Six Hundred Years of Craft Ritual
Bro. Harry Carr.
P.M. Quatuor Coronati Lodge, No. 2076
Prepared in this format by Bro. Mike Lawrence
FURTHER EVIDENCE FROM FRANCE
The English planted Freemasonry in France in 1725, and it became an elegant pastime for the nobility and gentry. The Duke of So‑and‑So would hold a lodge in his house, where he was Master for ever and ever, and any time he invited a few friends round, they would open a lodge, and he would make a few more Masons. That was how it began, and it took about ten or twelve years before Masonry began to seep down, through to the lower levels. By that time lodges were beginning to meet in restaurants and taverns but around 1736, things were becoming difficult in France and it was feared that the lodges were being used for plots and conspiracies against government.
At Paris, in particular, precautions were taken. An edict was issued by Rene Herault, Lieutenant‑General of Police, that tavern‑keepers and restaurant‑keepers were not to give accommodation to Masonic lodges at all, under penalty of being closed up for six months and a fine of 3,000 livres. We have two records, both in 1736‑37, of well‑known restaurants that were closed down by the Police for that reason. It did not work, and the reason was very simple. Masonry had started in private houses. The moment that the officials put the screw on the meetings in taverns and restaurants, it went back into private houses again; it went underground so‑to‑speak, and the Police were left helpless.
Eventually, Herault decided that he could do much more damage to the Craft if he could make it a laughing‑stock. If he could make it look ridiculous, he was sure he could put them out of business for all time, and he decided to try. He got in touch with one of his girl‑friends, a certain Madame Carton. Now, Brethren, I know what I am going to tell you sounds like our English News of the World, but I am giving you recorded history, and quite important history at that. So he got in touch with Madame Carton, who is always described as a dancer at the Paris opera. The plain fact is that she followed a much older profession. The best description that gives an idea of her status and her qualities, is that she slept in the best beds in Europe. She had a very special clientele. Now this was no youngster; she was fifty‑five years old at that time and she had a daughter who was also in the same interesting line of business. And I have to be very careful what I say, because it was believed that one of our own Grand Masters was entangled with either or both of them. All this was in the newspapers of those days.
Anyway, Herault got in touch with Madame Carton and asked her to obtain a copy of the Masonic ritual from one of her clients. He intended to publish it, and by making the Masons look ridiculous he was going to put them out of business. Well! She did, and he did. In other words, she got her copy of the ritual and passed it on to him. It was first published in France in 1737, under the title Reception d’un Frey‑Magon. Within a month it was translated in three London newspapers, but it failed to diminish the French zeal for Freemasonry and had no effect in England. I summarise briefly.
The text, in narrative form, described only a single two‑pillar ceremony, dealing mainly with the floor‑work and only fragments of ritual. The Candidate was deprived of metals, right knee bare, left shoe worn `as a slipper’ and locked in a room alone in total darkness, to put him in the right frame of mind for the ceremony. His eyes were bandaged and his sponsor knocked three times on the Lodge door. After several questions, he was introduced and admitted in the care of a Warden (Surveillant). Still blindfolded, he was led three times round the floor‑drawing in the centre of the Lodge, and there were, resin flares’. It was customary in the French lodges in those days to have a pan of live coals just inside the door of the lodge and at the moment the candidate was brought in, they would sprinkle powdered resin on the live coal, to make an enormous flare, which would frighten the wits out of the candidate, even if he was blindfolded. (In many cases they did not blindfold them until they came to the obligation.) Then, amid a circle of swords, we get the posture for the obligation with three lots of penalties, and details of Aprons and Gloves. This is followed by the signs, tokens and words relating to two pillars. The ceremony contained several features unknown in English practice, and some parts of the story appear to be told in the wrong sequence, so that as we read it, we suddenly realise that the gentleman who was dictating it had his mind on much more worldly matters. So Brethren, this was the earliest exposure from France, not very good, but it was the first of a really wonderful stream of documents. As before, I shall only discuss the important ones.
My next, is Le Secret des Francs‑Masons (The Secret of the Freemasons) 1742, published by the Abbe Perau, who was Prior at the Sorbonne, the University of Paris. A beautiful first degree, all in narrative form, and every word in favour of the Craft. His words for the EA and FC were in reverse order (and this became common practice in Europe) but he said practically nothing about the second degree. He described the Masonic drinking and toasting at great length, with a marvellous description of `Masonic Fire’. He mentioned that the Master’s degree was `a great ceremonial lamentation over the death of Hiram’ but he knew nothing about the third degree and said that Master Masons got only a new sign and that was all.
