The Origins of Freemasonry: Scotland's Century, 1590-1710

The Origins of Freemasonry: Scotland's Century, 1590-1710

by David Stevenson
(Cambridge: University Press, 1988, reprinted 1993), xvii + 246 pp.

The history of Freemasonry is a mixture of myth, legend, inference, documentation, and imagination. It is usual, especially in those histories of the Craft written in England or under English influence, to begin Masonic history proper with the formation of the United Grand Lodge in 1717, which brought together four existing London lodges. Obviously, Freemasonry and Freemasonic lodges must have existed earlier; otherwise there would have been nothing to unite into the Grand Lodge. But of the earlier forms of those lodges and their practice, little heretofore has been documented.

David Stevenson, the author of The Origins of Freemasonry, is Professor of Scottish History at the University of St. Andrews. As a good Scotsman, he finds the origins of modern Freemasonry, not in England, but in Scotland more than a century before the formation of the English Grand Lodge. Even more interesting, he also finds those origins partly in the esoteric currents that swept Europe at the time of the Renaissance, thus linking modern Freemasonry with the Wisdom Tradition of the Gnostics, Neo-Platonists, Hermeticists, and others.

In the Middle Ages, skilled workers were organized into trade guilds, which served a number of purposes. They helped to regulate the trades by maintaining standards of competence among the workers and preserving the secrets of their crafts from interlopers. They provided religious, moral, and charitable reinforcement for their craftsmen. They served as social clubs. They developed ceremonies of initiation for newcomers. They developed mythical histories about the origins of their crafts.

Among the various trades, that of the stonemason was unusually suitable for an elaborate craft organization. Whereas most craftsmen were settled in a particular locality, stonemasons were traveling men, moving to sites where their skill was in special demand. Thus they had more need than most for the support of their fellows.

In addition to conventional guilds, which were bodies incorporated by a particular township, stonemasons developed a lodge system, not under municipal control. The early lodge structure was a building on a construction site probably for the use of stonemasons as a workshop, temporary living quarters, and social club.