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Stone-masons Of the Middle Ages

The history of the origin and progress of the Brotherhood of Stone Masons in Europe, during the Middle Ages, is of great importance, as a study, to the Masonic scholar, because of the intimate connection that existed between that brotherhood and the Fraternity of freemasons. Indeed, the history of the one is but the introduction to the history of the other. In an historical excursus, we are compelled to take up the speculative science where we find it left by the operative art. Hence, whoever shall undertake to write a history of Freemasonry, must give, for the completion of his labors a very full consideration to the brotherhood of Stone-Masons.

In the year 1820, there issued from the press of Leipsic, in Germany, a work, by Doctor Christian Ludwig Steiglitz, under the title of Von Altdeutscher Baukunst that is, An Essay on the Old German Architcture, published in 1820. In this work the author traces, with great exactness, the rise and the progress of the fraternities of Stone-Masons from the earliest times, through the Middle Ages, until their final absorbtion into the associations of Freemasons. From the labors of Doctor Steiglitz, collated with some other authorities in respect to matters upon which is either silent or erroneous, Doctor Mackey compiled the following sketch:

It is universally admitted that, in the early ages of Christianity, the clergy were the most important patrons of the arts and sciences. This was because all learning was then almost exclusively confined to ecclesiastics. Very few of the laity could read or writes and even kings affixed the sign of the cross, in the place of their signatures, to the Charters and other documents which they issued, because, as they frankly confessed, of their inability to write their flames; and hence comes the modern expression of signing a paper, as equivalent so subscribing the name.

From the time of Charlemagne, in the eighth century, to the middle of the twelfth, all knowledge and practice of architecture, painting, and sculpture were exclusively confined to the monks; and bishops personally superintended the erection of the churches and cathedrals in their dioceses, because not only the principles, but the practice of the art of building were secrets scrupulously maintained within the walls of cloisters, and utterly unknown to laymen. brother Cawthorne dissents at this point and says this view was long held, but is by no means correct, for we now know that there were many scholarly architects during this period of supposed darkness.

Many of the founders of the Monastic Orders, continues Doctor Mackey, and especially among these Saint Benedict, made it a peculiar duty for the Brethren to devote themselves to architecture and church building. The English monk Winfrid, better known in ecclesiastical history as Saint Boniface, and who, for his labors in Christianizing that country, has been styled the Apostle of Germany, followed the example of his predecessors in the erection of German monasteries. In the eighth century he organized an especial class of monks for the practice of building, under the name of Operarii, or Craftsmen, and Magistri operum, or Masters of the Works.

The labors and duties of these monks were divided. Some of them designed the plan of the building; others were painters and sculptors; others were occupied in working in gold and silver and embroider; and others again, who were called Caementarii , or Stone-Masons, undertook the practical labors of construction. Sometimes, especially in extensive buildings, where many workmen were required, laymen were also employed, under the direction of the rnonks. So extensive did these labors become, that bishops and abbots often derived a large portion of their revenues from the earnings of the workmen in the monasteries. Among the laymen who were employed in the monasteries as assistants and laborers, many were, of course, possessed of superior intelligence. The constant and intimate association of these with the monks in the prosecution of the same design led to this result, that in process of time, gradually and almost unconsciously, the monks imparted to them their art secrets and the esoteric principles of architecture. Then, by degrees, the knowledge of the arts and sciences went from these monkish builders out into the world, and the laymen architects, withdrawing from the ecclesiastical fraternities, organized brotherhoods of their own.

Such was the beginning of the Stone-Masons in Germany, and the same thing occurred in other countries. These Brotherhoods of Masons now began to be called upon, as the monks formerly had been, when an important building, and especially a church or a cathedral, was to be erected. Eventually they entirely superseded their rnonkish teachers in the prosecution of the art of building about the beginning of the twelfth century.

