Discovering the origin of the name “freemason” is as difficult as discovering other areas relating to the history of Freemasonry, as true records of its first use or origin are just as scarce, if they even exist at all. Records of the period when non stone masons were first admitted into the society, guild (gild) or company of stone masons are fairly non existent. So the only course is to speculate from the those “theories” found in old books or from speculative writings on the Internet.
The time of the guilds takes us back to medieval Europe in the 11thcentury and were formed so members could benefit from mutual aid; the word is derived from Saxon “gildan” meaning to pay or yield. Although this has little to do with the term “Freemason” we need to understand the period when guilds began and how labour was treated in those days, especially with respect to the guild of stonemasons. However, there is some evidence that, unlike the many guilds in existence at the time, a guild of stonemasons didn’t exist until 16thcentury in England. In Scotland, some writings suggest that they were in existence earlier. There were companies of stonemasons around at this time and records of the Company of Masons in London date back to 1356. This London company was formed with the object of regulating the craft of stonemasonry so that standards could be properly maintained and rewarded. (This society exists today but has no connection with Freemasonry.)
There are varying skills involved in stonemasonry, including those who turned a rough ashlar into a smooth ashlar fit to be used as a building block to those skilled in sculpture, and one common definition of the origin of freemason is derived from those at the top of their trade that were skilled in carving freestone (a type of fine grained sandstone or limestone); hence the term freestone masons, or freemasons.
However, even in our rituals today, on entering a lodge for the first time, the candidate is asked “are you a free man….” In Medieval England many of the peasants were tied to land owned by a noble lord or knight who rented his land to them for economic labour, allowing their tenants to keep enough to feed themselves and maintain the necessary standard of living for their purpose in life, the rest belonged to the land owner. However, a peasant could buy himself free by buying the plot from land owner and paying dues to the lord. Some men were born free and all free men could take there services to other rural or urban parts of the country and amongst this group were the stonemasons. Stonemasons were free men, hence another potential origin is that of being a free man and skilled in stonemasonry, hence a free man mason (freemason).
And another potential origin came from Scotland and this theory was that the stone mason who was free of the stone masons guild or incorporation had the freedom to practise the craft elsewhere, hence he was also a free mason.
Yet another definition of the origin of the “free” in Freemason is from George Fort, who theorises that the term was taken from the French “frère maçon,” meaning “brother mason” and this became corrupted in translation to free mason.
Finally, from the earliest records or minutes recorded by Scottish stonemasons (no such records existed in England as early) referred to their “prentice,” (apprentice) who, on reaching the end of his indentured period of being bonded to their master, they were set free from the bond. They became free to be stone masons and perhaps fellows in the craft of stone masonry (free mason).
Could any of the above be likely? If on reading these articles you have useful comments or if any reader has further explanations, or better still proof, please comment below.
These articles are written by W Bro Steve Froggatt PPJGD, current Chaplain of Neptune Lodge No 5150 EC. Steve was initiated into Freemasonry in 1986.
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