Thursday, October 7, 2010

Operative Masonry and Its Relationship to Speculative Masonry By W. H. Rilet, F.R.I.B.A.

The object of this article is to put before you a thought about Freemasonry which to many of you may be new; a thought of the Operative Masons of the days of long ago, and their work.

I have no doubt that, like myself, you have spent many a delightful hour wandering around England's ancient and beautiful Gothic cathedrals, abbeys and castles, for which she is so famous and of which she is so justly proud, and while doing so, you may have wondered who designed and erected them.

As Masons we naturally first of all think of the Masonic principles of service and sacrifice laid down by our Order, but how many of us think and feel that we owe a great debt of gratitude to the Operative Masons of five or six centuries ago, for those great works of art? Masons who left to posterity so glorious a legacy, and at the same time formed so close a link with our Order.

It is my object to-day to try to bring this closer to your minds, but in doing so I do not wish to say much about Masonic history, or the history of Gothic Architecture. Both are most fascinating studies, and strangely interwoven, but it is necessary to touch upon both in order to make my object clear. In your wanderings around these magnificent edifices, which have been erected to the Glory of God, has it ever struck you that there is an extra- ordinary similarity in their details, in general architectural style and in their ornamentation? and yet they may be in quite different parts of the country, and this at a time when printing and schools of architecture and means of transport as we know them today, were non-existent.

As an example consider Carlisle Cathedral and Canterbury Cathedral, both of which were commenced during the first period between 1066 and 1189, and in each instance the same details will be found.

This similarity is a recognized fact among the students of architecture, as it is by this similarity that the dates of the buildings are arrived at. Gothic architecture is the name given to that style of architecture in which our cathedrals, abbeys and churches are designed, and it is usually divided into four periods. Each period has its own par ticular mouldings, type of tracery in the windows,, one or two distinguishing types of ornament, besides other features of special interest.

I will briefly sketch each period, and to enable you to visualize the various points, I want you to. imagine that you are standing in the nave of a church, and as your eyes travel round the building to observe the windows, the thickness of the walls the columns with their caps and bases, the arches that connect the columns, and the various carvings and in each period I will take the various features in this order.

THE FIRST PERIOD, 1066 to 1189

This period is known as the Romanesque or Norman.

The windows are small and round-arched, and the walls are very thick. The columns are very large, mainly circular, with plain caps and bases. The connecting arches are semi-circular and only slightly moulded. The earliest form of carving was such as could be executed by a small axe or other more or less primitive tool. The typical ornaments are the chevron and the billett, the latter in either square or round form.

THE SECOND PERIOD, 1189 to 1307

This period is known as the Early English period and is the commencement of the real Gothic architecture.

In this period the windows are arranged in twos and threes, and the arches are pointed. Simple, and as yet imperfect, geometrical tracery makes its appearance. The columns are more slender, and often consist of groups of smaller sized shafts arranged round a larger central one. The caps are now carved with great freedom and beauty, and the bases are moulded and have a feature which is characteristic of this period, known as the water hollow. This is a half-round channel capable of holding water. The connecting arches are pointed and heavily moulded displaying very deep shadows. The typical ornament among an endless variety is the Dog-tooth. The buildings are more lofty, the walls are thinner and stone groined roofs make their appearance, necessitating projecting buttresses.

THE THIRD PERIOD, 1307 to 1377

This is known as the Decorated Period. The windows in this period are very large and are filled with intricate geometrical tracery. Walls are very thin. Columns very slender and usually moulded. The caps are beautifully carved and the bases are rather high above the floor and moulded. The connecting arches are pointed and moulded somewhat similar to those of the previous period. The typical ornament of this period is known as the Ball-flower. The stone roofs are becoming more intricate in design, and the outside buttresses are much larger and more ornamental. There is an increased refinement in the general design of the building.

THE FOURTH PERIOD, 1377 to 1558

This is the last period of Gothic architecture and is peculiarly English.

The windows are still very large, if anything they are larger than in the previous period, and are filled with tracery in which perpendicular lines predominate. The columns are slender and moulded, and the connecting arches are pointed and moulded, but there is an absence of those deep shadows which were so noticeable in the two latter periods. The typical ornaments of this period are the Tudor rose and the Portcullis. The stone roofs have now reached the height of their beauty, and have the appearance of lacework, a type that is known as Fan-vaulting. The buttresses are very large and ornamental, crowned with carved pinnacles, and connected to the main building by flying buttresses.

