What are now called Masons' Marks were in the centuries of Operative Masonry most often called Bench, or Banker Marks, because after a stone or some other piece of work was completed and signed, or "marked," it was placed on the "bench," or "bank," where bookkeepers could make a record of it, thereby giving each workman credit for no more and no less than he had done. (The word "bench" as then used still survives as a philological relic among the terms used in commercial green-houses, where the raised plant beds are called "benches.") Each Mason had his own mark; he was not permitted to use one like, or too much like another's; after he had completed a stone he carved, scratched, or painted his Mark on it.
The custom has Sways and everywhere been in use among builders, in China and India and the Near East as much as in Europe, in ancient times as much as in Medieval. (When the foundation stones of Solomon's Temple were excavated the painted marks on them were as unworn and as unfaded as ever.) A Mark had to be easy to chisel; it also had to be simple enough for clerks to write into their records without too much trouble. A Mason kept the same Mark throughout his career, so that it became identified with him like his name. As late as 1670 the members of Aberdeen Lodge, Operatives and non-Operatives alike, put down their Marks along with their names. (See page 626.)
Marks themselves were not symbols or emblems, and every attempt to find in them some esoteric system of teachings has failed; and though one or another type of them might have been favored in one period or country the fact has no more significance than that of any similar custom. But while the Marks failed the hopes of those who sought in them a key to symbolism and thereby ceased to be as important to Masonic symbology as was once expected, they have on the other hand become of ever-increasing importance to researchers in the history of both architecture and Freemasonry. In one instance a Mark found in a building and on the Fabric Rolls was identified with the name of a workman and a date; when the same Mark was found in fifteen or sixteen other buildings over a large area it proved conclusively that the work men had been free to move about to work in different parishes; and it also proved the dates of a number of buildings.
But while the designs of the Marks were not symbolic the general use and purpose of Marks in general was so surcharged with meaning and rich in suggestions that the development of a general symbolism of Masons' Marks was inevitable sooner or later--if the Mark Degree had not been organized in the Eighteenth Century it would have been in the Nineteenth, and out of the Royal Arch Degree itself as it in turn had been developed out of the old Master Degree. A Masons' Mark was like his name, or like his thumb print, both a proof and an expression of his identity, his individuality. That same idea had always been marked out and stressed by every people in history.
Even before history (as is still true of our Indians) a man had a public or general name, also a secret name belonging solely to himself. In countries where each tribe had a god and yet where through wars, consolidations, or alliances one tribe became mixed with another, a tribe gave its god a secret name known only to its own members lest the god of one tribe be confused with the god of another. The story of "shibboleth" and "sibboleth" was but one of thousands of similar stories in ancient times.
There is throughout history a never-ending see-saw between the social, and the individual A man is both individual and social, and it is fatal to him when he cannot be both.
The insanities of "the ego and his own," of "rugged individualism," of "all-out competition," of the "lone-wolf philosophy," of egoism, Nietscheanism, and ultra-individualism together, are as deadly as totalitarianism, communism, equalitarianism, and other insanities of the sort which seek to wipe out the man as an individual. A working man, solely as such, can never be a hired hand, a mere employer, a number in a list, a "member" in an organization, and be thus reduced to a cypher, a drop of water lost in the ocean of a so-called "class"; on the other hand he cannot himself evade his responsibility by hiding out in the anonymousness of a crowed in order to do scotched work or no work--the Masons would have said that each and every workman stands separately in the All-seeing Bye of the Grand Architect. In the symbolism of the Mark the many truths of individuality and of society both are present, or are suggested, for the Mark meant that at one and the same time each Craftsman had an indefeasible identity of his own yet at the same time was a member of a Brotherhood of Craftsmen.
See chapters on Masons' Marks in English Monasteries in the Middle Apes, by R. Liddesdale Palmer; page 200; in the Histories by R. F. Gould and by Albert G. Mackey; in Ars Quatuor Coronatorum; and in Art and the Reformation, by G. G. Coulton. In a period when the whole world is shaken with wars and debates between totalitarianism and democracy, communism and individualism, the state and the citizen, the Mark Degree is no longer an interesting piece of Masonic antiquarianism, or of a symbolism more or less inert and academic, but is worth careful study by thinking men because in it are clues and ideas overlooked by the majority of arguments, and they are rich, and suggestive, and unbelievably wise.
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