To their knowledge of architecture they added that of the other sciences, which they had learned from the monks. Like these, too, they devoted themselves to the higher principles of the art, and employed other laymen to assist their labors as stone-masons. And thus the union of these architects and stone-masons presented, in the midst of an uneducated people, a more elevated and intelligent class, engaged as an exclusive association in building important and especially religious edifices.

But now a new classification took place. As formerly, the monks, who well the sole depositories of the secrets of high art, separated themselves from the laymen, who were entrusted with only the manual labor of building; so now the more intelligent of the laymen, who had received these secrets from monks, were in turn distinguished as architects from the ordinary laborers, or common masons. The latter knew only the use of the trowel and mortar, while the former were occupied in devising plans for building and the construction of ornaments by sculpture and skillful stone-cutting.

|The Reviser of this work may perhaps to advantage inject a few lines here upon an assumption made by Doctor Makey and many other writers. This belief is well illustrated by the above paragraph. While the conclusion is a debatable one yet there are those who hesitate in crediting to the religion of the Middle Ages all that is valuable in medieval art. Beautiful penmanship is exhibited by manuscripts of that time written and illuminated by skilled monks. But that they " were the sole depositories of the secrets of high art" is quite another and a large conviction questioned by some such critical scholars as Dr. G. G. Coulton in the Lowell Lectures at Boston, Massachusetts in the spring of 1923 (see Art and the Reformation, 1928, published by Basil Blackwell, Oxford, England).

Every student reads the preceding and the following paragraphs with the reservation in his mind that the laymen then were likely enough expert Craftsmen hired by the monks because they and not their religious superiors had the technical knowledge and the artistic wisdom to contrive and supervise as well as to do manual labor upon the finest of architectural structures. These laymen were themselves fully competent artists according to the latest records and any assertion suggesting the contrary conviction based upon any lingering and quite common conclusion that they lacked these artistic qualifications and that the monks exclusively possessed them, should be carefully checked with all the ascertained facts which to say the least do not conclusively establish claims of that sort.

Doctor Mackey alludes rightly to the superior intelligence of the laymen builders, but this complimentary reference can truthfully be much enlarged; they were the cathedral architects of their times. As Doctor Coulton said (page 69) of a great era of church-building, " Even at this time of exceptional fervor and prosperity, there is no real evidence that any but a very small minority of the monks worked themselves, either as designers or as Craftsmen."]

These brotherhoods of high artists soon won great esteem, and many privileges and franchises were conceded to them by the municipal authorities among whom they practiced their profession. Their places of assembly wele called Htten, Logen, or Lodges, and the members took the name of Steinmetzen. Their patron saint was Saint John the Baptist, who was honored by them as the mediator between the Old and the New Covenants, and the first martyr of the Christian religion. To what condition of art these Freemasons of the Middle Ages had attained, we may judge from what Henry Hallam says of the edifices they erected--that they "united sublimity in general composition with the beauties of variety and form, skillful or at least fortunate effects of shadow and light, and in some instances extraordinary mechanical science'" (Europe in the Middle Ages iv, page 280).

And he subsequently adds (page 284), as an involuntary confirmation of the truth of the sketch of their origin just given, that the mechanical execution of the buildings was "so far beyond the apparent intellectual powers of those times, that some have ascribed the principal ecclesiastical structures to the Fraternity of Freemasons, depositories of a concealed and traditionary science. There is probably some ground for this opinion, and the earlier archives of that mysterious association, if they existed, might illustrate the progress of Gothic architecture, and perhaps reveal its origin." These archives do exist, or many of them; and although unknown to Hallam because they were out of the course of his usual reading, they have been thoroughly sifted by recent Masonic scholars, especially by our German and English Brethren; and that which the historian of the Middle Ages had only assumed as a plausible conjecture has, by their researches, been proved to be a fact.

