The Earliest Known Masonic Rituals and Practices
by Bro Andrew Fowle
May 2013
 
 

Introduction

From the earliest masonic documents currently known to us, we can form a decent picture of the workings of a lodge of operative stone masons around the late 1300s.1 In this paper I will briefly try to give an overview of the workings of an early lodge, as well as touch on some masonic myths and legends of our early brethren.

In those days, there were no separate degrees. The Third Degree had not yet been instituted and apprentices were not formally admitted into the lodge. The only real admission ceremony they had was for fellows of the craft.2

 
 

The Admission of Fellows

Once a young man had served his apprenticeship, he applied to become a fellow. He would attend a meeting of the fellows of the craft, possibly with other apprentices also seeking to be admitted as fellows. What followed was a very simple ceremony; mostly a narration by a senior fellow of the craft reading from a special document, which has since become known as the Manuscript Constitutions.3

The Manuscript Constitutions opened with a prayer, followed by an introduction to the night’s proceedings. This included a mention of the importance and antiquity of the craft, a mention of the charge which would later be read, and a recommendation that all present heed it well.

"Good Breetheren and Fellowes: Our purpose is to tell you how and in what manner this worthy science of Masonrye was begunne, and afterwards how it was favoured by worthy Kings and Princes, and by many other worshipfull men. And also, to those that be willinge, wee will declare the Charge that belongeth to any true Mason to keepe for in good faith. And yee, have good heede thereto; it is well worthy to be well kept for a worthy craft and a curious science.

For there be Seaven liberall Sciences, of the which seaven it is one of them."
4

That last sentence serves as a segue into the next section which explains the seven liberal arts and sciences. There is an assertion that all of the liberal sciences are dependant to some extent on geometry, and that masonry is geometry.

 
 
 

The Traditional History

This then sets us up for the bulk of the piece: the Traditional History. It traces the often mythical history of the craft, commencing with the creation of the liberal arts, pioneering moments in the development of geometry and architecture, biblical stories, and a sketchy history of masonry in England culminating in the creation of our fraternity. A typical rendition of the Traditional History would include the following developments:5

 
 

Children of Lamech and the Birth of the Sciences

Before Noah’s flood there was a man call Lamech. Lamech had two wives; Adah and Zilla. By Adah, he had two sons; Jabal and Jubal. By Zilla he had a son named Tubal Cain and a daughter named Naamah. These four children founded the beginning of all sciences in the world.

The eldest son Jabal pioneered the science of Geometry, and he “departed flocks of sheepe and lambs in the field, and first wrought house of stone and tree.”6 His Brother Jubal gets the credit for inventing music. Tubal Cain was the first artificer in metals, and his sister Naamah the craft of weaving.

 
 

The Preservation, Discovery and Dissemination of all Knowledge

These children apparently knew that God would take vengeance for sin, either by fire or by water. They set about recording their sciences in two pillars, one of brick to survive fire, and one of marble to survive the flood.

Sure enough the pillar of marble did survive the flood, and was apparently discovered by none other than Hermes Trismegistus.

For those not familiar with Hermes Trismegistus, or Hermes the Thrice Great, he is a mythical figure most frequently associated with divine wisdom. He was considered to be:

  • Thoth, the Egyptian god of knowledge
  • Hermes, the Greek messenger of the gods, and
  • The Roman god, Mercury.

Hermes learnt the foundation of all knowledge from the marble pillar, developed that knowledge, and spread it amongst mankind.

 
 

The Babylonian Roots of the Craft

From there we are left to assume that the knowledge of Hermes made its way to Babylon. Apparently Nimrod, the king of Babylon formed the first masonic lodge. He brought masons together, had them elect a master from amongst themselves, submit to a set of charges, and swear an obligation, before sending them off to work in another city.

 

"At the making of the Tower of Babylon, there was Masonry first made much of. And the King of Babylon that was Nimrod was a mason himself, and loved well the science as it is said with masters of histories. And when the City of Nineveh and other cities of the East should be made, Nimrod the King of Babylon sent hither three score masons at the rogation of the King of Nineveh, his cousin. And when he sent them forth he gave them a charge in this manner. And this was the first time that ever Masons had any charge of his science.

The first was that they should be true to their King, Lord or Master that they served and that they should Ordain the most wise and cunning man to be Master of the King or Lords work that was amongst them, and neither for Love, Riches nor favour to set another that had little cunning to be Master of that Work whereby the Lord should be ill served And the Science ill Defamed.

