The eleventh international conference of the Canonbury Masonic Research Centre (CMRC), organised by Matthew Scanlan, was held in the elegant surroundings of the Canonbury Academy in Islington; its subject concerned masonic origins.
This is a sensitive topic for many Freemasons.
It is useful to divide Freemasonry into its form and its content: the form carries the content but is not the necessary origin of it. Freemasonry has clearly changed and developed over time. It is only what Andrew Prescott termed in his paper ‘Approaches to the Old Charges’ the ‘mania for origins’ which has restricted the investigation of masonic history and its links with the surrounding society. He stressed that Freemasonry can shed light upon wider historical events; it can give us invaluable information about the period in which it exists.
The CMRC was set up in 1998 by Lord and Lady Northampton partly in order to bridge the gap between historical research into Freemasonry performed by Freemasons and that of non-masonic academics. Each year it has held an international conference and published the papers.
This year’s conference began with a paper ‘The religious origins of Freemasonry’ delivered by Professor José Antonio Ferrer Benimeli, the founding Director of CEHME (Centro de Estudios Históricos de la Masoneria Española) at the University of Zaragoza, Spain, probably the leading continental academic research institute dedicated to the history of Freemasonry and has published, to date, one hundred and forty-six books on the subject.
Professor Ferrer Benimeli presented a survey of thirty-two masonic documents dating from 1248 to 1737 which not only included the celebrated English ‘Old Charges’, but also the masonic statutes of various cities such as Venice, Bruges and Strasbourg. He demonstrated how the associations of European stonemasons rested their observances and traditions upon the Christian faith - as one would expect. He also showed how many of the religious tenets and practices of these associations either evolved or were incorporated into modern Freemasonry in the early eighteenth century. He was critical of those who maintained that Anderson intended (by his first charge as given in the Constitutions of 1723) to establish some kind of deistic association or an early precursor of laicism. For as he pointed out, Anderson was not only a Presbyterian Minister but he also explicitly referred to the birth of ‘God’s MESSIAH, the great Architect of the Church’, in the reign of ‘August CAESAR’, a clear reference to Christ.
He was followed by the Rev. Neville Barker Cryer who pointed to the importance of the introduction of the Feast of Corpus Christi into England after 1263 with its public processions, staged plays and clerical guilds. By the mid fourteenth-century laymen had become involved in these events; in York, 1378, we first see trade guilds – including the masons - sponsoring and performing these ‘Mystery plays’. But by 1540, under the changes wrought by King Henry VIII, the Corpus Christi guilds had disappeared but the trade guilds remained in the towns and the mystery plays associated with them were maintained until the 1570s.
Furthermore, with the destruction of the monasteries came the loss of much of the work and the prestige of stonemasons. By the mid-sixteenth century Freemasons had a diminishing number of operatives who could maintain their society. But they had permanent lodges and joining was no longer restricted to operative stonemasons; Freemen of the city were eligible.
Non-masons were admitted into Freemasons’ guilds in York from at least 1569. Working stone-masons gradually withdrew into new chartered companies leaving the old guild lodges as ‘private’ lodges. Cryer’s conclusion was that non-operative Freemasonry in England was in existence from late Elizabethan times.
We were also treated to a paper from Professor Margaret Jacob, University of California, Los Angeles: her focus was not on intellectual history but social history, in particular, the effect of the huge diaspora of Protestants from France after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. Many moved to the Netherlands and it was there that fifty percent of the books published in Europe emerged. Out of this milieu came the Enlightenment and, she argued, with the close connection between Amsterdam and London, also out of this milieu came the artisan-based intellectual movement we know as Freemasonry.
Professor David Stevenson, University of St. Andrews, explained that the use of symbolism normally thought of as masonic was far wider. The circle was a symbol of infinity; the straight line symbolised the connection of heaven with the centre of the earth. Thus the tools used to derive both the circle and the straight line assumed a symbolic importance. They were also used to express a moral philosophy: he showed many illustrations which revealed that this moralising from workman’s tools – particularly the compasses – existed outside Freemasonry.
Matthew Scanlan spoke on the Acception which was an inner fraternity in the London Masons’ Company; an evolution from the stone-masons is clear. When Elias Ashmole attended an Acception meeting in 1682 his ‘lodge’ contained the leading members of the Masons’ Company - including the King’s master mason - many of whom worked with Sir Christopher Wren on the rebuilding of city churches in the aftermath of the great fire. Scanlan noted that in a survey of the guilds made in 1708 only the Freemasons were described as having ‘a Fraternity of great account’ which had been ‘honoured by several Kings and very many of the Nobility and Gentry’. There was always something special about the masons.
Unfortunately the Masons’ Company lost many of its records prior to the publication of Anderson’s Constitutions in February 1723.
The paper given by Professor Susan Mitchell Sommers, St. Vincent College, Pennsylvania, explored the assertion that the earliest Jewish community in the United States, Newport, Rhode Island in 1658, had a masonic lodge. This was apparently recorded on a contemporary document the contents of which were later printed. The document disappeared for many years and when it was recovered a copy was made. This was at variance to the printed version. Given that the document was old and badly stored, had pieces containing the important words crumbled off by this later date? The document has since vanished again. The story illustrated the difficulties of attempting to drawing definitive conclusions from old texts and transcriptions.
The conference began on Friday evening with a showing of the film The Scottish Key and ended on Sunday afternoon with a final paper by Frank Albo, Peterhouse, Cambridge University, on the short-lived (1842–1849) ‘Architectural College of the Freemasons of the Church’.
Papers were also given by Dr. Róbert Péter, University of Szeged, Hungary; Dr. David Harrison, University of Liverpool; Dr. Robert Collis, University of Sheffield; Peter Kebbell, Bristol University; Dr. Natalie Bayer, University of California, Los Angeles; Martin Cherry, Librarian of the Library and Museum of Freemasonry, London; Julia Cleave and John Acaster.
A particular pleasure came on Saturday when violinist Eugene Sarbu, using his Stradivarius (1729), played a piece by Beethoven in the Academy and during dinner that evening, Mozart and Paganini.