Saying something about the religious history of Northwestern Europe, we can pick the first century as starting point. It is from then on that the Roman Empire started to move northwards. It is the same time that tribes started to move around on the continent. This period of migration lasted well into the period when the Christian faith followed the Roman Empire into this area.
The Germanic tribe of the Franks converted to Christianity around 500 CE. It were also the Franks who would violently spread Christianity, especially under Charle’magne’ (or: Charles the Saxon slayer) (748-814).
This resulted in conversions to Christianity from that time on. Before 800 large parts of Northern Europe were converted, but the farther North, the longer it took. The Northern Netherlands would follow after 850 (not by Franks by the way), Scandinavia as late as up to the year 1000.
We know that there were esoteric men-groups in Germanic culture. Much has been written about these “Männerbünde” as they are often called. In Farwerck’s theory these groups have made their mark on their ‘follow-up groups’. First these were “gildi” or guilds (there has undoubtely been overlap in the “Männerbünde” period and the “Gildi” period) which were quite like what we came to know as guilds. Groups of people working together because of a similar craft, cult or whatever. There were shooting guilds (for protection), religious guilds and craft guilds.
The word “gilda” (singular) refers to sacrificial meals that were held to honour the dead. Later the term was used for the people having the meals. All guilds (also the shooting and craft guilds) were had religious sides practiced charity and there were initiations of new members. We do not have very much information about these initiations, but Farwerck gathered enough to write extensively about them. (Have a look at Sinfjötli’s story for example.)
When we take Germany as example, we know that there were “Hütten” (‘huts’, later usually called “Bauhütten” or ‘building huts’, but ‘building lodge’ would probably make a more reasonable translation) in the time of Charlemagne (he forbade them), also “Steinmetzbruderschaften” (‘stone mason brotherhoods’) existed. Guilds have been reported in France in the 8th century.
Now the step to Freemasonry is relatively easy, yet disputed. Henning Klövekorn has written a chapter in his book “99 Degrees of Freemasonry” saying that there were “Oberhütten” (a sort of Grand Lodges) in the 13th century and large meetings were held in 1250 and 1275. Only a few decades later also non-operative people joined the “Hütten”, a development that is usually placed quite a few centuries later in England.
The idea is that parts of the rituals of the “Männerbünde” remained in the different “Gildi”, including the guilds that were to form the basis of Freemasonry. This tread can explain the similarities between, say, a Viking ritual, and Freemasonry or how the odd wording of an oath or punishment that reminds of ancient law texts.
What I do not want to say is that the prechristian religion of Northwestern Europe is the only source of Freemasonry. As times passed undoubtely things were changed, added and removed within the guilds and Freemasonry did not copy the entirity of practices of any guild. Also there is not just one ‘branch of the tree’. There were different guilds, some still exist (or exist again) without having even evolved into being anything like Freemasonry. Other branches withered, other have degenerated. When Freemasonry started to surface, some elements may have been remembered from the ‘latest source’ with or without understanding the ‘true origin’.
There may even have been more threads leading from old times to Freemasonry. Many ‘heathen elements’ have been preserved in Christianity, just think of Easter or the Christmas tree, so I will not rule out that Christianity preserved elements and the Christian influence on Freemasonry could have been the link between the two.
So in a ‘sort of timeline’:
- 0-500 CE “Männerbünde” and “Gildi”;
- 500-1700 guilds and “(bau)hütten”;
- 1500-1717 craft guilds and Freemasonry.