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Traveling Masons

There is no portion of the history of the Order so interesting to the Masonic scholar as that which is embraced by the Middle Ages of Christendom, beginning with about the tenth century, when the whole of civilized Europe was perambulated by those associations of workmen, who passed from country to country and from city to city under the name of Traveling Masons, for the purpose of erecting religious edifices. There is not a country of Europe which does not at this day contain honorable evidences of the skill and industry of our Masonic ancestors. We therefore propose, in the present article, to give a brief sketch of the origin, the progress, and the character of these traveling architects.

George Godwin, in a lecture published in the Builder (volume ix, page 463), says: "There are few points in the Middle Ages more pleasing to look back upon than the existence of the associated Masons; they are the bright spot in the general darkness of that period, the patch of verdure when all around is barren. "

Clavel, in his Histoire Pittoresque de la FrancMaonnerie, has traced the organization of these associations to the "Collegia Artificum," or Colleges of Artisans, which were instituted at Rome, by Numa, in the year 714 B.C., and whose members were originally Greeks, imported by this lawgiver for the purpose of embellishing the city over which he reigned. They continued to exist as well-established corporations throughout all the succeeding years of the Kingdom, the Republic, and the Empire (see Roman Colleges of Artificers).

These "sodalitates," or fraternities, began, upon the invasion of the barbarians, to decline in number in respectability, and in power. But on the conversion of the whole Empire, they, or others of a similar character, began again to flourish. The Priests of the Christian Church became their patrons, and under their guidance they devoted themselves to the building of churches and monasteries. In the tenth century, they were established as a free Gild or Corporation in Lombardy. For when, after the decline and fall of the empire, the City of Rome was abandoned by its sovereigns for other secondary cities of Italy, such as Milan and Ravenna, and new courts and new capitals were formed, the Kingdom of Lombardy sprang into existence as the great center of all w energy in trade and industry, and of refinements in art and literature. Como was a free Republic to which many fled during the invasions of the Vandals and Goths. It was in Lombardy, as a consequence of the great center of life from Rome, and the development not only of commercial business, but of all sorts of trades and handicrafts, that the corporations known as Gilds were first organized.

Among the arts practiced by the Lombards, that of building held a pre-eminent rank. And Muratori tells us that the inhabitants of Como, a principal city of Lombardy, Italy, had become so superior as Masons, that the appellation of Magistri Comacini, or Masters from Como, had become generic to all of the profession.

Thomas Hope, in his Historical Essay on Architecture, has treated this subject almost exhaustively. He says:

We cannot then wonder that, at a period when artificers and artists of every class, from those of the most mechanical, to those of the most intellectual nature formed themselves into exclusive Corporations, architects--whose art may be said to offer the most exact medium between those of the most urgent necessity and those of mere ornament, or, indeed, in its wide span to embrace both--should, above all others, have associated themselves into similar bodies, which, in conformity to the general style of such Corporations assumed that of Free and Accepted Masons, and was composed of those members who, after a regular passage through the different fixed stages of apprenticeship were received as Masters, and entitled to exercise the profession on their own account.

In an age, however, in which lay individuals, from the lowest subject to the sovereign himself, seldom built except for mere shelter and safety--seldom sought, nay rather avoided, in their dwellings an elegance which might lessen their security, in which even the community collectively, in its public and general capacity, divided into component parts less numerous and less varied required not those numerous public edifices which we possess either for business or pleasure.

Thus, when neither domestic nor civic architecture of any sort demanded great ability or afforded great employment churches and monasteries were the only buildings required to combine extent and elegance, and sacred architecture alone could furnish an extensive field for the exercise of great skill, Lombardy itself, opulent and thriving as it was, compared to other countries, soon became nearly saturated with the requisite edifices, and unable to give these Companies of Free and Accepted Masons a longer continuance of sufficient custom, or to render the further maintenance of their exclusive privileges of great benefit to them at home. But if, to the south of the Alps, an earlier civilization had at last caused the number of architects to exceed that of new buildings wanted, it fared otherwise in the north of Europe, where a gradually spreading Christianity began on every side to produce a want of sacred edifices of churches and monasteries, to design which architects existed not on the spot.

Those Italian Corporations of Builders, therefore, whose services ceased to be necessary in the countries where they had arisen, now began to look abroad towards those northern climes for that employment which they no longer found at home: and a certain number united and formed themselves into a single greater Association, or Fraternity, which proposed to seek for occupation beyond its native land; and in any ruder foreign region, however remote, where new religious edifices and skillful artists to erect them, were wanted to offer their services, and bend their steps to undertake the work.

