Like the other events narrated so far, few are the sources for that 24th of June in Freemasonry’s history. One is the already mentioned diary of William Stukeley, the other is the second edition of the Consitutions of the Freemasons, published in 1738, by James Anderson, the third is the newspapers, like The Post Boy, which noticed the event, the fourth is the so-called Book E. Book E is a minute book that belongs to the Lodge of Antiquity nº 2, and it registers the minute the meeting on the 24th of June. But before analysing these sources, what historical facts can be deduced from them?

On that Saturday night, at the Stationers’ Hall, a venue that is still there, the Masons had dinner and an assembly (a Grand Lodge), following the tradition agreed on in 1717 (according to Anderson), and probably dating from before that year (as far as meeting and banquet are concerned). In this Grand Lodge, John Montagu, the 2nd Duke of Montagu, was elected Grand Master of Masons, and John Beal, a physician, was elected his Deputy.

Around two and three hundred Masons (according to The Post Boy) or a hundred and fifty (according to James Anderson) were present.

From these sources, three are contemporaries of the events: Book E, Stukeley’s diary, and the newspapers. One of them, as already mentioned, was produced 21 years later. This source is the second edition of Anderson’s Constitutions, published in 1738.  Not surprisingly, the narrative that is taken at face value, and the one that we tend to lean on, is the one by Anderson. One reason for that is that Anderson was hired to write the Constitutions and did so with the talent and commitment he had as a genealogist. Not rarely such works were embellished, so would be naïve to believe that the Constitutions of the Freemasons passed Anderson’s industry unscathed. After studies such as Prescott and Sommers, it would be something fringing being in denial.

The enticing characteristic of Anderson’s book is its language and structure. Written according to the historical taste of the eighteenth century, the Constitutions claim an antiquity that goes back to antediluvian times and draw a direct line to the then Grand Lodge. In its second edition, the history (or story) of the formation of the Grand Lodge is told. Confronted with the contemporary documents, several inconsistencies may be found. Here it is important to differentiate inconsistencies from fabrications.

The contemporary sources give us a good number of inconsistencies between Anderson’s report and what they present as being the events and agreements of that 24th June 1721. Other sources, give way to the understanding that some parts of the Constitutions are fabrications. Due to the overarching nature of the Constitutions, of 1723 and 1738, significant features of the other sources were eclipsed. Such details revealed by those sources will give us a better ground to understand why the General Assembly at the Stationer’s Hall started something different from what was before, and, therefore, why the practice that rises from it must be called by another name for research’s sake.

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.

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

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.

Poking the Beehive: Is there an “English Rite”? (Part V – final)

©The Two Crafts

Before reading this one, I suggest reading part I, part IIpart III, and part IV

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)[1], 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.

[1] 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)

A good, but not exhaustive, representation of the English Masonic System.

Poking the Beehive: Is there an “English Rite”? (Part III)

©The Two Crafts

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)

Albert Mackey (1807-1881), as he appears in several editions of his books. Worthy of attention is the 33º degree of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite in his chest.

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

Adolphus Frederick Alexander Woodford (1821-1887). The regalia he is wearing is of Grand Chaplain of the United Grand Lodge of England.


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.

Arturo de Hoyos, among several of his qualifications and Masonic titles, is the Grand Archivist and Grand Historian of the Supreme Council of the Scottish Rite in the Southern Jurisdiction.


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”.