The prevalence of Gnostic symbols--such as lions, serpents, and the like--in the decorations of churches of the Middle Ages, have led some writers to conclude that the Knights Templar exercised an influence over the architects, and that by them the Gnostic and Ophite symbols were introduced into Europe. But Doctor Steiglitz denies the correctness of this conclusion. He ascribes the existence of Gnostic symbols in the church architecture to the fact that, at an early period in ecclesiastical history, many of the Gnostic dogmas passed over into Christendom with the Oriental and Platonic philosophy and he attributes their adoption in architecture to the natural compliance of the Architects or Masons with the predominant taste in the earlier periods of the Middle Ages for mysticism, and the favor given to grotesque decorations, which were admired without any knowledge of their actual import. Steiglitz also denies any deduction of the Builders' Fraternities, or Masonic Lodges, of the Middle Ages from the Mysteries of the old Indians, Egyptians, and Greeks; although he acknowledges that there is a resemblance between the organizations.

This, however, he attributes to the fact that the Indians and Egyptians preserved all the sciences, as well as the principles of architecture, among their secrets, and because, among the Greeks, the artists were initiated into their Mysteries, so that, in the old as well as in the new brotherhoods, there was a purer knowledge of religious truth, which elevated them as distinct associations above the people. In like manner, he denies the descent of the Masonic Fraternities from the sect of Pythagoreans, which they resembled only in this: that the Samian sage established schools which were secret, and were based upon the principles of geometry.

But Steiglitz thinks that those are not mistaken who trace the Associations of Masons of the Middle Ages to the Roman Colleges, the Collegia Caementariorum, because these colleges appear in every country that was conquered and established as a province or a colony by the Romans, where they erected temples and other public buildings, and promoted the civilization of the inhabitants. They continued until a late period. But when Rome began to be convulsed by the wars of its decline, and by the incursions of hordes of barbarians, they found a welcome reception at Byzantium, or Constantinople, whence they subsequently spread into the west of Europe, and were everywhere held in great estimation for their skill in the construction of buildings.

In Italy the Associations of Architects never entirely ceased, as we may conclude from the many buildings erected there during the domination of the Ostrogoths and the Longobards. Subsequently when civil order was restored, the Masons of Italy were encouraged and supported by popes, princes, and nobles. And Muratori tells us, in his Historia d'Italia, that under the Lombard Kings the inhabitants of Como were so superior as masons and bricklayers, that the appellation of Magistri Comacini, or Masters from Como, became generic to all those of the profession (see Comacine Masters). In England, When the Romans took possession of it, the Corporations, or Colleges of Builders, also appeared who were subsequently continued in the Fraternity of Freemasons, probably established, as Steiglitz thinks, about the middle of the fifth century, after the Romans had left the island. The English Masons were Subjected to many adverse difficulties, from the repeated incursions of Scots, Picts, Danes, and Saxons, which impeded their active labors; yet mere they enabled to maintain their existence, until, in the year 926, they held that General Assembly at the City of York which framed the Constitutions that governed the English Craft for eight hundred years, and which is claimed to he the oldest Masonic record now extant. It is but fair to say that the recent researches of Brother Hughan and other English writers have thrown a doubt upon the authenticity of these Constitutions, and that the very existence of this work Assembly has been denied and practically disproved.

In France, as in Germany, the Fraternities of Architects originally sprang out of the connection of las builders with the monks in the era of Charlemagne. The French Masons continued their Fraternities throughout the Middle Ages, and erected many cathedrals and public buildings. We have now arrived at the middle of the eleventh century, tracing the progress of the Fraternities of Stone-Masons from the time of Charlemagne to that period. At that time all the architecture of Europe was in their hands. Under the distinctive name of traveling freemasons they passed from nation to nation, constructing churches and cathedrals wherever they were needed. Of their organization and customs, Sir Christopher Wren, in his Parentalia, gives the following account: "Their government was regular, and where they fixed near the building in hand, they made a camp of huts. A surveyor governed in chief; every tenth man was called a Warden, and overlooked each nine."

