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.

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.

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 III)

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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”.


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

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In the last post, I have introduced the question of whether there is an “English Rite”. As I also stated in the previous text that the inverted commas and the questioning itself are enough to show that I am casting doubt over an expression that is used by some researchers, and some Freemasons.

I demonstrated, briefly, the definitions of the word rite in the dictionary and that such definitions were enough for us to say that yes, there is an “English Rite”. However, Freemasonry is complex as any old institution, have a history, vocabulary, idioms[1], customs of its own, and on top of that, the broadening of the Masonic phenomenon across the globe added some more terms, customs, degrees, etc.

So, a next step is trying to establish what a Masonic Rite is, mostly for the Freemasons. For this purpose, some Masonic reference works should be used. I will bring them forward in chronological order so it will be possible to follow the development of this understanding of rite for Freemasonry.

Of course, this small research is far from exhaustive, being limited by works which I have instant access to and that bring some definition of rite. Like the “A Dictionary of Symbolical Masonry”, from 1853, which was “compiled from the best Masonic authorities” by the Rev G. Oliver. According to the title page “A Past Deputy Grand Master, and Honorary Member of Many Private Lodges and Literary Societies; Author of ‘The Historical Landmarks of Freemasonry’ Etc. Etc.”

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


In his definition it is possible to see the bifold interpretation that will prevail, as a structure, to explain until today what is a Masonic rite. Oliver wrote that a rite “is an item in the ceremonial of conferring degrees” (p.311), that is, every Masonic meeting is formed by a set of small rites put together. In the English case, examples would be the procession, the circumambulation, the opening of the lodge, etc. To this definition he added “[…] although in some countries it is extended to include a number of degrees and orders, as in the French rite ‘ancien et accepté’ which comprehends […]” (p.311) then enlisting some of the degrees of that rite.

Robert Macoy was one of these American phenomena when it comes to Freemasonry. Not only was he a prominent Mason, but also the founder of a Masonic publishing and supply company. Like that was not enough, Macoy is also known for his “General History, Cyclopaedia and Dictionary of Freemasonry”, first published in 1870, with several other editions until today. In the encyclopaedic part of his work, he expands the definition of (Masonic) rite, after giving a dictionarist definition, like I did, adding: “Freemasonry, although uniform and immutable, in its principles and general laws, exists, nevertheless, in a variety of methods or forms, which are called rites.” (p.326)

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


According to Macoy, we could characterize rite as one method or form in which Freemasonry presents itself. One out of many. Further, he concludes that these differences are unimportant since they don’t affect in the least the fundamental plans of the order, nor disturb their harmony. Still, he writes about “legal” rites, implying the existence of “illegal” ones. In its first edition, available at the webpage of the Hathi Trust (hathitrust.org), on the “dictionary part” of his work, he republished Rev. G. Oliver’s “A Dictionary of Symbolical Masonry”.

It worth remarking that Oliver was an English Freemason and Macoy an American Freemason. More than cultural differences, there were dissimilarities of Masonic practices between the two authors. Oliver is careful to put (Masonic) rite as a collection of degrees and orders, as something practiced in “some countries”. Although rather insignificant now, we will highlight this information again in the future. Macoy, adopts a more ecumenical stance towards Freemasonry which will characterize the American Craft (South, Central, and North American) until today.  We will get back to that as well.

Coming next… Mackey, Kenning, and others

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

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?