From Stonemasonry to Freemasonry

Apparently there are a few people around that find it difficult to separate Freemasonry from stonemasonry and believe that it was the Freemasons that built all those wonderful cathedrals in Medieval Europe; of course, it wasn’t, the builders were the stonemasons. Hopefully this article will assist in understanding the difference.

I will be keeping this simple as the craft of stonemasonry has never been practiced by me but be assured that the skills of a stonemason today and in medieval times covered a lot more than the term ‘stonemason’ implies; these were expert craftsman.

What are stonemasons.

A medieval stonemason was a highly skilled craftsman who combined the roles of hewer, builder, sculpture and engineer, and probably a lot more; the master stonemason was the architect who functioned also as the administration, supervisor and technical supervisor.1 Using a set of compasses, a set square and a staff or rope marked off in halves, thirds and fifths the stonemason was able to construct some of the most amazing structures ever built. The master stonemason was a prosperous middle class professional2 who supervised those who did the carving and laying of stone. In fact the master stonemason would often supervise all of the site’s craftsmen, including carpenters, etc.

Todays stonemasons use modern tools such as diamond tipped saws, but stonemasons of medieval times had no such luxuries. Nevertheless, most of their tools have changed little over time including the gavel, chisel and a metal straight edge. With these tools the medieval stonemason could make a flat stone surface, the basis of all stonemasonry.3 Another traditional tool still in use today is the masonry trowel used to apply and spread the mortar between and around the stones. Mason’s hammers are still in use as is the traditional way of using a lewis (which locks into and supports the heavy stone) and crane or block and tackle to hoist building stones into place.

The stonemason’s work would begin in the quarry where the stones were quarried and hewn. Using a chisel and mallet the stonemason would smooth these, often large, stones into ashlars (perfect square and smooth stones) ready to be used as the bricks of the building. The more skilled stonemason might carve this into a more intricate shapes for more precision parts of the building or decorative sculptured ornaments to enlighten the building. The stone used for this was often a softer and more easily carved stone such as sand stone or marble. This was referred to as ‘free’ stone.

Higher skilled members of the guild, which included, of course, the master mason, would be knowledgable in geometry and design.

Therefore a stonemason was a highly skilled and professional man in medieval times, as he/she is today, and the craft of stonemasonry is one of the oldest in the world. According to most historic documents they were usually members of a guild or company. The stonemason’s apprentice was indentured to his journeyman master for a duration of 7 years, during which time he would board, lodge and travel with his master for the duration of his training. At the end of this training he was tested by his lodge (company or guild) on his competence and, if he successfully passed his exam, he would become a journeyman or fellow of his craft. Imagine such skills as these craftsmen had between them which made them, as a group (or company), capable of building the most magnificent structures the world has ever known.

But above all, stonemasons were/are highly skilled craftsmen builders and artisans in the art and craft of their trade.

What of the Freemasons?

There is much controversy that surrounds the origin of the Freemasons, but this is not the forum to discuss that. Suffice it to say they evolved from the guilds or companies of operative stonemasons over a period of time in the 16th and 17th century, leading to the formation of the world’s first Grand Lodge in 1717. These operative groups of stonemasons followed a set of rules as laid down in a series of old manuscripts, the first known having been written (or copied) in 1390, and various similar manuscripts were copied and modified from this original over the years, most containing a ‘history’ of stonemasonry from ‘time immemorial.’ All of these manuscripts contained rules and regulations, called the ‘old charges’ which covered the regulations of the guild or company along with rules of behaviour of each member. There was no ‘sharp’ change where Freemasonry began, but a gradual evolving until the first Grand Lodge formed in London.

Freemasonry is a philanthropic, philosophical, esoteric society that in general moralise on the tools used by stonemasons with the main aim of self improvement and of benefiting mankind, initially within their membership, but today as a charitable organisation helping all in need, not just Freemasons.

Freemasons meet in a lodge, which today most call a Masonic Temple (when I joined 33+ years ago it was simple called ‘the Lodge Room’) and enact short plays called rituals, when conjoined, rites. Pure Freemasonry comprises the degrees of Entered Apprentice, Fellow Craft and Master Mason, with the addition of the (Holy) Royal Arch, this is included as a completion of the Master Mason’s degree (also now considered as the fourth degree in English Freemasonry). In these rituals we take candidates on a journey symbolising their entrance into Freemasonry in ignorance, through the paths of nature and science to life’s end (figuratively), during which, among other things, we moralise on the tools of a stonemason. For example, in the first degree the basic tools are in play, namely the gavel, chisel and 24 inch gauge. We moralise on these tools, for example, as the chisel is used by the stonemason to smooth and prepare the stone for the more expert workman, so the Entered Apprentice is ‘smoothed and shaped’ into a morally better person. We also consider the Entered Apprentice to represent the foundation stone of a new building, as from the foundation laid by the initiation of this new Freemason ‘may he raise a superstructure perfect in parts and honourable to the builder;’ the builder being the lodge into which he has just joined. During the first degree (as stated) the candidate is considered as the rough stone and in the second he is considered to have been smoothed into the ‘perfect ashlar,’ ready to be enlightened by nature and science. As the stonemasons would use the chisel to smooth the rough stone, so the first degree smooths off the rough edges of the new Freemason, rendering him fit to learn from the second degree, and so in in the degrees ahead. Thus the chisel also points out the advantages of education, the education of morality the candidate has learned during his early life in Freemasonry.

Another example is the trowel, which the stonemason would use to spread the mortar and cement to join the stones together ensuring added stability. Thus, in Freemasonry this represents spreading the love of human kindness and joining the brethren together in brotherly love throughout the fraternity. The closing words of the evening are “,,,continue to preserve the order by cementing and adorning it with every moral and social virtue.”

In Freemasonry a ‘Lewis’ is the son/daughter of a Freemason and this took it’s name from medieval times, as by training your son in the craft of stonemasonry you were ensuring that he would have all the skills to maintain a good living and thus be able to support you in your old age.

Therefore, for example, the tools the builder uses to smooth the rough stone into the ashlars (bricks) for the structure are used to make the new Freemasons think of his duty to mankind and realise that even the best among us can improve. The ‘Old Charges’ used in medieval England are still used and incorporated as part of the Freemason’s ritual as they contain morally high ideals that the stonemasons were taught to live by all those years ago.

No one is really certain of the reason why non stonemasons were invited to join in these groups (lodge/guilds/companies) in the 16th and 17th centuries, but it is certain that medieval stonemasons were pious, virtuous and highly religious men who took an oath to follow the high moral code laid down in the ‘Old Charges.’

1 https://www.britannica.com/topic/history-of-work-organization-648000/Monumental-construction#ref539086 

2 http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/middle_ages/architecture_medmason_01.shtml

3 https://stonemasonsedinburgh.com/early-stonemasons-tools/ 

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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