The Mason’s Old Charges to respect a Fellow’s Family

You will often hear or see written that Freemasons regard themselves as one big family, and today it is expected to include the whole family, even though Speculative Freemasonry was originally men only. However, it’s not men only any more, as Freemasonry for women is flourishing; women have been able to become Freemasons for around 150 years or so. Freemasonry for women began in France, and has travelled to Britain and other parts of the world, but that is another story, but I mention it to  emphasise that Freemasonry can be, and usually is, a family affair. (see: https://www.al-khabar.co/arabic/2019/11/20/rite-of-adoption-women-in-freemasonry/).

A family because it really does involve the whole family. Back in the mists of time, in Medieval Britain, as even today, to gain a skill in a craft often involved apprenticeships, and that was no different in the days of the stonemason. A skilled craftsman would take on a young man, a boy in todays terms, of around 14 years old, and teach him the craft of stonemasonry. The contract in Medieval Britain that was signed to become an apprentice was called an indenture, which bound the apprentice to serve a Master for a period of time, usually 7 years. He would be housed and fed by the ‘master,’ usually in his master’s home as part of the family as he learned the trade of a stonemason. He would not usually receive any wages during the early years, but he may receive a little pocket money. As his skills increased he would be judged by the ‘employer’ on his contribution to the work and either the wage of his master increased to take his work into account or he would receive wages in his own right. As he usually lived with his master he would be obligated to respect the chastity of his master’s wife, sister or child, as you will see, all guild members had to follow a code of honour.

There are many manuscript (MS) versions of the Old Charges that were associated with the guilds of the stonemasons, many have been given the name of the person by whom it was first published, and the one selected as a reference for this article is named the Dowland’s MS.1 This was published in the Gentleman’s Magazine in 1815. It was sent to the editor by Mr James Dowland with the following remarks:

“For the gratification of your readers, I send you a curious address respecting Freemasonry which not long since came into my possession. It is written on a long roll of parchment, in a very clear hand apparently in the 17th century, and probably was copied from a MS. of earlier date.”

Note here that the term Freemasonry is used, however, this MS clearly refers to a guild of stonemasons of the 16th century and it is an updated version of previous ‘Old Charges.’ Eminent authorities believe the original of the copy from which this transcript was written is dated circa 15501, which makes this the next in antiquity to the Cooke MS (circa 14901) of which much has been written. An extract for this article, taken from this MS contains the following “rules” or charges. One extract, below, describes a part of the old Charges that refer to respecting your fellow masons by referring to them as brethren, nor ever to insult them and respect the chastity of his wife, daughter or servant, nor be disrespectful to his brother. It was written thus:

And also ye shall call Masons your Brethren, or else your Fellowes, and none other foule names. And also yee shall not take your fellow’s wife in villany, nor desire un-godly his daughter nor his servant, nor put him to noe djsworshipp.” 

All of the old charges have today been incorporated into our rituals, and the above has now become part of an obligation, inasmuch as a Freemason is obligated to “maintain a Mason’s honour and carefully preserve it as my own,,,” and “most strictly respect the chastity of those nearest and dearest to him, in the persons of his wife, sister and child.”  

In the days of the guilds, each new apprentice would have the charges read out to him on his initiation into the guild. There are other parts of the Old Charges that were pertinent in the days before speculative Freemasonry evolved was to ensure that the work you undertook was within your capabilities and that you would never take another fellows work:

“that noe Master shall not take upon him noe lord’s worke nor none other man’s worke, but hee know himselfe able and sufficient of coninge to performe,,,,” [coninge = science/skill] 

Also that you behaved yourself in the place you board during the work so you do not bring dis-honour onto the craft of masonry:

“And also yee shall doe no villiny in that place where yee goe to bord, whereby the science might be slandered thereby.” 

In the world of the stonemason’s guilds, each fellow of was expected to take care of his brethren, also those travelling brethren from other parts:

And also that every Mason receive and cherish strange fellowes when they come over the countryes, and set them a worke and they will, as the manner is, (that is to say) yf to have no mould stones in his place, he shall refresh him with money into the next lodge. 