From Lombardy they passed beyond the Alps into all the countries where Christianity, but recently established, required the erection of churches. A monopoly was granted to them for the erection of all religious edifices; they Were declared independent of the sovereign in whose dominions they might he temporarily residing, and Subject only to their own private laws; they were permitted to regulate the amount of their wages; were exempted from all kinds of taxation; and no Freemason, not belonging to their Association, was permitted to compete with or oppose them in the pursuit of employment.

After filling the Continent with cathedrals, parochial churches, and monasteries, and increasing their own numbers by accessions of new members from all the countries in which they had been laboring, they passed over into England, and there introduced their peculiar style of building. Thence they traveled to Scotland, and there have rendered their existence ever memorable by establishing, in the Parish of Kilwinning, where they erected an abbey, the germ of Scottish Freemasonry, with halls regularly descended through the Grand Lodge of Scotland to the present day.

Thomas Hope accounts for the introduction of the non-working or unprofessional members into these associations by a theory which is confirmed by contemporary history. He says: Often obliged, from regions the most distant, singly to seek the common place of rendezvous and departure of the troop, or singly to follow its earlier detachments to places of employment equally distant, and that, at an era when travelers met on the road every obstruction and no convenience, when no inns existed at which to purchase hospitality, but lords dwelt everywhere, who only prohibited their tenants from waylaying the traveler because they considered this, like killing game, one of their own exclusive privileges; the members of these communities contrived to render their journeys more easy and safe by engaging with each other, and perhaps even, in many places, with individuals not directly participating in their profession, in compacts of mutual assistance, hospitality and good services, most valuable to men so circumstanced.

They endeavored to compensate for the perils which attended their expeditions by institutions for their needy or disabled brothers, but lest such as belonged not to their communities should benefit surreptitiously by these arrangements for its advantage, they framed signs of mutual recognition, as carefully concealed from the knowledge of the uninitiated, as the mysteries of their art themselves.

Thus supplied with whatever could facilitate such distant journeys and labors as they contemplated, the members of these Corporations were ready to obey any summons with the utmost alacrity, and they soon received the encouragement they anticipated. The militia of the Church of Rome, which diffused itself all over Europe in the shape of missionaries, to instruct nations and to establish their allegiance to the Pope, took care not only to make them feel the want of churches and monasteries, but likewise to learn the manner in which the want might be supplied. Indeed, they themselves generally undertook the supply; and it may be asserted that a new apostle of the Gospel no sooner arrived in the remotest corner of Europe, either to convert the inhabitants to Christianity, or to introduce among them a new religious order, than speedily followed a tribe of itinerant Freemasons to back him, and to provide the inhabitants with the necessary places to worship or reception.

Thus ushered in, by their interior arrangements assured of assistance and of safety on the road, and, by the Bulls of the Pope and the support of his ministers abroad, of every species of immunity and preference at the place of their destination, bodies of Freemasons dispersed themselves in every direction every day began to advance further, and to proceed from country to country, to the utmost verge of the faithful, in order to answer the increasing demand for them, or to seek more distant custom.

The government of these Fraternities, whenever they might be for the time located, was very regular and uniform. When about to commence the erection of a religious edifice, they first built huts, or, as they were termed, Lodges, in the vicinity, in which they resided for the sake of economy as well as convenience. It is from these that the present name of our places of meeting is derived. Over every ten men was placed a Warden, who paid them wages, and tool care that there should be no needless expenditure of materials and no careless loss of implements. Over the whole, a surveyor or Master, called in their old documents Magister, presided, anti directed the general labor. The Abb Grandidier, in a letter at the end of the Marquis Luchet's Essai sur les Illumins, has quoted from the ancient register of the Freemasons at Strassburg the Regulations of the Association which built the splendid cathedral of that city. Its great rarity renders it difficult to obtain a sight of the original work, but the l'Histoire Pittoresque of Clavel supplies the most prominent details of all that Grandidier has preserved. The Cathedral of Strassburg was commenced in the year 1277, under the direction of Erwin of Steinbach. The Freemasons, who, under his directions, were engaged in the construction of this noblest specimen of the Gothic style of architecture, were divided into the separate ranks of Masters, Craftsmen, and Apprentices.