It cannot be that many architects, or as in those days Master builders, having no communication with one another, and in different parts of the country, would have the same ideas at the same time, and it is equally impossible for one mind to have conceived every one of the details of one only of such buildings, J many of them of vast proportions.

This similarity in detail is moreover not confined to our own country, as we find the same details of the first period in Italy, France and Germany.

It was thought at one time that the Bishop or the Abbot was responsible for the design, and that the monks did the actual work of building, but this idea has long ago been exploded.

It is however true that there were Bishops and Abbots who did design buildings, and even assisted in the actual work of erection, but they were taught by masons. St. Hugh of Lincoln could plan a church, instruct the workmen and handle a hod, and his is not an isolated case.

Where then shall we look for a solution of this similarity? I think we shall find it in the existence of a band or brotherhood of skilled craftsmen, bound together by ties of common interest in their work, and a general regard for the welfare of one another.

Did such a brotherhood exist? Yes, but we must go back to the time of the Romans, or even further, to trace its origin.

When the Romans were all-powerful, and a great and highly-educated people, there existed as an integral part of society, schools or collegia in which all subjects popular in those days were taught, each subject having its own school. These collegia were groups of persons joined together in support of a common object, and consisted of fellows presided over by a president. The Romans were great builders, therefore it was only natural that there would be a college for this all-important subject, but it must not be supposed that this school created the art of building, it simply per petuated the traditions and knowledge gained from countries far older than the Roman Empire.

This college, or society became very popular, owing in a great measure to the services of its members being in constant requisition, in fact it was indispensable.

According to Mr. J. S. M. Ward they had their own constitutions and regulations in both religious and secular matters, and their organization was a close facsimile of a modern Masonic lodge. "Three make a College" was a rule recognized and endorsed by Roman law. Each college was presided over by a Master (Magister) and two wardens (decuriones). The membership consisted of three degrees, corresponding closely to the apprentice, fellow and master.

When Rome came under the heel of the barbarian conquerors, all societies and schools of learning were suppressed, but in their zeal to stamp out all forms of culture they forgot one great point, and that was that while a college or school could be suppressed, the spirit and knowledge of its members could not be killed by the same means. These students of the Arts and Sciences fled to a city that was not under the barbarian influence, the city of Comacina on an island in lake Como. There they carried on their work and became known as the Comacine Masters. The Comacines were a compact and powerful body, capable of asserting their rights, and having degrees of different ranks. The higher orders were entitled Magister and could design or undertake a work.

When missionaries came from Rome to England in the cause of Christianity, they brought in their train many of these men skilled in the art of building, whose services would be required in erecting or adapting buildings needed by the converts for their worship, and it is recorded that Pope Gregory in the year 598 A.D. sent some of these masons to England, which would be about the time that St. Augustine landed on our shores. These early craftsmen brought with them not only their skill, but the principles and tenets of their Order, and thus the seed was sown that was destined to bear such rich fruit in the years to come.

Mr. Hope, in his historical essay on architecture says — "That builders and sculptors formed a single grand fraternity whose scope was to find work outside Italy. Indeed distance and obstacles were nothing to them. They travelled to England under Augustine, to Germany under Boniface, to France under Charlemagne, and again to Germany with brother Magister Albertus Magnus, they went East under the Lombard Dukes, and in fact are found everywhere through many centuries. The Popes one after another gave them privileges. Indeed the builders may be considered an army of artisans working in the interests of the Popes, in all places where the missionaries who preceded them had prepared the ground."

They were always in league with the church, which in those times of war and constant struggle, of military service and feudal slavery, was the only asylum for those who wished to cultivate the arts of peace. Therefore we see ecclesiastics of high rank. Abbots, Prelates, Bishops, etc., exalting the respect in which Freemasons were held by pining the guild as members.

There is, however, little or no trace or remains of the work of these very early builders, followers of the Christian missionaries, as all or nearly all of it was ruthlessly destroyed by barbarian hordes who overran the country from time to time.

The great church building period in England was the centuries between 1066 and 1558, and the buildings that were erected during that time, are those which we admire so much, for it was during that period that the seed sown by those earlier builders grew and flourished.

