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Grades of Workmen

In the general craft of men in the Middle Ages who worked with stone in the construction of buildings, bridges, etc., there were classifications into kinds, which differed much among themselves; and the men were "graded" in the amount of wages paid them according to the degrees of skill which were called for in each class of workmen. The principal source of information is the Fabric Rolls, which were the books kept in administrative offices; municipal and other public archives; and the records of City Companies. The data show that the classifications never were crystallized, because they could not always be enforced, especially in small undertakings; but on the whole, and allowing for this, there were four grades: the Freemasons; layers or setters; rough masons; quarrymen.

Speculative Freemasonry originated among the Freemasons. There is no evidence to show that "operative" (the word is nearly always a misnomer as we now use it) masons in any of the grades except the first ever had any part in developing it, or any influence upon it. Speculative Freemasonry is manifestly more like a philosophy than anything else, and such a set of teachings and ideas could have originated nowhere in the building craft except among the Freemasons, who were architects, sculptors, artists, well-educated, men of culture, who met in Lodges of their own, and who had many things to think about in addition to cutting stone. The Degrees of a Speculative Body have no relationship to the grades of workmen in operative architecture; and no relation (except in a few unimportant details) with the City Companies. Had Freemasonry in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries been nothing more than stone-masonry scholars, gentlemen, antiquarians, etc., would have had no motive for seeking membership in it, and would not have been accepted if they had sought it; yet they were accepted into Freemasonry, and at least as early as 1600, and the fact proves that the Freemasons had something no other class of masons possessed. Among the Freemasons themselves there were three grades in the sense of "status of membership"; the Apprentices formed a well-defined group with its own oath and rules and regulations; the men out of apprenticeships full members of a Lodge and therefore called yellows of the Craft, who had mastered their trade; and the Master, or Master of Masons or Superintendent. The Fellows were under their own rules and regulations to which they were pledged by their own oath. The Master, along with Wardens (called by many different titles) and other officers to assist him, had their own duties and authorities, and while they did not form a separate grade of workmen as far as skill was concerned, necessarily had a status of their own as long as they were in office.

The present Craft Degrees obviously are organized upon this structure of the Freemasons' Lodge; but it does not follow that the symbols and ceremonies now used are the same as the ones used in the Fourteenth Century and afterwards; nor does it matter. It would not make any important difference if even now a number of emblems and symbols were shifted about; the Beehive, to give one example, might be even more suitable as an emblem for Apprentices than for Master Masons. Freemasons, either under the Grand Lodge system or in the Middle Ages, have never considered emblems and symbols to be more than means to an end; and just as grade-school teachers and university professors change different text-books in order the better to teach the same subjects so the Freemasons added or dropped emblems, symbols, and ceremonies whenever they could better their own teaching, or more effectual promulgate that philosophy of work and of men as workers which is the substance of regular Speculative Freemasonry.

In pre-Grand Lodge days there was yet another form of organization in architecture: public supervision. If a town had a City Company of Masons in it, a civil supervisor of buildings was appointed by the town council and he worked with the heads of the Mason Company. The King appointed a Royal Administrator to supervise and inspect buildings (palaces, churches, etc.); as stated elsewhere Geoffrey Chaucer, Inigo Jones, and Christopher Wren were among royal administrators appointed by English Kings. In general there were four types of public administration:a) Royal buildings, b) Ecclesiastical buildings, c) Municipal buildings, d) Private buildings.

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