OH WONDERFUL MASONS!
- Brethren, medieval city dwellers lived in the shadow of the greatest manmade structures of their time; the soaring Gothic cathedrals that still fill us with wonder today. This talk is about the masons who built them and the tangible reminders of their working lives to be found in a modern speculative lodge.
- Later historians would portray the middle ages as crude and uncivilised; but in fact there were many advances in learning and despite the famine and plague of the 14th century it was generally a period of growing prosperity and stability. The population grew, commerce flourished and the church became increasingly powerful, by 1300 owning nearly a third of England’s landed wealth.
- The resulting building boom demanded well constructed aesthetically pleasing structures, not the crude utilitarianism of the previous millennium. The biggest commissions still came from royalty or clergy; but public bodies and wealthy individuals also began to instigate projects, not just churches but all types of municipal and private works. The cathedrals are the undoubted gems of this new era, but there were also great monasteries, castles and bridges.
THE MASTER MASON
- This period encompasses the evolution of Gothic architecture; a technically demanding style that prompted both new construction techniques and the rediscovery of ancient skills. Masons had been regarded as crude artisans, but those with the necessary technical and organisational abilities now took on the role of both lead contractor and architect.
- They were called master masons; but unlike our generic degree this was a special distinction, as in addition to managing the masons they would prepare designs, solve technical problems, and liaise with other crafts and suppliers. On larger projects the master mason would appoint under-masters or wardens to supervise the working masons and a clerk of works might take on administrative tasks, such as bookkeeping. This could free the master mason to run more than one project and visit other sites to give advice or gather new ideas.
- Trained masons other than masters were called fellows. The designation of freemason first appears in the early 14th century; despite later connotations it was probably a contraction of the term freestone mason, freestone was the best stone for carving so was worked by the more skilled masons. Masons learnt their skills in the quarries, on site and in the lodge; often these were passed down through families, formal apprenticeships are first recorded in the late 14th
- The most skilled working masons were the stone hewers and carvers; the best might become imaginators, the medieval name for sculptors. Less skilled were the stone layers or setters; and the rough masons who built walls and worked alongside the quarrymen cutting the stone into rough blocks.
- The work was hard and dangerous, many were injured by falls from scaffolding and they constantly breathed in stone dust, a metre thick layer was recently excavated from the medieval masons’ yard at Wells Cathedral. Pensions are recorded for master masons, but most masons had to rely upon charity if they could not work; our almoner’s jewel depicts a medieval scrip purse.
HOURS & WAGES
- Many masons were journeymen, moving between sites as required. They worked a 6 or 5½ day week, a normal working day was from sunrise to sunset with breaks for refreshment and an afternoon rest; our opening and closing ceremonies still refer to the rising and setting sun. They had no annual holidays as such; but could have up to 40 often unpaid days off for religious festivals, when they might feast together at festive boards. In winter most outdoor work had to stop, so many masons were laid off; those kept on worked in the lodge or other sheltered areas, but the days being shorter their wages were cut.
- A working mason’s earnings depended upon his skill and output; some were paid on a piecework basis and we can still find the identifying marks they cut on stones. In the mid 14th century the average wage for a skilled working mason was about 5 pence a day; at that time a butcher or baker made about 3 pence a day. Masons were often paid wages and bonuses in kind such as accommodation, food or clothing; working masons might be given gloves or aprons but the master mason would get a fur lined robe.
- Master masons were paid considerably more than other masons; the best were on a par with educated lawyers and physicians, a few even became master masons to the King. Increasingly from the late 13th century they were employed under contracts; these could include the supply of labour and materials, as well as penalties for failure.
- The lodge was a temporary shelter erected at quarries and building sites where masons could work, eat and rest; the master or his warden would knock on the lodge door to call them from refreshment to labour. The masons associated with each lodge were themselves collectively called the lodge and no doubt they often gathered around a work bench to eat or talk; just as the early Speculative Masons gathered around tables in their lodges, our pedestals were a much later innovation.
