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Bridge Builders of the Middle Ages

Before speaking of the Pontifices, or the Fraternity of Bridge Builders, whose history is closely connected with that of the Freemasons of the Middle Ages, it will be as well to say something of the word which they assumed as the title of their brotherhood.

The Latin word pontifex, with its equivalent English pontiff, literally signifies the builder of a bridge, from pons, meaning a bridge, and facere, to make. But this sense, which it must have originally possessed, it seems very speedily to have lost, and we, as well as the Romans, only recognize pontifex or pontiff as significant of a sacerdotal priestly character.

Of all the Colleges of Priests in ancient Rome, the most illustrious was that of the Pontiffs. The College of Pontiffs was established by Numa, and originally consisted of five, but was afterward increased to sixteen. The whole religious system of the Romans, the management of all the sacred rites, and the government of the priesthood, was under the control and direction of the College of Pontiffs, of which the Pontifex Maximus, or High Priest, was the presiding officer and the organ through which its decrees were communicated to the people. Hence, when the Papal Church established its seat at the City of Rome, its Bishop assumed the designation of Pontifex Maximus as one of his titles, and Pontiff and Pope are now considered equivalent terms.

The question naturally arises as to what connection there was between religious rites and the building of bridges, and why a Roman priest bore the name which literally denoted a bridge builder. Etymologists have in vain sought to solve the problem, and, after all their speculation, fail to satisfy us.

One of the most tenable theories is that of Schmitz, who thinks the Pontifices were so called because they superintended the sacrifices on a bridge, alluding to the Argean sacrifices on the Sublician Bridge.

But Varro gives a more probable explanation when he tells us that the Sublician Bridge was built by the pontifices; and that it was deemed, from its historic association, of so sacred a character, that no repairs could be made on it without a previous sacrifice, which was to be conducted by the Chief Pontiff in person.

The true etymology is, however, undoubtedly lost; yet it may be interesting, as well as suggestive, to know that in old Rome there was, even in a mere title, supposing that it was nothing more, some sort of connection between the art or practice of bridge building and the mysterious sacerdotal rites established by Numa, a connection which was subsequently again developed in the Masonic association which is the subject of the present article.

Whatever may have been this connection in Pagan Rome, we find, after the establishment of Christianity and in the Middle Ages, a secret Fraternity organized, as a branch of the Traveling Freemasons of that period, whose members were exclusively devoted to the building of bridges, and who were known as Pontifices, or Bridge Builders, and styled by the French les Frres Pontifes, or Pontifical Brethren, and by the Germans Brckenbrder, or Brethren of the Bridge. It is of this Fraternity that, because of their association in history with the early corporations of Freemasons, it is proposed to give a brief sketch.

In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the methods of intercommunication between different countries were neither safe nor convenient. Travelers could not avail themselves of the comforts of either macadamized roads or railways. Stage-coaches were unknown. He who was compelled by the calls of business to leave his home, trudged as a pedestrian wearily on foot, or on horseback, if his means permitted that mode of journeying; made his solitary ride through badly constructed roads, where he frequently became the victim of robbers, who took his life as well as his purse, or submitted to the scarcely less heavy exactions of some lawless Baron, who claimed it as his high prerogative to levy a tax on every wayfarer who passed through his domains. Inns were infrequent, incommodious, and expensive, and the weary traveler could hardly have appreciated Shenstone's declaration, that:

Whoever has traveled life's dull round, Wherever his stages may have been,May sigh to think he still has found His warmest welcome at an inn.

But one of the greatest embarrassments to which the traveler in this olden time was exposed occurred when there was a necessity to cross a stream of water.

The noble bridges of the ancient Greeks and Romans had been destroyed by time or war, and the intellectual debasement of the dark ages had prevented their renewal. Hence, when refinement and learning began to awaken from that long sleep which followed the invasion of the Goths and Vandals and the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, the bridge less rivers could only be crossed by swimming through the rapid current, or by fording the shallow places.

The earliest improvement toward a removal of these difficulties consisted in the adoption of rafts or boats, and gilds or corporations of raftsmen and boatmen, under the names of Linuncularii, Lintrarii, and Utricularii, were formed to transport travelers and merchandise across rivers. But the times were lawless, and these watermen oftener plundered than assisted their patrons. Benevolent persons, therefore, saw the necessity of erecting hostelries on the banks of the rivers at frequented places, and of constructing bridges for the transportation of travelers and their goods.

All the architectural labors of the period were, as is well known, entrusted to the gilds or corporations of builders who, under the designation of Traveling Freemasons, passed from country to country, and, patronized by the Church, erected those magnificent cathedrals, monasteries, and other public edifices, many of which have long since crumbled to dust, but a few of which still remain to attest the wondrous ability of these Operative Brethren. Alone skilled in the science of architecture, from them only could be derived workmen capable of constructing safe and enduring bridges.