Thomas Hope, who, from his peculiar course of studies, was better acquainted than Henry Hallam with the history of these Traveling Freemasons, thus speaks, in his Essay on Architecture, of their organization at this time, by which they effected an identity of architectural science throughout all Europe: "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 dictates of 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."

Working in this way, the Stone-Masons as corporations of builders, daily increased in numbers and in power. In the thirteenth century they assumed a new organization, which allied them more closely than ever with that brotherhood of Speculative Freemasons into which they were finally merged in the eighteenth century, in England, but not in Germany, France, or Italy. These Fraternities or Associations became at once very popular. Many of the potentates of Europe, and among them the Emperor Rudolph I, conceded to them considerable powers of jurisdiction, such as would enable them to preserve the most rigid system in matters pertaining to building, and would facilitate them in bringing master builders and stone-masons together at any required point.

Pope Nicholas III granted the Brotherhood, in 1278, Letters of Indulgence, which were renewed by his successors, and finally, in the next century, by Pope Benedict XII. The Steinmetzen, as a Fraternity of Operative Masons, distinguished from the ordinary masons and laborers of the craft, acquired at this time great prominence, and were firmly established as an association. In 1452 a General Assembly was convened at Strasburg, and a new Constitution framed, which embraced many improvements and modifications of the former one. But seven years afterward, in 1459, Jost Dotzinger, then holding the position of architect of the Cathedral of Strasburg, and, by virtue of his office, presiding over the Craft of Germany, convened a General Assembly of the Masters of all the Lodges at the City of Ratisbon.

There the code of laws which had been adopted at Strasburg in 1452, under the title of Statutes and Regulations of the Fraternity of Stone-Masons of Strasburg was fully discussed and sanctioned. It was then also resolved that there should be established four Grand Lodges--at Strasburg, at Vienna, at Cologne, and at Zurich; and they also determined that the Master Workman, for the time being, of the Cathedral of Strasburg should be the Grand Master of the Masons of Germany. These Constitutions of Statutes are still extant, and are older than any other existing Masonic record of undoubted authenticity, except Halliwell & Cooke Manuscripts. They were "kindly and affably agreed upon," according to their preamble, "for the benefit and requirements of the Masters and Fellows of the whole Craft of Masonry and Masons in Clermany,"

Besides the Strasburg Constitution of 1459 there are two other very important documents of the Steinmetzen of Germany: The Torgau Ordinances of 1462 and the Brothers' Book of 1563. General Assemblies, at which important business was transacted, were held in 1464 at Ratisbon, and in 1469 at Spire, while provincial assemblies in each of the Grand Lodge Jurisdictions were annually convened.

In consequence of a deficiency of employment, from political disturbances and other causes, the Fraternity now for a brief period declined in its activity. But it was speedily revived when, in October, 1498, the Emperor Maximilian I confirmed its Statutes, as they had been adopted at Strasburg, and recognized its former rights and privileges. This Act of Confirmation was renewed by the succeeding Emperors, Charles V and Ferdinand I. In 1563 a General Assembly of the Masons of Germany and Switzerland was convened at the City of Basle by the Grand Lodge of Strasburg. The Strasburg Constitutions were again renewed with amendments, and what was called the Stone-Masons' Law, das Steinwerkrecht, was established.

The Grand Lodge of Strasburg continued to be recognized as possessing supreme appellate jurisdiction in all matters relating to the Craft. Even the Senate of that city had acknowledged its prerogatives, and had conceded to it the privilege of settling all controversies in relation to matters connected with building; a concession which was, however, revoked in 1620, on the charge that the privilege had been misused.

Thus the operative Freemasons of Germany continued to work and to cultivate the high principles of a religious architectural art. But on March 16, 1707, up to which time the Fraternity had uninterruptedly existed, a Degree of the Imperial Diet at Ratisbon dissolved the connection of the Lodges of Germany with the Grand Lodge of Strasburg, because that city had passed into the power of the French. The head being now lost, the subordinate Bodies began rapidly to decline. In several of the German cities the Lodges undertook to assume the name and exercise the functions of Grand Lodges; but these were all abolished by an Imperial Edict in 1731, which at the same time forbade the administration of any oath of secrecy, and transferred to the government alone the adjudication of all disputes among the Craft.