- Devastating famines and plagues in the 14th century, coupled with rising taxation, triggered increasing unrest between the ruling aristocracy, the middle classes, and a growing number of wage earners not reliant upon feudalism. These social and economic tensions may have spurred masons to become better organised; with some well established lodges adopting written charges or constitutions. Two early 15th century charges survive, the Regius and Cooke manuscripts, both were probably written or copied for lodges by ecclesiastical employers.
- In addition to trade regulations the charges also gave guidance on manners, morals and religious duties. However, most notable for us are the legendary histories they provided for the craft; these drew upon many sources and may have included some pre-existing Masonic folklore. These charges were read aloud to masons before they took an oath to obey them and guard each other’s secrets; such oaths are recorded at York in the 1370s. Our modern book of constitutions still opens with a summary of the Antient Charges, that is read aloud to every master elect prior to his obligation.
- The medieval charges and wage statutes do refer to general assembly’s of masons, but it seems unlikely that working masons would have travelled far to attend such gatherings. Indeed there is no direct evidence that they took place or for that level of Masonic association having existed; although journeymen masons did provide informal links between lodges.
- Nor as a rule did medieval masons form their own guilds; even though guilds would later have a major influence on Speculative Masonry. Medieval masons were generally wage earners, and moved around too much to become part of the urban commercial world of the trade and craft guilds. The exceptions were in cities where a number of masons did become resident; as in London where there was a Masons’ Company in the mid 14th
- Most working masons wore long leather aprons over their everyday tunics. The more skilled may have left the apron bib or flap down to show that they did not do the rough tasks requiring its protection; in some speculative lodges today Entered Apprentices still wear their apron flap up. Some masons wore gauntleted gloves, usually as protection from the lime mortar they used; made from un-dyed skins they were naturally whitish in colour. Medieval carvings and illustrations also show many masons wearing hoods or skull-caps at work, in summer some employers provided them with straw hats.
- Our speculative forebears adopted as their badge the operative’s plain leather apron and also wore white gauntleted gloves. However, over the years our aprons have become smaller and, apart from the Entered Apprentices’, have been adorned with ribbons, rosettes and badges. We do still wear plain white gloves, but only the principal officers’ are gauntleted by embroidered cuffs.
- To medieval writers the word ‘mystery’ also meant a calling or skill, not just that something was inexplicable. The special skills or mystery of a master mason were certainly beyond the understanding of most men, but the better educated could discern the underlying geometrical principles. The 13th century Archbishop Robert Kilwardby wrote
- ‘does not geometry teach how to measure every dimension, through which carpenters and stoneworkers work’?
- Indeed the actual title of the Masonic Charge we call the Regius manuscript is ‘The Constitutions of the Art of Geometry According to Euclid’;
- whose 47th proposition is our Past Master’s jewel.
- However, few operative masons would have studied theoretical geometry or mathematics; most learnt their skills from other masons and empirically. Nor did they study structural engineering; initially they had relied solely upon the inherent stability of well fitted stone blocks in compression, but as they gained experience with increasingly complex designs they learnt to build in safeguards, such as flying buttresses and tie bars. Even so vaults did crack and towers collapse, often due to inadequate foundations.
- Their patrons may have been classically educated and have seen Muslim or Byzantine architecture, but the designs of the early master masons derived mostly from local traditions and skills. New ideas spread and develop more quickly when both patrons and masons began to travel more; as in 1175 when William of Sens became master mason at Canterbury Cathedral and brought from France the Early Gothic style that combined high pointed arches, rib vaulting and large windows. Developing increasingly ornate features, such as tracery and fan vaulting, the Gothic styles would become the embodiment of the medieval masons’ skill.
- Patrons would first outline their requirements to the master mason, who might then prepare studio drawings of the key features; sometimes these were coloured to show how the stonework would be painted. High status medieval buildings were extensively painted, the plastered walls being covered with decorative motifs or elaborate devotional themes.
- The design approved working drawings or tracings were prepared, from these wooden templates known as ‘moldes’ could be made to guide the working masons. The working drawings rarely survived, as most were incised on plaster covered floors or wooden tracing boards. The latter possibly gave their name to the boards our masters are charged to draw designs upon; some modern stonemasons still use whitewashed boards.