Accordingly, a portion of these Freemasons, withdrawing from the general body, united, under the patronage of the Church, into a distinct corporation of Frres Pontifes, or Bridge Builders. The name which they received in Germany was that of Brckenbrder, or Brethren of the Bridge. A legend of the Church attributes their foundation to Saint Benezet, who accordingly became the patron of the Order, as Saint John was of the Freemasons proper. Saint Benezet was a shepherd of Avilar, in France, who was born in the year 1165.

"He kept his mother's sheep in the country," says Butler, the historian of the saints, "being devoted to the practices of piety beyond his age; when moved by charity to save the lives of many poor persons, who were frequently drowned in crossing the Rhone, and, being inspired by God, he undertook to build a bridge over that rapid river at Avignon. He obtained the approbation of the Bishop, proved his mission by' miracles, and began the work in 1177, which he directed during seven years. He died when the difficulty of the undertaking was over, in 1184.

His body was buried upon the bridge itself, which was not completely finished till four years after his decease, the structure whereof was attended with miracles from the first laying of the foundations till it was completed, in 1188.'' Divesting this account, which Butler has drawn from the Acta Sanctorum of the Bollandists, of the miraculous, the improbable, and the legendary, the naked fact remains that Benezet was engaged, as the principa1 conductor of the work, in the construction of the magnificent bridge at Avignon, with its eighteen arches. As this is the most ancient of the bridges of Europe built after the commencement of the restoration of learning, it is most probable that he was, as he claimed to have been, the founder of that Masonic corporation of builders who, under the name of Brethren of the Bridge, assisted him in the undertaking, and who, on the completion of their task, were engaged in other parts of France, of Italy, and of Germany, in similar labors.

After the death of Saint Benezet, he was succeeded by Johannes Benedictus, to whom, as Prior of the Bridge, and to his Brethren, a charter was granted in 1187, by which they obtained a chapel and cemetery, with a chaplain.

In 1185, one year after the death of Saint Benezet, the Brethren of the Bridge commenced the construction of the Bridge of Saint Esprit, over the Rhone at Lyons. The completion of this work greatly extended the reputation of the Bridge Builders, and in l189 they received a charter from Pope Clement III. The City of Avignon continued to be their headquarters, but they gradually entered into Italy, Spain, Germany, Sweden, and Denmark.

The Swedish chronicles mention one Benedict, between the years l178 and l191, who was a bishop and bridge builder at Skara, in that kingdom. Could he have been the successor, already mentioned, of Benezet, who had removed from Avignon to Sweden?

As late as 1590 we find the Order existing at Lucca, in Italy, where, in 1562, John de Medicis exercised the functions of its chief under the title of Magister, or Master. How the Order became finally extinct is not known; but after its dissolution much of the property which it had accumulated passed into the hands of the Knights Hospitalers or Knights of Maita.

The gild or corporation of Bridge Builders, like the corporation of Traveling Freemasons, from which it was an offshoot, was a religious institution, but admitted 1aymen into the society. In other words, the workmen, or the great body of the gild, were of course secular, but the patrons were dignitaries of the Church.

When by the multiplication of bridges the necessity of their employment became less urgent, and when the numbers of the workmen were greatly increased, the patronage of the Church was withdrawn, and the association was dissolved, or soon after fell into decay; its members, probably, for the most part, reuniting with the corporations of Freemasons from whom they had originally been derived.

Nothing has remained in modern Freemasonry to preserve the memory of the former connection of the Order with the bridge builders of the Middle Ages, except the ceremony of opening a bridge, which is to be found in the rituals of the last century; but even this has now become almost obsolete. Lenning, who has appropriated a brief article in his Encydopdie der Freimaurerei to the Brckenbrder, or Brethren of the Bridge, incorrectly calls them an Order of Knights. They took, he says, vows of celibacy and poverty, and also to protect travelers, to attend upon the sick, and to build bridges, roads, and hospitals.

Several of the inventors of advanced degrees have, he thinks, sought to revive the Order in some of the degrees which they have established, and especially in the Knights of the Sword, which appears in the Ancient and Accepted Rite as the Fifteenth Degree, or Knights of the East; but Brother Mackey could find no resemblance except that in the Knights of the Sword there is in the ritual a reference to a river and a bridge.

He was more inclined to believe that the Nineteenth Degree of the same Rite, or Grand Pontiff, was once connected with the Order we have been considering; and that, while the primitive ritual has been lost or changed so as to leave no vestige of a relationship between the two, the name which is still retained may have been derived from the Frres Pontifes of the twelfth century. This, however, is mere conjecture, without any means of proof. Accordingly Brother Mackey was of the opinion that all that we do positively know is, that the bridge builders of the Middle Ages were a Masonic association, and as such are entitled to a place in all Masonic histories.

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