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Alchimy, the Ordinall Of

This is the title of a book by Thomas Norton, of Bristol, England, which was reproduced in facsimile by Williams & Wilkins Company, Baltimore, 1929, taken from Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum with annotations by Elias Ashmole (made a Freemason at Warrington Lodge, in 1646). It contains an introduction, tantalizingly brief, by E. J. Holmyard. the study of chemistry, then called alchemy, is said to have been introduced into Europe in l144 when Robert of Chester translated Book of the Composition of Alchemy. (See Renaissance of the Twelfth Century, by Haskins.)

Thomas Norton's father was Mayor of Bristol in 1413, and was a member of Parliament. Thomas himself was a man of much education and wealth. He learned his art (mystery it was then called, meaning craft or trade) from a study of the works of George Ripley, born fifteen years after the death of Chaucer. The Ordinal is one of three books on alchemy written by Thomas Norton. It is somewhat cryptic ; presupposes a certain amount of erudition; is written in a loose imitation of Chaucer's verse; is not a great work of literature but is easy to read, and surpasses on most counts books written in the first half of the Fifteenth Century.

In addition to Ashmole's interest in it, the original has two particular points of interest for Masonic students. First, in describing the contemporary craze for chemistry, Norton declares that common workmen are as curious about it "as well as Lords," and among them, along with weavers, goldsmiths, tailors, etc., he names "Free Masons" and it is interesting that be used that form of the word.

Second, on page 33, be tells how the "Master" from whom he learned alchemy refused to instruct him in writing, therefore Norton had "to ride to my Master an hundred miles and more" for oral, and secret, instruction (chemistry was an unlawful science) ; and on the same page, addressing prospective pupils he writes:

"Wherefore it is need that within short space, We speak together, and face to face; If I should write, I should my fealty [oath] break, Therefore mouth to mouth I must needs speak.''

This passage caught Ashmole's eye. In a long annotation he gives a paragraph about famous instances of secret, mouth to-ear instructors and instructions, including Aristotle, and hints that because of dangers from the vulgar and prohibitions from princes and prelates "divers" arts and sciences have been thus propagated.

In a page contributed by him to Ars Quatuor coronatorum, 1894, entitled "The Medical Profession and Freemasonry" Robert Freke Gould devotes a paragraph to each of a number of famous physicians (Michael Scott, Lully, Paracelsus, Jerome Cardan, etc.) who had been alchemists, kabbalists, or had engaged in other forms of Hermetism. After quoting Dr. Stukeley as baving averred that Freemasonry may be suspected to be "remains of the Mysteries of the Ancient," Gould continues: "With very little latitude of interpretation, the conclusion he arrived at, may be safely accepted as a correct one. the mysteries of Freemasonry are evidently the fragments of some ancient and nearly forgotten learning." Gould then admits it as possible that "the Cabbalists, the Hermetical [or Occult] Philosophers, and the Rosicrucians, are the intermediaries" by whom those "fragments" have come down to us.

These remarks, coming as they do from one whom Hughan described as the premier Masonic historian, are interesting in themselves, and also may serve as the point of departure for a set of comments which it is now (a half century later) possible to make:

1. The remarks show that the veteran historian, with both his History and his Concise History behind him, and after eight years of the Quatuor Coronati Lodge of Research, was not yet sure in his own mind about the origin of Freemasonry ; for if Freemasonry came from Medieval chemists, mathematicians, astronomers, etc., it did not come from the cathedral building and other Freemasons.

2. Hermetism was not a vague, floating or "occult" tradition ; but derived from a book full of Greek materials on the sciences and entitled Hermes Trismegistus, copies and fragments of which came into Europe via Constantinople, Sicily, and Spain.

3. The physicians named by Gould had not been "occultists," they had been physicians and chemists; the 'alchemy" they studied was chemistry, and they studied it for medical uses. The fact that they studied chemistry (along with botany, etc.) affords no ground for believing that they had any reason to be "the channel" for transmitting fragments of the Ancient Mysteries-in their day they had heard fragmentary reports of ancient mythologies, of old forms of secret knowledge and of mysteries in the sense of skilled or professional trades, but they had never heard of the Ancient Mystery Cults properly so called; even Mithraism which had been the createst of the Mystery cults, had been wholly forgotten in the Middle Ages, and continued to be so until the Renaissance, and was not fully recovered until modern archeology unearthed the data.

4. Rosicrueianism was not " Medieval " It was a fantasy of the seventeenth Century. Freemasonry was full blown long before it was invented.

5. Documentary evidence, external evidence internal evidence Craft traditions, The Old Charges and the kind of reasoning which historians use, combine into one body of evidence to show that Freemasonry had its origin among the Medieval Freemasons, who were builders or architects scarcely a one of which, as far as any records show (and the names of hundreds are known, and as far back as the Twelfth Century) was ever an occultist or a mystic except in some such pedestrian, commonplace sense as could be applied to the Church in the Middle Ages.

Hermetism, properly so called, connected with a book, a collection of writings, composed in Alexandria in Ptolemaic times, and containing many portions on Greek and Alexandrian science. (Almost everything Medieval men, even scholars, knew about Egypt came to them via Alexandria. The Crusaders, contrary to assumptions of some Masonic writers, were little in Egypt but were established in Palestine, Syria, Armenia, etc.) Kabbalism was a form of religious mysticism concocted by Jews in Spain; and Graetz, whose knowledge of Jewish history was encyclopedic, believes it was a reaction to the science and rationalism of Maimonides (a modern man astray in the Middle Ages.) Medieval astrology was a vague version, or half memory, as if written on a palimpsest, of Ptolemy's astronomy; and that, as present-day astronomers now admit, if his "cycles theory" were deleted out of it, was very sound astronomy. It is admitted that the texts and nomenclature of Medieval materials on those subjects (Cornelius Agrippina wrote the most dreadful nonsense) were cryptic and queer; but for that there are several explanations the need for secrecy, the mixture of languages owing to the many living and dead languages of the sources used, the need to keep laymen from endangering themselves with drugs they could not understand (Norton's Ordinall mentions this), a general use of symbols in an illiterate age, etc. To throw Hermetism, alchemy, astrology, Kabbalism, and Rosicrucianism into one pot, to stir them up into an olla podrida, and then to call the mixture by the one misleading name of "hermetism" is not history but is obscurantism.

It certainly has nothing to do with Masonic history, because no Freemason ever built a cathedral, abbey, or priory from a recipe found in the Kabbala, nor was he in the practice of medicine.

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