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Fraternity, Operatives

A. In the Middle Ages and until about 1500 the Operative Masons were not organized as Speculative Freemasons are. The builders as a whole, including the numbers of special types of them such as Freemasons, wallers, setters, tilers, quarrymen, etc., were everywhere subject to the general laws of the gild system. In some periods and in some places they had a local gild of their own. If a cathedral (or abbey, or priory of large size) was to be built they formed their organization on the spot; a Master of Masons (called by different titles) would be secured by the foundation or administration behind the building enterprise, and he would sign an agreement; this done he would send out a call for workmen, so many of one sort, so many of another; if houses for them and their families were not available they would build them; they would build a dodge room or building for their own use, and also, in most instances, a second room or building in which plans were drawn, models were made, etc.

The Freemasons among the total number of workmen would have meetings in the Lodge room or building, when the need for one arose, or possibly at fixed times, their officers presiding. From then until the building was completed, in ten, twenty-five, or even fifty years, the Freemasons thus had their own local organization. There is no evidence of any national or general organization with a single center, but there is evidence in Masonic traditions and in the text of labor laws that a local organization would send delegates to assemblies, which appear to have been called only at need.

Yet there was such a thing as Masonry in general. Apprentices received everywhere the same training, same at least in general outline though it is known that in detail it differed an experienced Craftsman could tell a workman's origin by his use of a stone axe. The modes of recognition were such that any regular Freemason could prove himself to be one not only at any place in his own country but also in foreign countries.

If a workman came seeking work, a certain form of ceremony was used to greet him, to examine him, and to employ him; if no employment was to be had he was given hospitality for a night and received advises as to where work could be found. On the whole, and allowing for a certain flexibility in the word, Operative Freemasonry was a fraternity without a single, over- all organization and center. This held true even where local Freemasons became units in a local City Company and where two or three other trades or crafts might be in the same Company; for in such organizations each member craft had its own customs, members, officers, meetings inside the Company. In the period between the dissolution of the gilds and the first Grand Lodge of Speculative Masons in 1717, permanent Lodges became established, each one a center for Freemasons who might work privately, not in organized groups, for shorter or longer period, over a surrounding area. Apprenticeship, the old rules and regulations and customs, modes of recognition, and ceremonies were the same in these separate Lodges, though they had no Grand Lodge. Operative Masons had in use a number of names for themselves, and might call themselves a brotherhood, "the lodge," a society, a company, an assembly, a fraternity, a modality, a corps, etc.; any one of these terms might refer to workmen of every type in architecture as a whole, or it might refer to the Freemasons only.

See The Cathedral Builders in England, by Edward S. Prior; Seeley and Co.; New York; 1905. This is one of the few non-Masonic books in which a historian of Masonry attempts to discover or to describe the general form of organization of the Craftsmen. He accounts for the extraordinary unity of Freemasonry in Britain and Europe together, by their training, modes of recognition, traveling, and believes that much working for the Benedictine Monastic Order also played a part. The unity of monasticism (he could have included the Orders of the Temple and of Malta) may have had a share, but it could not have been a large one because the dissolution of the monastic orders did not affect the unity of the Masonic fraternity.

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