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Freemason, the Word

The word "free mason" first came into use in the Fourteenth Century; from then until the Eighteenth Century it appears in many forms, and oftentimes as a synonym for other names and in more than one form: mason, builder, architect, free mason, freemason, free stone mason, etc. In the first period of Masonic scholarship it was assumed that Operative Masons had used the word in one form, with one meaning; many investigators at tempted to discover that original meaning. It was also assumed that the origin of the word would throw light on the origin of the Fraternity. At the present time scholars have abandoned the first assumption, and they rely very little on the origin of the word to explain the origin of Freemasonry. The data collected from many periods and places indicate that the word must have had a number of origins, and that a Crafts man who might be called a Freemason in one place would not be called one in another. The following are only a partial list of the origins, or possible origins, of the word:

1. A worker in free-stone. Much quarry stone used in walls, foundations, and single buildings was unequal in hardness, coarse grained, and had either a crooked grain or a grain which ran one way, like the grain in a pine board. The stone used for carving had no grain, or a very fine grain, and could be cut in any direction without splitting or chipping, and would take a flat surface and a polish. It was called free-stone.

2. Local masons were by gild custom and civil law confined to their own parishes--at least, under usual and normal circumstances. The cathedral and church building Masons were not thus restricted, but were free to move about. (An ordinary workman coming into a parish from outside, even from the next parish, was a "foreigner" and in the towns more than one street riot broke out over these outsiders.)

3. An apprentice was bonded to his master for a period of years. This was called his indenture, at the end of hie term he was examined, and then set free. Any master Mason was in this sense a free Mason.

4. Once a town received a Charter of its own it virtually became an independent government; and in the course of time each resident of such a town became a citizen Outside the walls was serfdom, inside was freedom from serfdom. This freedom belonged to the "liberties" of the town. The member of a Mason Company in such a town would be a citizen and therefore free, whereas a mason outside the walls would not be free. (In many cities strangers coming in to reside in a town might receive this freedom at the end of one year and a day.)

5. It was once supposed that the Popes had granted the Mason Fraternity a charter to travel about at will unrestricted by local parish rules. Since no record of any such charter has ever been found the theory is abandoned yet from the Fabric Rolls (or day-by-day book-keeping records) of a number of cathedrals and abbeys it is evident that the Freemasons working on the building kept themselves separate from the local workmen who worked with them, and did so under an ecclesiastical authority of some sort.

6. There is no proof for the existence of a separate fraternity of traveling, or (in one sense of the word) journeymen Masons (unless the Compagnonage was one) but it is certain that Masons, singly or in groups, often went about from one country to another. They were free to travel in search of work.

7. Civil and ecclesiastical authorities both, and for centuries, used the method of impressment ("the press gang") not only to recruit sailors and soldiers but also to recruit workmen. There are a few instances of the impressment of Masons, but not many; the over-all impression of the data is that the Freemasons were considered a special class of craftsmen, and free from many of the restrictions and indignities which often drove other working men to desperation and revolt.

8. There is a psychological and ethical (or the two combined) type of free man--one who is free from ignorance, free from superstition, free from servility, and therefore a free man, meeting others as equals, even when belonging technically to one of the so-called lower orders It is likely that it was this freedom which the Freemasons felt and prized more deeply than any other.

It may be that it was some one of these meanings of the word "Freemason" which found its way into those Old Constitutions, called the Old Charges, which possessed warranting authority for the Lodges which set up the present Fraternity of Speculative Freemasonry; it may be that a confluence of a number of different meanings found their way into usage; in any event the word had then, as it continues to have, a multiordinal, or many-sided, meaning.

It is possible that future research will be able to define the original meaning of "Freemason" with rigorous correctness; if it does, Masons can then know who were Freemasons among Medieval builders and who were not. But even if that discovery were made, it would not solve the problem of the origin of Speculative Freemasonry. The Speculative Fraternity did not grow up everywhere as an inevitable outcome of the "evolution" of Medieval architecture; had that been true there would have come into existence a general Speculative Fraternity in Britain and in every European country as well, whereas it is of record that the Speculative Fraternity came into existence in England only, and very probably in one place, and very likely in the Fourteenth Century; not from Freemasons at large, but from one group of Freemasons in particular. The founders of the Fraternity were Freemasons; but not all Freemasons were founders of the Fraternity. (See page 378.)

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