- The drawings employed a technique we call constructive geometry; that uses simple squares, triangles, polygons and circles to define more complex shapes. They did not have scales, but could provide proportional ratios for each dimension relative to a set baseline; such as a bay width. Although experienced master masons would have known many of the required ratios without recourse to drawings.
- The drawings were two dimensional, but different sections and elevations were sometimes superimposed on one drawing. Master masons also had techniques for taking elevations from simple ground plans; such as drawing projecting arcs to determine the curvature of a vaulted ceiling, a Masonic secret that literally involved finding a P. within a circle.
- Masons like other craftsmen would have been reticent about sharing their special know-how with outsiders, but there is no evidence of any esoteric secrets or rituals. Some urban masons did take part in religious pageants called mystery or miracle plays and these have been likened to our rituals, but they were public performances and not specifically Masonic.
- Speculative masons would adopt the charges, legendary history and many trappings of the medieval mason; but our rituals, secret signs, grips and passwords derive from other periods and sources. Whilst speculative lodges needed such modes of recognition, a medieval mason’s operative skills were easily tested. That said, it was intriguing to recently hear a modern stonemason say he could identify other stonemasons by the ‘thick thumb’ they develop from holding a chisel.
- Since ancient times writers have used tools such as plumb lines and squares symbolically; some medieval religious texts depicted God as an architect with a pair of compasses. However, there is no evidence that medieval masons ever moralized upon their tools and the first records of speculative masons doing so do not appear until the 18th
- Operative masons used many different tools; the disposable ones such as chisels were often provided for them but they probably kept their own squares and compasses. We allocate just three tools to each degree, the first set relevant to labour, the second to testing the stone and the third to design. Let’s now consider these, but in their original forms not our stylized versions.
- A medieval mason’s wooden rule or straight edge did not fold and was not necessarily 24″ long; they also used much longer measuring staffs and lines. Standard linear measures were not fixed by law until 1340. They varied regionally and could even be site specific. Masons drew with a metal stylus called a lead point, although drawings might afterwards be inked or coloured in. A medieval pencil was a fine brush used by painters; graphite for the type of pencils we know was not discovered until the 1560s.
- Their squares and compasses were usually much larger than our symbolic versions; being used not just to prepare drawings but also to mark out ground plans, scribe templates and test stones. Iron squares are recorded but most were made of wood, often old cask staves were used; they usually had arms of unequal length, which might be fitted to a curved guide to facilitate their use.
- When marking out ground plans they used reels, very like our skirrets, to feed out the line. These are pictured in medieval documents but not named; the term skirret was not used for such tools until the early 19th century and then only in a speculative context.
- Operative masons used a variety of hammers and mauls. The dictionary defines a gavel as a setting maul, but our rituals describe it as the scappling hammer or axe masons used to prepare the rough stone; mallets not gavels were used to strike the chisels. Increasingly from the 12th century steel tipped chisels would replace axes as the chief tool for dressing and carving stone.
- Plumb lines and bobs were an essential tool of the medieval mason; some speculative lodges today have them as an extra working tool. Medieval masons used them not only as simple plumb lines, but also mounted on straight edges or in wooden frames to form levels and plumb rules.
THE BUILDING SITE
- Living and working accommodation had to be arranged for a sometimes large workforce; such as when craftsmen were impressed to work on royal projects. At Harlech Castle in 1286 there were 227 masons, 115 quarrymen, 30 smiths, 22 carpenters, and 546 general workmen or labourers; although just 4 clerks to do the paperwork.
- Organising the supply and carriage of building materials was a major task. The master mason had to find quarries with the right stone, as well as ensuring supplies of other materials such as timber and lead; the works at Vale Royal Abbey between 1278 and 1280 needed 35,000 cartloads of stone!
- Construction started with marking out the foundations; at Vale Royal Abbey in 1277 the ledgers record the levelling of ‘a place on which the ground plan of the monastery was to be traced’. Using measuring poles, frames, chalk lines and constructive geometry the plan was marked out in the soil or with pegged ropes. The first speculative masons drew simple ground plans on their meeting room floors, and our tracing boards developed from those drawings. The corner tassels depicted on the 1st Degree board, and some lodge carpets, may represent rope ends; and the chequered lodge floor itself could be a grid for plotting designs.
