Once, as a fresh mason, I was asked to arrange and catalog the many Masonic books and magazines that arrived as gifts to the recently formed Grand Lodge where I belonged. For this, it would have been enough to read just the “colophon” – the back of the title page, where all the legal info about the book, such as the place of publication, the publisher, and the date of publication etc. are listed. However, as a curious student of Masonry, eager to learn “everything” about the Craft, I started reading as much as I could and immersed myself in the royal art. Quite often I got confused but luckily I had a very knowledgeable mentor at that time, who always had time for me to discuss topics I’ve found mindboggling.
All this happened on the old continent during the revival of the “continental Masonry” in Eastern Europe after the collapse of the communist regimes, namely in the East of Budapest – as the traditional Hungarian phrase, in the Masonic parlance, would describe lodges there. I was already familiar at that time with the history of the Craft in the territories where speakers of my mother tongue lived (today finding themselves in several countries around present-day Hungary), which history can be summed up best in this way: since its inception in 1749, Freemasonry over there has been banned and illegal for longer times than it was allowed to work openly. In the short periods of legality it tried to follow the trends and ‘latest’ developments in the two lands from where Masonic ideas arrived and were adapted (and rituals translated): German lands, including the Hapsburg empire, and France, of course. Historically, the original English Masonry, represented by UGLE only after 1813, had directly influenced on the continent mainly the French and Germans, who became then the “transmitters” of the Masonic ideas throughout the Eastern half of the continent.
While the history of my own Grand Lodge and its affiliation and relations with various Masonic bodies during the centuries was more or less clear, the picture of the original Masonry from the British Islands and of the lodges and Grand Lodges originated from there (i.e. in the former colonies of USA, Canada, Australia etc.) started to become fuzzy and overwhelming.
History was always one of my hobbies, therefore, I wanted to find out about the “real history” of Freemasonry and its origins. Personally, if I know the historical context of an event, i.e. if I can place it correctly in time and space in relation to other major historical facts, I find it easier to understand the underpinnings and causes. However, every book I opened, presented me a different (theory of) history and all claimed to be the ultimate answer to my many questions.
Then I came to understand the United Grand Lodge of England (the primus inter pares1) never ever published or endorsed an “official history” of theirs. And they let everybody indulge in their own ideas and fantasies of ‘history’, no matter how far-fetched those might be. I also learned about the many changes that occurred in ritual(s) and modes of recognition. And about the rival grand lodges that competed for almost a hundred years until the “union” (hence the United in the name) in 1813 ended this rivalry and fierce fighting for supremacy among Antients and Moderns. Slowly I also discovered the convoluted history of the so-called higher degrees that are so popular among Masons in North America. It has been a huge disappointment to learn that they are not higher (remember the correct terminology is appendant bodies), and they are not really ancient traditions – just the creation of a few men with flourishing fantasy and love for mysterious role plays. A fascinating read but not what I was looking for. In the same way, I had to discard the many beautiful confabulations about the alleged Craft history that go back to biblical times and even further… trying to originate our beloved fraternity from every builder association that is known to ever exist through the centuries, from Egyptians to Romans and medieval stone-cutters and chivalrous orders.
I have to confess here my special love for these beautiful legends and theories. However, as a student of history coming from Eastern Europe, where we breathe and live history daily, the rational half of my brain knows exactly what they are: fiction and only fiction. Then I really started to dig into the early history of Freemasonry looking carefully at the context of the times when it appeared. It turned out to be at least as fascinating as the fiction.
The next part of this series will be about the age when all started…
- primus inter pares = first among equals (Latin) ↩