Secondly that they should call the Governor of the Work Master all the time they wrought with him and other many more Charges that were too long to write, and for the keeping of all those Charges he made them swear a great Oath which men used at that time. And ordained for them reasonable pay that they might live with honesty, and also he gave them in Charge that they should Assemble together every year once to see how they might Work best to serve the King or Lord for their profit and their own Workship, And also that they should correct within themselves those that had Trespassed against the Science or Craft."
7

 

A few versions of the Manuscript Constitutions mention details of the legend of the tower of Babylon. In it the Babylonians sought to build a tower ridiculously high to show off their knowledge of architecture and masonry. This blatant lack of humility enraged God to the point of confounding their language. The interruption of the work brought about by the confusion of tongues, caused the dispersion of the builders. The workers spread out to foreign lands, taking their knowledge of masonry with them.

 
 

Masonry in Egypt: Euclid’s Role

Abraham had attained a wealth of masonic knowledge, and was an expert in the seven liberal arts and sciences. He travelled to Egypt with his pupil, Euclid, who likewise became a master of such knowledge.

At this time in Egypt, the lords or rich men had a vast amount of sons. Unemployment became a big issue for them, and a plea went out offering a reward for anyone who could put these young men to work.

Euclid laid a proposition on the table. So long as he was to be in charge and could do things his way, he promised to teach these men geometry and show them how to build temples and castles. The lords approved, and Euclid made good on his promise. He gathered the young men together, taught them geometry and building techniques, charged them with the laws and regulations of the craft, and put them to work. In doing so, Euclid spread the science of geometry and the craft of masonry throughout Egypt.

 
 

Solomon’s Temple

From Egypt the craft spread to Jerusalem. King David, like Euclid and Nimrod before him, employed and instructed masons, and charged them with the regulations of the craft. David’s son Solomon followed in his father’s masonic tradition. When Solomon got to work on his temple, he employed thousands of masons from many lands.

 
 

Some of the Manuscript Constitutions go into great detail about how many masons were set to work on which task, and in what manner whilst building the temple. Others skip through this part of the Traditional History quite briefly. Either way, our current tradition borrows quite heavily from this small section of the legend.

 
 

Masonry in Europe

The Traditional History makes a bit of a leap forward in time, mentioning that a Greek artisan, who had descended from Greek masons working in Jerusalem, ended up in France. This unknown Greek mason is given the pseudonym “Namus Grecus”. He educated the men of France in the craft, and caught the attention of Charles Martel. Martel was of royal lineage and loved the sciences. He became a keen student of Namus Grecus, and when eventually he ascended the throne of France, he became a patron of the craft. In this manner Byzantine architecture made its way from Greece to France, and the masonic tradition continued with royal patronage.

 
 

Masonry in England

Later, we hear that masonry travelled to England and was governed by St Alban. According to the masonic legend, St. Alban was the steward of the household of Carausius. Carausius was the Roman naval commander who had revolted from the Emperor Maximilian, and declared himself emperor over Britain and northern Gaul.

He employed St Alban to build the town walls. Upon receiving the superintendence of the Craft, St. Alban responded in a similar manner to his predecessors. He treated masons with great kindness, increased their pay, and gave them a charter to hold a general assembly. He assisted them in making Masons, and framed a constitution for them.

Soon after the death of St Alban, England was at war. The result of this was that masonry was stamped out in England until the time of King Athelstane.

 
 

Athelstane and Edwin

According to the legend, King Athelstane also loved masonry, and caused many buildings to be erected during his reign. His son Edwin apparently loved the craft even more and became heavily involved with the institution itself.

Edwin collected different versions of the history, science, and charges of the craft from many different nations and cultures, and compiled them into one document. In the year 926, Edwin called together a General Assembly of masons at York. There he shared his knowledge of the craft, read its history, and submitted all present to the charges he had collected. He also declared that from that day forth, at the making of a mason this work must be read.

It is implied in the Manuscript Constitutions that the Traditional History that had just been read was a copy of the document put together by Edwin in 926. Likewise, the charges that were to follow the retelling of the Traditional History were implied to be those laid down by Edwin.