Our next work is Le Catechisme des Francs‑Masons (The Freemasons’ Catechism) published in 1744, by Louis Travenol, a famous French journalist. He dedicates his book `To the Fair Sex’, which he adores, saying that he is deliberately publishing this exposure for their benefit, because the Masons have excluded them, and his tone is mildly anti‑Masonic. He continues with a note `To the Reader’, criticising several items in Perau’s work, but agreeing that Le Secret is generally correct. For that reason (and Perau was hopelessly ignorant of the third degree) he confines his exposure to the MM degree. But that is followed by a catechism which is a composite for all three degrees, undivided, though it is easy to see which questions belong to the Master Mason.
Le Catechisme also contains two excellent engravings of the Tracing Boards, or Floor‑drawings, one called `Plan of the Lodge for the Apprentice‑Fellow’ combined , and the other for `The Master’s Lodge’.
Travenol begins his third degree with `The History of Adoniram, Architect of the Temple of Solomon’. The French texts usually say Adoniram instead of Hiram, and the story is a splendid version of the Hiramic Legend. In the best French versions, the Master’s word (Jehova) was not lost; the nine Masters who were sent by Solomon to search for him, decided to adopt a substitute word out of fear that the three assassins had compelled Adoniram to divulge it.
This is followed by a separate chapter which describes the layout of a Master’s Lodge, including the ‘Floor‑drawing’, and the earliest ceremony of opening a Master’s Lodge. That contains a curious `Master’s sign’ that begins with a hand at the side of the forehead (demonstrate) and ends with the thumb in the pit of the stomach. And now, Brethren, we get a magnificent description of the floorwork of the third degree, the whole ceremony, so beautifully described and in such fine detail, that any Preceptor could reconstruct it from beginning to end ‑ and every word of this whole chapter is new material that had never appeared before.
Of course there are many items that differ from the practices we know, but now you can see why I am excited about these French documents. They give marvellous details, at a time when we have no corresponding material in England. But before I leave Le Catechisme, I must say a few words about its picture of the third degree Tracing Board or Floor‑drawing which contains, as its central theme, a coffin design, surrounded by tear drops, the tears which our ancient brethren shed over the death of our Master Adoniram.
On the coffin is a sprig of acacia and the word `JEHOVA’, `ancien mot du Maitre, (the former word of a Master), but in the French degree it was not lost. It was the Ineffable Name, never to be uttered, and here, for the first time, the word Jehova is on the coffin. The diagram, in dots, shows how three zig‑zag steps over the coffin are to be made by the candidate in advancing from West to East, and many other interesting details too numerous to mention.
The catechism, which is the last main item in the book, is based (like all the early French catechisms) directly on Prichard’s Masonry Dissected, but it contains a number of symbolic expansions and explanations, the result of speculative influence.
And so we come to the last of the French exposures that I must deal with today L’Ordre des Francs‑Magons Trahi (The Order of Freemasons Betrayed) published in 1745 by an anonymous writer, a thief! There was no law of copyright in those days and this man knew a good thing when he saw it. He took the best material he could find, collected it into one book, and added a few notes of his own.
So, he stole Perau’s book, 102 pages, the lot, and printed it as his own first degree. He said very little about the second degree (the second degree was always a bit of an orphan). He stole Travenol’s lovely third degree and added a few notes including a few lines saying that before the Candidate’s admission, the most junior MM in the Lodge lies down on the coffin, his face covered with a blood‑stained cloth, so that the Candidate will see him raised by the Master before he advances for his own part in the ceremony.
Of his own material, there is not very much; chapters on the Masonic Cipher, on the Signs, Grips and Words, and on Masonic customs. He also included two improved designs of the Floordrawings and two charming engravings illustrating the first and third degrees in progress. His catechism followed Travenol’s version very closely but he did add four questions and answers (seemingly a minor contribution) but they are of high importance in our study of the ritual: Q. When a Mason finds himself in danger, what must he say and do to call the brethren to his aid? A. He must put his joined hands to his forehead, the fingers interlaced, and say `Help, ye Children (or Sons) of the Widow’.
Brethren, I do not know if the `interlaced fingers’ were used in the USA or Canada; I will only say that they were well known in several European jurisdictions, and the `Sons of the Widow’ appear in most versions of the Hiramic legend.