As in today’s Masonic world, a Freemason is expected to to ensure that his actions at all times do not bring Freemasonry into disrepute, nor do anything that enforces the idea that Freemasons ‘look after their own’ when it comes to seeking personal gain, finance, employment or personal advancement (except advancement within Freemasonry). On the contrary, as it is the aim of Freemasonry to teach the brethren self improvement, every Freemason should, where possible, treat all his/her fellow citizens (including his/her brethren) exactly as he/she would hope they will themselves be treated. Because of the incorrect belief that Freemasons conspire to gain personal advantage from membership, except that of self improvement, the use of ceremonial signs, tokens or words outside of the Lodge Temple are strictly forbidden (by UGLE). However, it is perfectly acceptable to wear a Masonic lapel pin, ring, etc, outside so the whole world can see you are a Freemason, and you are proud to let the world know that you are.

However, as seen above in the Old Charges, in those days the local guild members would always provide work for the travelling Mason if such was available – the purpose of the guilds was to ensure members of their society controlled all the work locally. If no work was available members of the Guild were obliged to provide relief for their fellow stonemasons and funds so they may reach the next potential work place. Today, the fraternity of Freemasons will also provide relief to any Freemason who might find himself in distressed circumstances:

“should you at any future period meet a brother in distressed circumstances who might solicit your assistance,,,, you will cheerfully embrace the opportunity of practicing that virtue,,, [charity]

This, as is obvious, is aimed at charitable support only. To this end all Freemasons in England and Wales, as their personal circumstances permit, support the Masonic Charitable Foundation, which supports Freemasons and non Freemasons alike. Regular Freemasons in other jurisdictions have similar arrangements.

In 1737, a Scotsman, whilst living in France, named Andrew Michael Ramsey, gave an oration to new Freemasons which contained the following words:

“The world is nothing but a huge republic, of which every nation is a family, every individual a child. Our Society was at the outset established to revive and spread these essential maxims borrowed from the nature of man. We desire to reunite all men of enlightened minds, gentle manners and agreeable wit, not only by a love of the fine arts but, much more, by the grand principles of virtue, science and religion, where the interests of the Fraternity shall become those of the whole human race, whence all nations shall be enabled to draw knowledge and where subjects of all kingdoms shall learn to cherish one another without renouncing their own country.” 

This clearly implied that it was his vision that the brethren of our fraternity’s aim was peace, love and harmony for all, not just Freemasons.

At the beginning we discussed Freemasonry as a family affair and, as with many cultures, the children are excepted to take care of their parents in their dotage; it was no different in the times of the stonemason’s guilds. The son (and I am sure nowadays the daughter also) of a Freemason is known as a Lewis. Today he/she is privileged at being top of the queue when it comes to initiation (after initiation she/he loses any privileges and is treated as all others), such was the same in Medieval times.

A Lewis in stonemason terms is a tool used for lifting heavy stones by hoist, chains, etc, where a specially prepared hole is made and the lewis inserted which then works on the principles of a lever and provides an anchorage which allows lifting tackle to be attached.

In stonemasonry back in the times of the guilds a Lewis is, as expressed by Rev George Oliver:

“To bear the burden and the heat of the day, that his (her) parents may rest in their old age; thus rendering the evening of their lives peaceful and happy.”

Today, the Lewis, be it he or she, just gets into our Fraternity first above others that may be waiting.

1 The Old Charges of British Freemasons

These articles are written by W Bro Steve Froggatt PPJGD, former Chaplain of Neptune Lodge No 5150 EC. Steve was initiated into Freemasonry in 1986.They do not represent the view of any Grand/Provincial Grand Lodge.

© Copyright 2019 Al-Khabar/Stephen Froggatt all rights reserved

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About Steve

Steve is part of the publishing team of Al-Khabar. He was initiated into Neptune Lodge 5150 EC In 1986 and completed his third degree by being exalted into Neptune’s Royal Arch Chapter in 1989; he also enjoyed two successive years in the Chair of KS in 1993/4. He has also enjoyed being a Mark Master Mason and a Royal Ark Mariner. He has been honoured with the position of Past Provincial Junior Grand Deacon. All the articles are his own and represent no Official Masonic Body

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