As we gaze at the wonders in stone, we cannot help but express our admiration at the marvellous skill and daring of the craftsmen who designed and erected them, and though many of them are in ruins, not on account of poor workmanship, but through wanton destruction, they all, whether perfect or in ruins, excite a strong desire to know their history and the history of their builders.

It was the popular belief that that year i ,000 A.D. would see the end of the world, but when that year was passed and the world still went round, every one was anxious to give expression to his relief and joy. This took the form of works of piety, and the high church dignitaries spent their money and the thankofferings of the people in erecting cathedrals, abbeys and churches.

One author, in writing of these times, says that the face of the country seemed to be changing from drab to white, owing to the whiteness of the newly-wrought stone used in the erection of the enormous number of buildings. This can be readily understood when we find that as many as 16 abbeys, 12 priories, 15 cathedrals, and 185 churches, and many smaller buildings, were com menced during the period between 1066 and 1189. Among the cathedrals commenced at this time were Lincoln, St. Albans, Winchester, Ely, Gloucester, Norwich, Canterbury, Chichester, Durham, Peter borough, Rochester, Hereford and Carlisle, and the remarkable fact is that the same detail will be found in each.

This vast amount of building drew the men skilled in the art of building from all over the continent, and large numbers of men anxious to learn the art were enrolled.

Mr. Hope, in his history or essay on architecture sets forth the method of procedure of these ancient brethren; "A body of Freemasons would appear at a town or spot near the castle of some great lord who desired to build a church or to enlarge his castle. They were under the rule of a Master elected from among their number, who nominated one man out of every ten as Warden to supervise the other nine. They first erected temporary huts for their own use, and then a central Lodge. If they required, they called in the assistance of the local Guild Masons to help in the rough work, but they do not seem to have admitted them to the assembly in the Lodge with which they opened each day's work. They met in secret, none but Freemasons being present, and with a Tyier to guard the door againt cowans and eavesdroppers. The word " cowan" is probably of Scottish or North country origin denoting a "dry-dyker," (one who builds rough stone walls without cement), and is therefore not a true mason although he pretends to do masons' work."

The Rev. J. Fort Newton terms the Order formed during the period of Gothic architecture, and whose constitution, principles and teaching was that of Comacines, the Order of the Cathedral builders.

The Comacines must not be mistaken for Guild Masons, although they were like them in some respects. The Comacines were older than the Guild Masons, inheritors of ancient tradition from the past, not only as architects and operatives, but as speculative masons.

The work on some of these glorious edifices extended over many years, which meant a close association of the same men for a very long time, a circumstance which strengthened the practices and principles of these Comacine Masters.

The word "mystery" in those days did not bear the same meaning that it does to-day - it was derived from the word "misterie" which meant trade or employment, and Mr. Armitage in his book on the guilds, says that it is not at all improbable, that the drama of the third degree of modern Freemasonry is a survival of the old mystery plays, which illustrated some practice or doctrine of a given trade.

Each Mason who was fully qualified was given a mark, sometimes called a "banker mark" with which to mark his work, and the general muster-roll. His work could then be distinguished from that of his neighbours. The mason would cut his mark in the stone before it left the banker or working bench. Hundreds of these marks have been collected and noted down by various interested students, and there is no doubt many have a symbolic meaning. These marks are the signs of a well organized body, and unless they were registered they would be useless.

Mr. J. S. M. Ward says "The Comacines journeyed from place to place where work was to be found. When church or castle was finished they must go elsewhere." There must, therefore, even at that date have been a regular Lodge and a recorder of Marks, otherwise any unscrupulous brother could have forged another's mark without risk of detection.

There is in the British Museum an old document of about 1590 A.D., which gives some rules and regulations, or as we should call them "Charges." This document is called the Regius Poem and was discovered in 1830.

