Someone, whilst discussing Freemasonry with him, asked my colleague ”what is your age?” To which, quite understandably, she was confused!!! As this was unlikely to refer to her own age as it was made during a Masonic discussion, she referred to me for an understanding, as I am a seasoned Freemason (meaning a long term Freemason? Or was it simply because I am old!). I did have an idea, but I’d never heard this term before. Another colleague of hers, a professed Freemason, said it was an “administrative” thing among Freemasons. To me that seems very unlikely as if you wanted to know the number of a Freemason’s Lodge surely you’d simply ask. Perhaps he was just confused (or maybe trying to impress).
To many, Freemasonry is a secret organisation, and it cannot be denied that this was indeed true many hundreds of years ago. Even before the guilds of stonemasons turned into a more speculative form of their fraternity, they had ways to tell each other from the rest of society. It must be noted, though, at this time it wasn’t a secret to be a Freemason any more than it was to be stonemason, but in the case of stonemasonry, it was necessary for the travelling stonemason to be able to prove his credentials, so secret words or tokens were required, because paper certification was not around way back in Medieval Europe, certainly not in England and Scotland, two separately governed Kingdoms in those times.
I am assuming, in keeping with the customs of the times, on arriving at a stonemasons lodge associated with the construction of a church, cathedral or other magnificent building, the travelling mason would encounter a ceremonial which in those days, for stonemasons, would comprise a catechism (questions and answers) which were universally known and taught to all apprentice stonemasons on completion of their training. Included in this ceremonial catechism would be special words at various stages which was the absolute proof that this man was indeed a fully trained stonemason. It is not known to me whether there was a secret token at this time.
The secrets that each stonemason held inviolate were those he had been taught during his “graduation” from his apprenticeship, which in many cases would have included some reference to geometry, and subjects like geometry were believed to have been given by God; such was the belief in medieval times, God was very real indeed. These were indeed mysteries to most of the society in Medieval Europe. A stonemason also had to be beyond reproach with respect to his behaviour, maybe because many of his employers were the clergy.
As Freemasonry evolved, it was still considered a secret society and, as such, was occasionally banned by parliaments and rulers of the times (especially when they were not party to these ceremonies). But the places and times of these “secret” meetings were often published for all to see, it’s just what went on behind closed doors that they kept inviolate.
About 80/90 years ago, beginning in Germany especially, Freemasonry really did go underground and if you was a Freemason you most certainly didn’t want anyone (other than a fellow Freemason) to know you were a member. This was because, as Hitler began his persecution of the Jewish people, he also persecuted other groups he saw as a threat to his power, and that included Freemasons. It is recorded that around 80,000 Freemasons were killed for their membership during Hitler’s regime. So, in order to conceal their membership “openly,” Freemasons displayed a little blue Forget-Me-Not flower as their new symbol to know each other by. It was this situation that caused Freemasons worldwide to become very secretive of even being a Freemason, which has taken until very recent times to return to the original openness of membership.
Now, if we temporarily move on to today, some folk still want a “secret” way to know a Freemason by, and this article is written as a result of the question above, which was “what is your age?” Now this phrase has never been used to my knowledge and after extensive research I have found nothing related to this question with respect to Freemasonry. So I immediately start to think, first the questioner (and maybe he who suggested “administrative” purposes) must belong to irregular Freemasonry, or even clandestine Freemasonry.
A similar question that was often used in modern times is “how old is your grandmother,” or “mother;” another way is to mention “fellow traveller.” Today, though, none of this is needed as we, especially in England, are very proud to be open regarding our membership, and will wear a masonic ring or lapel pin for all to see. We won’t, of course reveal that part of our ceremony we have taken an obligation to conceal, as this is the way we learn the importance of integrity, but these “secrets” have no importance whatsoever apart from that allegorical lesson.
Finally, as an end to this sketch “Secrets to know a Freemason by” I have to share some old ways that were found “in the custody of a Freemason who died suddenly.” A document, published in 1724 entitled “The Grand Mystery of Free-Masons Discover’d” (pictured above) contains a page entitled: Signs to Know a True Mason, and here they are (Capitals and grammar as original):
- To put off the Hat with two Fingers and a Thumb.
- To strike with the Right-Hand on the Inside of the Little Finger of the Left three Times, as if hewing.
- By making a Square, viz, by setting your heals together, and on the Toes of both Feet Straight, at a distance or any other Way of a Triangle.
- To take the Head, with the Left and Right Thumbs close, and touch each Wrist three Times with the Forefinger each Pulse.
- You must Whisper, saying thus, The Master and Fellows of the Worshipful Company from whence I came greet you all well. The other will answer, God greet well the Masters and Fellows of the Worshipful Company from whence you came.
- Stroke two of your Forefingers over your Eye-Lids three times.
- Turn a Glass, or any other Thing that is hollow, downwards, after you have drunk out of it.
- Ask how you do, and your Brothers drink to each other.
- As what Lodge they were made Free-Masons at.
Note question 9, straight out with that question!
This little document concludes with (written as original):
N.B. In the third of Henry the Sixth, an Act of Parliament was pass’d, whereby it is made felony to cause any Masons to confederate themselves in Chapiters and Assemblies. The punishment is Imprisonment of Body, and make Fine and Ransom at the Kings Will.
I should note here that Henry VI was only 9 months when his father (Henry V) died and he ascended to the Throne of England, that was in 1422. The third of Henry VI refers to the third year of his reign, 1425. I have searched through the Acts of Parliament for this time period and can find none relating to Masons, so draw your own conclusions
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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