Some Freemasons claim great antiquity for Freemasonry. This is reflected in the masonic calendar which is based on Archbishop Ussher's seventeenth-century calculation that the Creation must have taken place in the year 4004 BC. For convenience, the odd four years are ignored and Anno Lucis (in the Year of Light, when Freemasonry is deemed to have begun) is four thousand years ahead of Anno Domini - so a masonic certificate of initiation bearing the date A.L. 5983 was issued in A.D. 1983. The implication is that Freemasonry is as old as Adam.
Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, masonic writers produced vast numbers of books seeking to show that their movement had a continuous history of many hundreds, even thousands, of years. Some claimed that the ancestors of the Brotherhood were the Druids or the Culdees; some claimed they were the pre-Christian Jewish monks, the Essenes. Others insisted that Freemasonry had its origins in the religion of ancient Egypt - an amalgam of the briefly held monotheism of Ikhnaton (c. 1375 B.C.) and the Isis-Osiris cult.
Modern masonic historians are far more cautious. It is now accepted that Freemasonry as practised today goes back little more than three centuries. What is true, though, is that the philosophic, religious and ritualistic concoction that makes up the speculative element in Freemasonry is drawn from many sources - some of them, like the Isis-Osiris myth, dating back to the dawn of history. Rosicrucianism, Gnosticism, the Kabbala, Hinduism, Theosophy and traditional notions of the occult all play a part: but despite the exhaustive literature - one scholar estimates that some 50,000 items of Masonry had been published by the 1950s - it is impossible to determine what comes from where and when, if only because Freemasonry on its lower and more accessible levels is opposed to dogma. There is therefore no authoritative statement of what Masons believe or what the Brotherhood stands for in the first, second and third degrees, to which the vast majority of members restrict themselves. Even a 33° Mason who has persevered to attain all the enlightenment that Freemasonry claims to offer could not - even if he were freed from his oath of secrecy - provide more than a purely personal view of the masonic message and the meaning to be attached to masonic symbolism, since this remains essentially subjective.
The comparatively short documented history of Freemasonry as an institution is nevertheless quite extraordinary. It is the story of how a Roman Catholic trade guild for a few thousand building workers in Britain came to be taken over by the aristocracy, the gentry and members of mainly non-productive professions, and how it was turned into a non-Christian secret society enjoying association with offshoot fraternal societies with millions of adherents throughout most of the non-Communist world.
In many cultures and at many times humankind has been drawn to the esoteric - the conception that the great truths about life and how to control social and natural phenomena are secrets and can be known only to initiates, who pass on their privileged knowledge to the elect from generation to generation. As one highly placed Mason told me, 'Truth, to the initiate, is not for everyone; pearls must not be thrown before swine.' Equally, throughout history men have joined together in secret groups to further purely worldly ambitions. All such groups also involve initiation - the initiation ceremony involving fearful oaths of secrecy. For secrets to remain secret there must be certain and effective sanctions. Secret societies formed for essentially practical ends have commonly had religious and moral elements. The religious element creates awe and so adds to the effectiveness of the oath of secrecy. The moral element determines the fraternal way that the organization's members treat each other, which might bear small resemblance to the way they treat outsiders.
Freemasonry is both a speculative, philosophic - even religious and mystical - system, and a fraternity of those organized to help each other in material matters. For some Masons it is entirely the former, for others entirely the latter, but for most it is a mixture of the two.
Masonic historians seem as uncertain as non-Masons about who first saw in the obsolescent mediaeval Christian masonic guild an organization that could be taken over and converted into a quasi-religious, quasi-secular secret society. What evidence there is indicates that this evolution began very slowly and almost by chance, and that it was only later that the potential of the masonic guild as a clandestine power base was perceived. In other words, it appears that the original interest of the gentry in the masonic lodges stemmed from curiosity, antiquarian interest, and a kind of fashionable search for an unconventional, exclusive social milieu - rather like a jet-set fad for frequenting working men's pubs.
There are a number of reasons why the masonic guild should have attracted this genteel interest. First, the working (or 'operative') masons' craft guild was ripe for takeover: structured in the heyday of Gothic architecture in the thirteenth century,* by the end of the sixteenth century the craft was dying. King's College Chapel at Cambridge, perhaps the last truly great English Gothic building, had been completed about 1512. Secondly, the highly skilled stonemasons of the Gothic age were peculiar in that many were itinerant workers, moving from church site to cathedral site as work was to be found. They had no regular headquarters like other trades, gathering in temporary lodges on site to discuss their affairs. And, as they often did not know each other as did permanent residents of mediaeval towns, they needed some method of recognition, some way of maintaining a closed shop to protect their demanding and highly esteemed profession against interlopers who had not undergone the rigorous apprenticeship necessary to acquire the mason's skills. These, as Professor Jacob Bronowski termed them, were the 'industrial aristocrats'.
There were thus cosmopolitan romance, an exclusivity and an organized secretiveness about the masons' guild, which became increasingly moribund as baroque replaced Gothic architecture. All of this had potential fascination for men of education.
Modern Freemasonry probably originated in Scotland. The earliest known instance of a non-stonemason, a gentleman, joining a masons' lodge is John Boswell, Laird of Auchinlech, who was a member of the Lodge in Edinburgh in 1600. Apparently the first English gentleman to join an English Lodge was Elias Ashmole, founder of Oxford's Ashmolean Museum. An antiquarian deeply interested in Rosicrucianism, he joined in 1646. Masonry became so fashionable that as the seventeenth century progressed the 'acceptance' (the collective term for non-stonemasons)
*The term 'lodge' was first used, so far as can be discovered, in 1277.
became the majority in the masonic Lodges. For example, in 1670 the Aberdeen Lodge had thirty-nine 'accepted' members while only ten remained 'operative' masons. But it was not long before the novelty in participating in the quaint and venerable doings of artisans wore thin. Men of fashion saw no reason to prolong association with working men, and they began to form their own gentlemen's Lodges. Freemasonry was launched.