The place where they assembled was called a Hutte, a German word equivalent to our English term Lodge. They employed the implements of Freemasonry as emblems, and wore them as insignia. They had certain signs and words of recognition, and received their new members with peculiar and secret ceremonies, admitting, as has already been said many eminent persons, and especially ecclesiastics, who were not Operative Masons, but who gave to them their patronage and protection.

The Fraternity of Strassburg became celebrated throughout Germany, their superiority was acknowledged by the kindred associations, and they in time received the appellation of the Haupt Htte, or Grand Lodge, and exercised supremacy over the htten of Suabia, Hesse, Bavaria, Franconia, Saxony, Thuringia, and the countries bordering on the river Moselle. The Masters of these several Lodges assembled at Ratisbon in 1459, and on the 25th of April contracted an Act of Union, declaring the chief of the Strassburg Cathedral the only and perpetual Grand Master of the General Fraternity of Freemasons of Germany. This Act of Union was definitely adopted and promulgated at a meeting held soon afterward at Strassburg.

Similar institutions existed in France and in Switzerland, for wherever Christianity had penetrated, there churches and cathedrals were to be built, and the Traveling Freemasons hastened to undertake the labor.

They entered England and Scotland at an early period. Whatever may be thought of the authenticity of the York and Kilwinning legends, there is ample evidence of the existence of organized Associations Gilds, or Corporations of Operative Freemasons at an epoch not long after their departure from Lombardy. From that period, the Fraternity, with various intermissions, continued to pursue their labors, and constructed many edifices which still remain as monuments of their skill as workmen and their taste as architects. Kings, in many instances became their patrons, and their labors were superintended by powerful noblemen and eminent prelates who, for this purpose, were admitted as members of the Fraternity. Many of the old Charges for the better government of their Lodges have been preserved, and are still to be found in our Books of Constitutions, every line of which indicates that they were originally drawn up for Associations strictly and exclusively Operative in their character.

In glancing over the history of this singular body of architects, we are struck with several important peculiarities.

In the first place, they were Strictly ecclesiastical in their Constitution. The Pope, the Supreme Pontiff of the Church, was their patron and protector. They were supported and encouraged by Bishops and Abbots, and hence their chief employment appears to have been in the construction of religious edifices.

They were originally all Operative Masons. But the artisans of that period were not educated men, and they were compelled to seek among the clergy, the only men of learning, for those whose wisdom might contrive, and whose cultivated taste might adorn, the plans which they, by their practical skill, were to carry into effect. Hence the germ of that Speculative Masonry which, once dividing the character of the Fraternity Mirth the Operative, now completely occupies it, to the entire exclusion of the latter. Brother E. E. Cauthorne has a few words of comment: "There probably never was a time when the Operative Masons did not furnish the architect. When an ecclesiastic performed this function it was an exception, and there were few of them. The profession of the architect seems to have been a distinct profession since Theoretic established himself at Ravenna, in 493, and appointed an official architects All through the Lombard period and at all later periods the architect or Master was distinctive" (see also the Reviser's paragraph in Stone- Masons of the Middle Ages) .

But lastly, from the circumstance of their union and concert arose a uniformity of design in all the public buildings of that period--a uniformity so remarkable as to find its explanation only in the fact that there construction was committed throughout the whole of Europe, if not always to the same individuals, at least to members of the same Association. The remarks of Thomas Hope on this subject are well worthy of perusal:

The architects of all the sacred edifices of the Latin Church, wherever such arose,--North, South, East, or West,--thus derived their science from the same central school, obeyed in their designs the same hierarchy were directed in their constructions by the same principles of propriety and taste; kept up with each other, in the most distant parts to which they might be sent, the most constant correspondence; and rendered every minute improvement the property of the whole body and a new conquest of the art. The result of this unanimity was, that at each successive period of the monastic dynasty, on whatever point a new church or new monastery might be erected, it resembled all those raised at the same period in every other place, however distant from it as if both had been built in the same place by the same artist. For instance, we find, at particular epochs, churches as far distant from each other as the north of Scotland and the south of Italy, to be minutely similar in all the essential characteristics.

In conclusion, we may remark, that the world is indebted to this Association for the introduction of the Gothic, or, as it has lately been denominated, the Pointed Style of architecture. This style--so different from the Greek; and Roman Orders, whose pointed arches and minute tracery distinguish the solemn temples of the olden time, and whose ruins arrest the attention and claim the admiration of the spectator--has been universally acknowledged to be the invention of the Traveling Freemasons of the Middle Ages. And it is to this Association of operative Artists that, by gradual changes into a Speculative System, we are to trace the Freemasons of the present day.

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