 
 
 

The Charges

Here we come across our first and only bit of rubric in the whole ritual. To distinguish it from the rest of the piece it was typically written in Latin. It roughly translates as:

“Then one of the senior brethren holds out the book and he or they that are to be admitted shall place their hand thereon, and the following Charges shall be read.”8

Once the brethren have placed their hands upon the book, the orator gives a stern warning:

“Every man that is a Mason take right good heed to these Charges & if any man find himself guilty in any of these charges that he amend himselfe before God & in particularly yee that are to be charged take good heed that yee may keep these charges right well for it is perilous& great danger for a man to forsweare himself upon ye holy Scripture.”9

Then the charges were read out. The ones which frequently show up in the majority of the Manuscript Constitutions are along these lines:

  • Be true to Church and King.
  • Be true to each other and follow the golden rule.
  • Treat each other in a respectful and honourable way, and generally behave yourself.
  • Refer to masons as Brethren
  • Do not mistreat or make advances on your brethren’s wives or daughters.
  • Do not take on a job that you are not qualified or able to do.
  • Do not take on so much work that the quality of your work might suffer, or that deadlines might not be met.
  • Treat employees fairly and pay them well.
  • Take no apprentice unless you have enough work for him, and he can serve a term of seven years.
  • Do not get involved with unlawful or dishonourable activities like gambling.
  • Do not bring disrespect upon the craft.

Then the orator prompted the brethren being obligated to acknowledge their agreement with the following line:

“These Charges that we have now rehearsed to yu & to all oths here prsent weh belongeth to Masons yu shall well & truly keep to yor powr so help you God & by ye contents of that booke—Amen.”10

 
 
 

Long Story Short

From these manuscripts, the big picture we can put together looks like this:

  • An opening prayer to the Christian Trinity
  • A mention of the importance and antiquity of the craft
  • Praise for the seven liberal arts and sciences, an explanation of them, and in light of their extreme significance, a recommendation to study them
  • The Traditional History, from the time of the development of the liberal arts, through to the establishment of the fraternity, and
  • The placing of the candidate’s hand upon the Holy book to swear his obligation to heed the charges of a mason

 
 
  

What Can We Take From This?

The charges our operative brethren submitted to were issued as a practical matter for the good of the construction industry at the time. Still, there are morals we can take from them in a purely speculative context, and apply them to our own lives.

The Traditional History has often been scoffed at and ignored by many masonic students and researchers, merely because it is factually incorrect. The anachronistic sequence of events and confusion of names and locations have seen it deemed, quite unfairly, as a complete waste of time. To the contrary it is invaluable.

Here we have our own mythology; our own romantic rendering of how things came to be. Even if only for the quaint nature of the account, and the sort of character it presents of the craft as a whole, it is worth reading.

For the more inquisitive brother there are two other avenues to explore with our Traditional History. You could become more familiar with each of the characters mentioned in the story, and gain a better insight of the nature of the craft as our ancient brethren tried to depict it. There are enough people and events mentioned in the story, each with their own back story, to keep you reading for a long time.

For the even more inquisitive brother, you could explore the scriptural and historical discrepancies in the story. Discovering the texts that our ancient brethren misunderstood and misquoted from, and unpicking the resulting “Chinese whispers” can present quite a bit of detective work. The end result of such enquiry would be a wealth of historical knowledge, scriptural familiarity, as well as being introduced to some historically significant, but often unheard of literature.

 
 
 

Notes:

  1. The records of the Masons Company of London going back to 1356, and the Halliwell MS dated to around 1390, it would be fair to say that some form of ceremony involving the reading of the Old Charges was in use around that time.
  2. H. Carr, "600 Years of Craft ritual" AQC Vol. 81 (1968) p.157.
  3. Ibid p. 155.
  4. W.J. Hughan, "The Old Charges of British Freemasons" (1872) p. 25. Dowland's MS.
  5. A.G. Mackey, "The History of Freemasonry" vol. 1 (1905) pp. 111-115.
  6. W.J. Hughan, op. cit., p.26. Dowland's MS.
  7. This account of the Babylonian portion of the Traditional History is my own rendering of it. It was taken mostly from the Landsdowne MS, with details filled in from other versions of the MS Constitutions as found in W.J. Hughan's "The Old Charges of British Freemasons". The spelling has also been corrected. My intent was to relate the Babylonian legend of the Old Charges in the style in which they were originally written, without going into explanations of how different versions vary and why.
  8. H. Carr, op. cit., p.155. Where Carr has translated the word "senioribus" as "elders", in the context given I believe it refers to a senior member, and have applied a little creative licence rendering it "senior brethren". The original Latin: "Tunc unus ex senioribus tenent librum, et ille vel illi opponunt manut sub libri, et tunc precepta deberent legi."
  9. W.J. Hughan, op. cit., p.39. York MS. No 1.
  10. Ibid.

Back to Top