Mr. Silas Sheperd in his Landmarks of Freemasonry has transcribed them; they are divided into 15 articles and 15 points, and they are as follows:


1. The Master Mason must be steadfast, trusty and true, and render perfect justice to both his workmen and his employer.
2. The Master Mason shall be punctual in his attendance at the general congregation or assembly.
3. The Master Mason must take no apprentice for less than seven years.
4. The Master Mason must take no apprentices who are bondmen, but only such as are free and well-born.
5. The Master shall not employ a thief, or maimed man for an apprentice, but only those who are physically fit.
6. The Master must not take a craftsman's wages for apprentices' labour.
7. The Master shall not employ an immoral person.
8. The Master must maintain a standard of efficiency by not permitting incompetent workmen to be employed.
9. The Master must not undertake to do work which he cannot complete.
10. No Master shall supplant another in the work undertaken.
11. The Master shall not require Masons to work at night except in the pursuit of knowledge.
12. No Mason shall speak evil of his fellows' work.
13. The Master must instruct his apprentices in everything they are capable of learning.
14. The Master shall take no apprentice for whom he has not sufficient labour.
15. The Master is not to make false representation nor compromise any one of his fellows.


1. Those who would be Masons and practise the Masonic Art are required to Love God and His Holy Church, the Master for whom they labour and their brethren, for this is the true spirit of Masonry.
2. The Mason must work diligently in working hours, that he may lawfully refresh himself in the hours of rest.
3. The Mason must keep the secrets of his Master, his Brethren and his Lodge.
4. No Mason shall be false to the craft but maintain all its rules and regulations.
5. The Mason shall not murmur at fair compensation.
6. The Mason shall not turn a working-day into a holiday.
7. The Mason shall restrain his lust.
8. The Mason must be just and true to his brethren in every way.
9. The Mason shall treat his brethren with equity and in the spirit of brotherly love.
10. Contention and strife shall not exist among the brethren.
11. The Mason shall caution his brother kindly about any error into which he may be about to fall.
12. The Mason must maintain every ordinance of the Assembly.
13. The Mason must not steal nor protect one who does.
14. The Mason must be true to the Laws of Masonry and the Laws of his own country.
15. The Mason must submit to the lawful penalty for any offence he may commit.

Most Masonic scholars are agreed that this version of the Old Charges was strictly used for the governing of an Operative body, in conjunction with its constitutions.

We have already spoken of the word "mystery" as meaning trade or employment, and as we speak of Masons as guarding their mystery against intruders and cowans, we naturally ask ourselves — Was there anything in their trade worth all this great care ? Who can say that there was nothing, after a visit to any one of their great achievements?

We must remember that in those far-off days there was no steel construction or reinforced concrete wherewith to form the skeleton framework, ready to receive its clothing of stone.

There were no text-books to teach the method of working out strains and stresses.

Their buildings were frankly built of numberless stone units, each cunningly wrought and fixed.

We must admit that they possessed a wonderful knowledge of the material in which they worked, its weight and capabilities, and its power to resist crushing weights.

They possessed a thorough knowledge of foundations.

See how they overcame, by counter-weighted buttresses, and flying buttresses, the thrust on the outer walls caused by the vaulted stone roofs. These wonderful stone roofs, which in the later period have the appearance of lacework, were constructed in a system of arches crossing and intersecting one another. The Indian says; the arch never sleeps, and this is true, for at the least sign of weakness it becomes active, with as a rule disastrous results. This fact did not daunt those old masters; they boldly faced the problem and overcame all difficulties.

The finest example of these roofs are Henry VII's Chapel at Westminster, King's College Chapel at Cambridge and St. George's Chapel at Windsor. Note the slenderness of the internal shafts or columns that support the nave arcading, just nicely proportioned and moulded, according to the period, and yet strong enough to do the work, the delightful carving into which every man put bis individuality, and executed, as was the whole of their task, to the Glory of God.

From what I have pointed out you will agree that their "Mystery" was a glorious one, one that was well worthy of being jealously guarded.

In conclusion I feel that I cannot do better than end this paper with a quotation from that beautiful book, entitled The Builders, written by the Rev. J. Fort Newton:

"They may not have been actually called Freemasons as early as Leader Scott insists they were, but they were free in fact, travelling far and near where there was work to do, following the missionaries of the Church as far as England. When there was need for the name Freemason, it was easily suggested by the fact that the Cathedral Builders were quite distinct from the Guild Masons, the one being a universal Order, whereas the other was local and restricted. Older than Guild Masonry, the Order of the Cathedral Builders was more powerful, more artistic, and, it may be added, more religious - and it is from this Order that the Masonry of today is descended."

Brethren, I think that I have said sufficient to shew to you the relationship of Speculative Masonry to Operative Masonry - also to prove that we, more than any other section of the community, owe a deep debt of gratitude to those ancient brethren and clever craftsmen.

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