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Masonic Encyclopedia

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Social Status of Masons

The damage done by the barbarians when they devastated France and Italy in the Fourth and Fifth Centuries was in the long run not as great as was the consequence of the caste system which they rooted so deeply in Europe that it has not yet been eradicated. At the top were the kings, nobles, and the prelates; next afterwards came patricians and knights and later, squires; at the bottom were slaves (slavery was still in practice in Britain in the Eighteenth Century); next above the slaves were the cotters, next above them were the villains, and next above the villains were working men, consisting of craftsmen and farmers. According to the dogma of the original barbarism God Himself had created these castes or classes, and it was not only illegal but impious for a man to presume to climb up and out "of the station in which God has seen fit to place him." Where did the Medieval Masons stand in this hierarchy of castes? The majority of the pages in the histories of the Fraternity now extant ask the question, What were the Masons? The question raised here is, Who were the Masons? The who is of equal importance to the what for the solution of the problems of Masonic history.

The data as we now possess them, only half discovered and seldom thoroughly examined, give a confusing answer. On the whole, they give the impression that here, as on other counts, we shall find that Operative Freemasonry as regards social classes was in a peculiar sense an exception; that impression is of a piece with bodies of data of other kinds which show that in the first period the Fraternity was as "peculiar," as "unique" in many other ways also.

During the century prior to the discovery of Gothic architecture in and around Paris, there had been developed to a high degree of perfection the art of the miniature painter, the master who ornamented vellum manuscript books with tiny miracles of almost perfect paintings. and who made most of the discoveries of form, composition, and perspective which made possible the "great painting" in Italy during the Renaissance--Leonardo da Vinci's "Last Supper" is a masterly reproduction in the large of a miniature subject that had been perfected two centuries before his time.

Coincidentally with the discovery of the Gothic, miniature painting escaped from the monasteries, which were always tending to lapse into decay from sloth and ignorance (sloth itself was defined as "the idleness of the illiterate"), into the hands of lay artists, and almost immediately it was carried on and up into its own dazzling, great age in the reign of Philip Augustus, in which appeared those supreme artists, Honor, Jean Pucelle, Forrequet, Paul, Hermann Male-well, etc.

These miniaturists were not, as the cant of barbarian usage had it, laborers; they did not work in soil, stone, clay, bricks, wood, or the malodorous leather; they were pure artists in the most absolute sense of the word "pure"; and they were great artists --more than one of their masterpieces has actually been used to "ransom a kingdom." It is a revelation, therefore, to see where and how these artists stood in the social scheme.

First, they were personally so ignored that they were not suffered to sign their work (occasionally one of them slipped his first name, very small, into an end device), and their works were called not by the name of the artist but by the names of their owners. Second, they formed a gild, had a master and wardens, apprenticeships, fixed hours and wages, and thereby became established solidly in the same social bracket as brick-layers, paviors, cloth weavers, and leather workers, well down among the lower orders, so that if one of them was invited to dine in a patrician's home he ate at table with the servants. Though a craft of pure artists, the miniaturists were thus nevertheless a gild, and their station was that assigned to every other gild of craftsmen in the caste system of the times. The Freemasons' gild was like their gild, and yet m as unlike it.

The Masons went through a long hard apprenticeship; they had much schooling beside; they became in adult manhood the superior of any of their contemporaries in knowledge, intelligence, independence, skill, and they also were pure artists; and vet, because they were workmen, they were frozen into the "lower classes." Also, like the miniaturists, they were compelled to work, at least in theory, anonymously; Masters of Masons like William of Sens and Arnolfo, alongside their fellows, not only erected but also conceived, designed, and ornamented the cathedrals, yet the chroniclers of the time, monks most of them, and snobs to their marrow, give no credit to any Master of Masons for any cathedral, but tell us that Bishop Walter Montague "built" the cathedral at Laon, Bishop Maurice de Sully "built" Notre Dame, and so on, though no one of those bishops could have read a plan or calculated the scale of an arch if his life had depended upon it.

Yet on the other hand these Master Masons received oftentimes a princely wage, and consorted with gentlemen and high lords; Martin de Lonay, only one elf hundreds of others, when he was building the Abbey at St. Gilles, ate at the Abbots' table, stabled his horse in the Abbots' stalls, and received gifts of robes of state, collars, and had an honored place in solemn pageants, etc. At one end of it the Craft was solidly imbedded in the lowly craft gild and belonged to the lower orders; at the other end of it, it was embedded with equal solidity in the highest class of all; and as in France, so in England, where apprentices, usually of country stock, were taught the etiquette of the hall and the courtly manners of milord.

This meeting and mixture of social extremes inside the Crafts' own circle explains what, as against the known facts of the Middle Ages, would otherwise be inexplicable: the consorting of men of title with working men, the commingling of stone-masonry and pure art, the possession by hand workers of a better education than bishops had, the admittance of non- Operatives into some such status as Honorary membership, the freedom of Masons to work some years in one town and then move to another; their occupancy of a position at the very center of church life and yet their independence from church rule; their having their roots in the very soil of Medievalism and yet their finding out of truths so modern that even yet modern men have not caught up with them.

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