Freemasonry Today on guilds

Freemasonry Today is the long running magazine from the United Grand Lodge of England. In 2007 they celebrated their 10th anniversary with a “best of 10 years” edition. As I write this, this issue is available for 1 UK Pound at Lewis Masonic (or 2 if you prefer a hardback).

Freemasonry Today obviously is not a publication of a study/education lodge. Articles are usually 2 or 3 pages (A4) with many images. Unfortunately the publication doesn’t say in what years the articles it contains were originally published.

There are two texts of some interest for this website. Chief editor, the relatively famous author Michael Baigent, wrote about “Symbolism and the Guilds” and “Neville Cryer considers the origin of Masonic ritual in Guild Mystery Plays”.

Of Baigents subject you can read more on this website. He short text doesn’t add much information, but it is nice to be reminded of “Culross, a small Scottish town on the Firth of Forth […] where almost every tombstone bears the symbol of a craft guild.”

Baigent traces these guilds back to before 1209 and says that: “[t]heir members would aspire to becoming not only masters of their craft, but also burgesses of their town”. “Records in Edinburgh reveal that in the late 17th century [one such guild] had 2,200 burgesses, of whom 57% were guild members – but only 1% were masons.”

He found minute books of the Lodge of Edinburgh, Mary’s Chapel dating back to 1599 “when it was an operative mason’s lodge”. “The first non-operative member is recorded in 1633.” “By 1721-1730 the non-operative masons outnumbered the operative”.

Then he wonders why only the masons left traces in Freemasonry and “[w]hy, for example, were there no speculative shipwrights or speculative wheelwrights?”

“History does record that other guilds, apart from the masons, did moralise by means of allegories illustrated by their craft symbols.” He then describes how different craft had their plays which brings us to the other article. It is known which stories were involved in the plays of the different crafts, but the somewhat disappointing answer to the question in the previous paragraph concluding the article is:

“This is strong evidence that there was always something special and mysterious about the trade of Freemason and the secrets it preserved; something which was evidently not shared by other craft guilds.”

Neville Cryer describes a festival in York during which on cars different stories from the Bible were performed. This is how guilds had their (mystery) plays during the Whitsun week until the Reformation came. He does lay more focus on the masons guild while Baigent also had eye for the guilds that are not so famous anymore nowadays.

“Each Guild wanted a play which related to its own Patron Saint; the Masons preferred plays involving either the Virgin Mary or the two Saints John.” A list of plays in different cities are mentioned.

Cryer explains how usually illiterate players brought their stories to a usually illiterate audience. Simple symbols to refer to Jews or priests, pots, colors and gestures to certain themes and people. These symbols and of course the memorised texts have made lasting impressions on the minds of the descendants of both audience and performers. This Cryer uses to explain how themes from these plays still occupied the minds of people a century after the plays stopped (around 1600). He found themes of plays that we now find in Masonic symbolism.

Nothing much new, but these elements of Masonic history are not that often spoken about. ‘Heathen’? Not directly, but as I say elsewhere, prechristian elements have been preserved in guilds, mixed with ‘folk-Christianity’ elements, these guilds have made impressions that lingered until the dawn of ‘modern Freemasonry’.

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