From this time we lose sight of any national organization of the Freemasons in Germany until the restoration of the Order, in the eighteenth century, through the English Fraternity. Thus we see, as Brother Cawthorne here observes, that the great Order of the Steinmetzen of Germany took no part in the formation of the Speculative Freemasons.

But in many cities--as in Basle, Zurich, Hamburg, Dantzic, and Strasburg--they preserved an inde pendent existence under the Statutes of 1559, although they lost much of the profound symbolical knowledge of architecture which had been possessed by their predecessors. Before leaving these German Stone-Masons, it is worth while to say something of the symbolism which they preserved in their secret teachings. They made much use, in their architectural plans, of mystical numbers, and among these five, seven, and nine were especially prominent. Among colors, gold and blue and white possessed symbolic meanings. The foot rule, the compasses, the square, and the gavel, with some other implements of their art, were consecrated with a spiritual signification.

The East was considered as a sacred point; and many allusions were made to Solomon's Temple, especially to the pillars of the porch, representations of which are to be found in several of the cathedrals. In France the history of the Free Stone-Masons was similar to that of their German Brethren. Originating, like them, from the cloisters, and from the employment of laymen by the monkish architects, they associated themselves together as a Brotherhood superior to the ordinary stone-masons. The connection between the Masons of France and the Roman Colleges of Builders was more intimate and direct than that of the Germans, because of the early and very general occupation of Gaul by the Roman legions: but the French organization did not materially differ from the German. Protected by popes and princes, the Masons were engaged, under ecclesiastical patronage, in the construction of religious edifices.

In France there was also a peculiar association, the Pontifices, or Bridge Builders, closely connected in design and character with the Masonic Fraternity, and the memory of which is still preserved in the name of one of the Degrees of the Scottish Rite, that of Grand Pontiff.. The principal seat of the French Stone-Masonry was in Lombardy, whence the Lodges were disseminated over the kingdom, a fact which is thus accounted for by Thomas Hope: "Among the arts exercised and improved in Lombardy," he says, "that of building held a pre-eminent rank, and was the more important because the want of those ancient edifices to which they might recur for materials already wrought, and which Rome afforded in such abundance, made the architects of these more remote regions dependent on their own skill and free to follow their own conceptions."

But in the beginning of the sixteenth century, the necessity for their employment in the further construction of religious edifices having ceased, the Fraternity began to decline, and the Masonic Corporations were all finally dissolved, with those of other workmen, by Francis I, in 1539. Then originated that system which the French call Compagnorlaye, a system of independent Gilds or brotherhoods, retaining a principle of community as to the art which they practiced, and with, to some extent, a secret bond, but without elevated notions or general systematic organizations. The societies of Compagnons were, indeed, but the debris of the Building Masons. Masonry ceased to exist in France as a recognized system until its revival in the eighteenth century.

We see, then, in conclusion, that the Stone-Masons --coming partly from the Roman Colleges of Architects, as in England, in Italy, and in France, but principally, as in Germany, from the cloistered brotherhoods of monks--devoted themselves to the construction of religious edifices.. They consisted mainly of architects and skillful operatives; but--as they were controlled by the highest principles of their art, were in possession of important professional secrets, were actuated by deep sentiments of religious devotion, and had united with themselves in their labors, men of learning, wealth, and influence--to serve as a proud distinction between themselves and the ordinary laborers and uneducated workmen, many of whom were of servile condition.

Subsequently, in the beginning of the eighteenth century, they threw off the operative element of their institution, and adopting an entirely speculative character, they became the Freemasons of the present day, and established on an imperishable foundation that sublime Institution which presents over all the habitable earth the most wonderful system of religious ane moral symbolism that the world ever saw.

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