What Are the Secretive, Mysterious Origins of Freemasonry?

…I don’t know.

But to be fair to me, neither does anyone else.

There are very few records of our beginnings. Freemasonry either started in ancient Egypt, the Crusades, Middle Age Europe, or the exact date of the founding of the United Grand Lodge of England, depending on how tight or loose you play with the facts.

If we just go by authenticated records, it seems like it started in the Middle Ages when the operative masonry guilds, the ones who actually built the cathedrals, castles, and shithouses of Europe, let non-masons sit in on their meetings, and then eventually let them (or at least didn’t stop them) from branching off into their own speculative form.

And to this I say bullshit.

Whenever I think of any old timey people doing weird things, like freemasonry, or alchemy, or religion, I do my best to try to put myself in their shoes and remember three inviolable truths:

  • Different people are different
  • Different times were different
  • People are all essentially the same

People are a unique product of their genetics and experiences, which are necessarily different than mine. Also, people adapt to the zeitgeist of their times. But, we all have the same deeply-rooted motivations.

The fact is that up until very recently, probably 99% of humanity spent probably 99% of their time trying to not die. Even the rich and the powerful had their own, more expensive problems in this regard. As this occupation left very little time for extracurricular activities, that means that anyone spending any of their time doing something weird had to have a very important, very convincing reason to do it.

So when we ask “Was alchemy about self-improvement or was it about making magic rocks and gold?” We have to apply a dose of realism, and say that it was a mix. Probably people thought it could make them rich, and the ones who stumbled upon useful medicines and chemicals probably did get rich, and the ones who didn’t could at least claim they got something out of the process.

So I ask myself what motivation would a medieval trade guild have for letting outsiders sit in on their meetings and giving them their secrets?

Operative masonry existed in a wholly different world than the one in which we live. Kids didn’t go to school. They were essentially pawned off as apprentices, and some at a very young age. If you’re the architect and foreman of a worksite, the last thing you need are a bunch of dumb kids, and rash adults starting fights, sleeping with each other’s wives, and cutting corners to make a buck, so it’s perfectly believable that in these operative lodges they would talk time not just to teach their trade, but to educate their apprentices, and to give their workers solid expectations and codes of conduct to live by, and if these things can be taught with a religious flavor and a touch of sacredness, then all the better. And it’s natural that they would use their own tools as analogies to teach obscure moral concepts.

This would be very interesting, and appealing, to any onlookers. But why would there be onlookers? Ask yourself, did operative trade guilds use secret passwords?

Probably, yeah. If you’re walking from Scotland to England, and hop over the Channel to France, then off to Germany and Italy, until you bump into the Ottoman Empire, you’re going to try making a living at every stop in between. How do you prove to the local builders that you know what you’re doing?

Sure, you could give them a demonstration. It probably wouldn’t take long for a master to figure out if you’re competent. But just because you can cut and carve, does that mean you can build an arch? Or raise a vaulted ceiling? Or design a cathedral? No one’s checking your medieval LinkedIn page. There’s no Castle H.R. checking on your references. But if you knew the pass, which you could only have gotten by demonstrating your proficiency before regular lodge of master masons, that’s as good as gold.

Could you have wrestled the password out of a mason you waylaid on the road? Possibly, but such a thing would be so connected to your personal and professional honor some would surely have died to protect it. And those who wouldn’t have were probably safe enough anyway, because it would only be of use to someone who was already a working mason, and I’d imagine (and it doesn’t take much imagination) that the punishment for anyone who got caught imitating a master mason, a cowan, for instance, would be dire indeed.

The last thing any trade guild would do is give away their literal trade secrets to the unskilled. It would defeat the entire point of them.

So where DID it come from?

I can think of exactly one likely scenario.

In a world before workers comp, a mason having his hand or his leg crushed by a stone was probably not a rare occurrence. Nor was probably a craftsman being conscripted and injured in a war he wanted nothing to do with. That probably left a lot of masons with a lot of time on their hands, and a lot of education in their brain. No doubt whatever passwords guilds used would be changed from time to time, and they’d have no way to get new ones, so that’s not a big concern anymore. In such a scenario I could easily see these retired masons sucked into tavern conversations with other local philosophers, religious-minded folk, students, and even alchemists, and finding they had something in common, would share information.

If you’re one of a few retired stonemasons in town, and your family has all died of the Black Death, it would be very appealing to “get the band back together” so to speak, and start a “lodge” of masons solely because you miss the camaraderie. You invite some of the guys from the pub, because you think they’d be into it, and maybe you even agree to take in some of the local kids who couldn’t secure apprenticeships for one reason or another. They could learn the basics of a trade, a little philosophy, a little practical education from the kooky alchemist. Maybe you give them some “secret passwords” so they feel a part of something bigger. You like it. It gives you something to do. It gives your post-employment life a little meaning. And it just sort of…catches on.

As people scatter, from town to town, the philosophers enjoy the brotherhood they could never get because they probably never went to war, and the masons get a purpose again.

Is any of this true? Did any of this happen? Almost certainly not. It’s all speculation. I have no idea how speculative freemasonry started.

And yet, it almost has to be true, doesn’t it? Because isn’t that how things happen? Little things, done for little reasons sometimes become contagious, and become big things done for big reasons. Freemasonry was, and is, a meme. A unit of culture, as Richard Dawkins put it, that caught on.