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

©The Two Crafts

Going for conferences on Freemasonry is not just an opportunity to learn, meet researchers, establish a network, make friends, meet brethren and taking pictures in which you look very important. It is also a chance to spot where the research community on Freemasonry agrees or disagrees, which topics are getting more attention, so on and so forth. As I wrote in my first post, the “disagreements” show the multiplicity of Freemasonry as a Social Fact, and as a cultural phenomenon.

Alas, most disagreements do not come from a theoretical or literary (in the bibliographical sense) concern. Often, researchers just cling onto the bits they agree on and overlook the parts they disagree on. A “kind of inverted” situation from the strictly academic seminars, the conferences of Freemasonry tend to spread the beauty of fraternal tolerance to situations in which questions and disputes are just not desirable, but necessary. For the sake of research to progress.

In a review for a Brazilian Journal, I wrote: “researchers on Freemasonry are separated by a common theme”. And what I want to say with that? That we lack a higher dose of conceptual uniformity, due to the multiplicity of “Freemasonries”, but more so, due to the perception that the reality, analysis, and vocabulary of one branch – the ones one knows – are automatically applicable to others.

This leads to the expansion of terms that, besides not being accurate, are widely spread since the Masons think “It is not actually like this, but my public knows what I’m talking about” and the non-masons think “It is accurate since the Freemasons themselves are using it”. Well, I cannot highlight enough that research on History, is like any other, in the sense that: on one hand, we need to establish consensus, on the other hand, we need to challenge the ones that we think (based on at least some acceptable, non-diversionist, rationale) are wrong.

That being said, I would like to develop with you, my dear reader, a question to which the answer will be barbarically transformed into one footnote one day. The question is: Is there an English Rite?

My answer: Yes, and no.

Calm down, I am not intending to diverge from the question, or to offer a paradoxical response. But the answer, my answer, is not blunt. And by the inverted commas you, smart reader, can guess what it will be.

If we look in any dictionary, the answer is yes, there is an “English Rite”. Consulting our good old Oxford Dictionary, we find, among other definitions “solemn ceremony or act” (check), “set of customary practices” (check), and come on! The word comes from the Latin ritus, meaning “(religious) usage” (definitely check!).

So, now that we did our Sunday research, we can go home happy, there is an English Rite. But wait, if you check my previous post (wink wink), you will see that we should be more cautious. Let’s “slice” the question: what rite means (great, we did that); what a “masonic rite” means (uuhh); do the English Freemasons understand themselves as being part of a “Masonic Rite”? (hummm) And, finally, is there an “English Rite”?

I could call upon my Masonic practice, but it is always better to offer a less biased (and less solipsistic) way of answering it. Let’s check what masonic dictionaries and Encyclopaedias say about Rite, and/or Masonic Rite. And, spoiler alert, they are going to beat the hell out of my proposition.

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After all, how is research done anyway?

©The Two Crafts

I heard one very interesting testimony from a colleague yesterday. He was telling me about a fellow Mason asking him about the origin of a specific tendency on Freemasonry. The question was rather interesting, but it was one of these cases of a simple question, with a complicated answer. One of the points which turned his questions into something more complex was that it involved tendencies, intellectual influence, the formation of culture, and other less tangible matters.

During the conversation, he found out that the brother in question was trying to find “a document” confirming that tendency. To clarify, it is like searching for a document in England or France, from the eighteenth century, saying “From now on, Frock Coats will not be just a military and riding coat, but an item of general daywear”. That would be great, but this kind of straightforward statements, let alone official statements, are quite difficult to find; or just inexistent, period.

But back to the “where is the secret document?” question. Most researches are circumstantial, that means researchers besieging a big question, disguised as small questions, pulverized in several different situations, documented (if you are lucky). I am not keen on explaining things etymologically… who am I kidding? I am.

I used the word circumstantial because that is the very movement of research. The term comes from the Latin word circumstantia, which means surrounding, and was also the word for the military term “Encirclement”. This last one designs a strategy in which the enemy forces are isolated until their defeat; blockades and sieges are modalities of encirclements.

That is why the delimitation of the research question and the researched period are so important. They help the researchers to better sharp their questions and their vision of that specific period. And of course, there are rarely “secret documents” or “secret boxes” in which the “truth” is hidden. Most works, even – and mostly – the ground-breaking ones, are product of a dedicated, long, tedious and time-consuming research, in which someone went through several boxes, and sundry documents, to present you with a condensed, thoroughly organized, and time adjusted account of the past, in order to make sense of it. That is why we say that the historian’s task is to make sense of the past.

I know that some “history savvy’s” frown on these things, because “they are so basic”. But the perception of how research is done, mainly historical research, needs drastic improvement, chiefly nowadays. This perception also shows the importance of facing and teaching history as a tool, more than a content provider. How does a historian write History, and more so, does a historian write History? These kinds of questions can bring a better understanding of the world surrounding everyone, I am positive.

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