Three more new questions ran:
Q. What is the Password of an Apprentice? Ans: T…
Q. That of a Fellow? Ans: S . . . .
Q. And that of a Master? Ans: G ….
This was the first appearance of Passwords in print, but the author added an explanatory note: These three Passwords are scarcely used except in France and at Frankfurt on Main. They are in the nature of Watchwords, introduced as a surer safeguard (when dealing) with brethren whom they do not know.
Passwords had never been heard of before this date, 1745, and they appear for the first time, in France. You will have noticed, Brethren, that some of them appear to be in the wrong order, and, because of the 30‑year gap, we do not know whether they were being used in England at that time or if they were a French invention. On this point we have a curious piece of indirect evidence, and I must digress for a moment.
In the year 1730, the Grand Lodge of England was greatly troubled by the exposures that were being published, especially Prichard’s Masonry Dissected, which was officially condemned in Grand Lodge. Later, as a precautionary measure, certain words in the first two degrees were interchanged, a move which gave grounds in due course for the rise of a rival Grand Lodge. Le Secret, 1742, Le Catechisme, 1744 and the Trahi, 1745, all give those words in the new order, and in 1745, when the Passwords made their first appearance in France, they also appear in reverse order. Knowing how regularly France had adopted ‑ and improved ‑ on English ritual practices, there seems to be a strong probability that Passwords were already in use in England (perhaps in reverse order), but there is not a single English document to support that theory.
So Brethren, by 1745 most of the principal elements in the Craft degrees were already in existence, and when the new stream of English rituals began to appear in the 1760s the best of that material had been embodied in our English practice. But it was still very crude and a great deal of polishing needed to be done.
The polishing began in 1769 by three writers ‑ Wellins Calcutt and William Hutchinson, in 1769, and William Preston in 1772, but Preston towered over the others. He was the great expounder of Freemasonry and its symbolism, a born teacher, constantly writing and improving on his work. Around 1800, the ritual and the Lectures, (which were the original catechisms, now expanded and explained in beautiful detail) were all at their shining best. And then with typical English carelessness, we spoiled it.
You know, Brethren, that from 1751 up to 1813, we had two rival Grand Lodges in England (the original, founded in 1717, and the rival Grand Lodge, known as the `Antients’, founded in 1751) and they hated each other with truly Masonic zeal. Their differences were mainly in minor matters of ritual and in their views on Installation and the Royal Arch. The bitterness continued until 1809 when the first steps were taken towards a reconciliation and a much‑desired union of the rivals.
In 1809, the original Grand Lodge, the `Moderns’, ordered the necessary revisions, and the Lodge of Promulgation was formed to vet the ritual and bring it to a form that would be satisfactory to both sides. That had to be done, or we would still have had two Grand Lodges to this day! They did an excellent job, and many changes were made in ritual and procedural matters; but a great deal of material was discarded, and it might be fair to say that they threw away the baby with the bath‑water. The Beehive, the Hour‑glass, the Scythe, the Pot of Incense etc, which were in our Tracing Boards in the early nineteenth century have disappeared. We have to be thankful indeed for the splendid material they left behind.
A NOTE FOR BRETHREN IN THE USA
I must add a note here for Brethren in the USA. You will realise that until the changes which I have just described, I have been talking about your ritual as well as ours in England. After the War of Independence the States rapidly began to set up their own Grand Lodges, but your ritual, mainly of English origin ‑ whether Antients or Moderns ‑ was still basically English. Your big changes began in and around 1796, when Thomas Smith Webb, of Albany, NY, teamed up with an English Mason, John Hanmer, who was well versed in Preston’s Lecture system.
In 1797 Webb published his Freemason’s Monitor or Illustrations of Masonry, largely based on Preston’s Illustrations. Webb’s Monitor, adapted from our ritual when, as I said, it was at its shining best, became so popular, that the American Grand Lodges, mainly in the Eastern states at that time, did everything they could to preserve it in its original form; eventually by the appointment of Grand Lecturers, whose duty it was (and is) to ensure that the officially adopted forms remain unchanged.
I cannot go into details now, but from the Rituals and Monitors I have studied and the Ceremonies and Demonstrations I have seen, there is no doubt that your ritual is much fuller than ours, giving the candidate much more explanation, interpretation, and symbolism, than we normally give in England.
In effect, because of the changes we made in our work between 1809 and 1813, it is fair to say that in many respects your ritual is older than ours and better than ours.