The history of Medieval Masonry (Operative Masonry) can be written in the form of sweeping generalizations, particularly about the use and the extraordinarily rapid spread of the Gothic Style. Or it can be written in the form of histories of particular cathedrals, abbeys, priories, castles, mansions, such as St. Michele, York, Wells, King's College, Cologne, etc. Or it can be written as an engineer would write it, in terms of machines, tools, quarrying, transportation, scaffolding, etc. Or as an economist would write it (vide Knoop & Jones), in the terms of wages, hours of labor, contracts, etc. Or in the form of treatises on the customs and organization of the Freemasons, their Lodges, their Old Charges their apprentices.
Lastly it could be written in the form of an endeavor to describe the Masons themselves. Who were they? What were they as men? What was in their minds? How did they discover a number of truths which nobody else in the Middle Ages ever saw, or could see? How did they live? Where did they find their education? A history in this last form has yet to be written, and until it is written it is as if no other history of Freemasonry had ever been written, because it was not the structure, or the money, or the Fabric Rolls, or the hours, or the wages, or the contracts which discovered and perpetuate that set of truths which is Speculative Freemasonry; it was the men themselves; and it is those men, not a set of buildings, of whom we are the descendants.
Until a number of Masonic scholars have accumulated a large body of facts to make such a history possible, a 'Masonic student can only feel his way along by-paths, and guess out many things from traces here and there in the buildings which , like a thumb print, still bear the impress of the personality of the builders.
It is when viewed as contributing to that purpose that a study of such a comparatively unimportant detail as the sculptures, carvings, mosaics, and pictures of animals, including birds and insects (botany is too large to include here--it also is a field awaiting research) begins to take on a large significance, because in an indirect way it tells us a number of things about the Freemasons as men, it being remembered meanwhile that until a late period the Masons had a free hand in these ornamental details.
Among the carvings in the cathedrals are a zoology of actual and mythical animals, lions, foxes, goats, horses, donkeys, birds, snakes, bees, unicorns, griffins, etc., and often they are placed or fashioned with a sly but very open humor. If these are contrasted to the carvings in the Romanesque buildings which preceded Gothic, or the Classical which succeeded it, or either Byzantine or Arabic which were its contemporaries, animal figures in Gothic buildings become strikingly significant. They show that the Freemasons were independent and free, and flouted the old church censorship rules governing ornaments in religious buildings; that they looked at nature with fresh, new eyes, and observed it at first hand; that they were familiar with the old Bestiaries, the once popular tales and fables about animal heroes and villains, along with the mythology of animals; that they had many interests beyond the rigidly theological or ecclesiastical, and were not priest-ridden; and show a sense of humor seldom elsewhere in evidence in Medieval books, pictures, or tales, for their gargoyles and foxes and goats often are cartoons in stone.
See page 554 fl. in Art and the Re-formation, by G. G. Coulton. Animal Symbolism in Ecclesiastical Architecture, by E. P. Evans; Henry Holt & Co. ; 1896 ; perhaps the best introduction for American readers, and an excellent point of departure for special studies.
Symbolism of Birds and Animals in English Architecture, by Arthur H. Collins; Mach ride; New York; 1913.
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