- Churches were usually orientated east-west and when possible construction commenced in the east, but the foundation stone was not always laid in the NE corner. A rectangular mason’s lodge erected alongside such works would also lie east-west; just as we deem our lodges to do. This orientation also maximised the daylight coming into the lodge, medieval masons rarely worked by candlelight; our Junior Warden sitting midway along the south wall would also enjoy the most daylight were our lodges open sided.
- The master mason provided measurements, patterns and templates for the hewers at the quarry and on site; who used them to work the stone into rectangular blocks called ashlars and other basic shapes. In our lodges we display both a rough unfinished and a smooth or perfect ashlar; our early ritualists possibly confused perfect with perpend or perpent, which were ashlars dressed on two faces as they would be visible both sides of a wall.
- When carving more elaborate features the masons were guided by full sized drawings incised on plaster tracing floors; such floors have survived at York Minster and Wells Cathedral. The drawings could be very complex; to draw the east window tracery for Carlisle Cathedral arcs must have been scribed from 263 different centres. Measurements could be taken from these drawings or the stones tested directly upon them, each stone being marked to show its intended location. Drawings might also be scratched on a convenient flat surface near the feature being constructed; these were later covered over but a 13th century example is now visible by a rose window in Byland Abbey.
- Carpenters erected hoists and scaffolding for the masons, including timber frameworks called centring to support the arches and vaults during construction. Scaffolding rose from the ground or rested upon the rising building itself, ‘putlog’ holes being left in the walls for that purpose; masons reached these working platforms by ramps and ladders, or using the spiral staircases and passages being built into the walls. Jacob’s ladder and a winding staircase both figure in our ritual, a few lodge rooms even have wooden representations of them. We usually depict the staircase as curved not spiral, but Josephus the 1st century AD historian said that the original in King Solomon’s temple was built into the thickness of a wall.
- Materials were carried or lifted into place using just manpower; several tread mill hoists still survive, including one at Canterbury Cathedral. Our smooth ashlar usually sits beneath a simple tripod hoist, with ropes attached to a hole in its top face by an iron cramp called a lewis. Lewis holes are found in Roman and Saxon masonry, but medieval masons more often used slings or metal scissor clamps that fitted over the stone; modern operatives call this an external lewis.
- Using trowels and heavy mauls, both found in our lodges, the layers bedded the stones in mortar; whilst testing them with levels and plumb lines. Structural cavities were filled with mortared rubble and where necessary the masonry was reinforced with dowels, metal clamps or tie bars; sometimes molten lead was also used to strengthen joints.
- Even with a large workforce a project could take many years to complete, especially if funds ran out or a patron died. Typically it took 40 to 60 years to complete the main body of a cathedral, but a tower or elaborate west front might take much longer; work progressed in stages, so that completed sections could be brought into early use.
- The golden age of the operative mason drew to a close in the 16th century, as brick became more popular, ecclesiastical building declined, and the number of specialist contractors grew. Also architectural design was ceasing to be a predominantly operative role; as a classical revival and sophisticated new drawing techniques were changing it to a scholarly profession.
- In fact Gothic architecture came to be regarded as monstrous and barbaric.
- Than being the case, our speculative forebears chose to concentrate on classical architecture. Happily a few medieval Gothic masterpieces have survived, so we can continue to, as did King Solomon, ‘Oh Wonderful Masons!’
The above talk was taken from a booklet A Medley of Masonic Talks by Brother Clive R. Moore of Kent England, and shared with us me by:- R.W. Bro. Robert Taylor Retired Librarian Sidney Australia
As Freemasons, and others who may be reading this paper, surely we must wonder at times,
WHY do we do the things we do.???
WHERE did all this gobble de gook stuff come from & is it really necessary?
Fortunately there have been & continue to be brothers, such as Clive Moore, who write and share papers such as this.
Personally, I am delighted that he did, because, even after my 63 years in the Craft, I find I am continuing to learn and getting an even better understanding of Who & What I represent as a Master Mason and the history of where & HOW this all came about.
Who & What are we ?????
We are more than a club where the members wear funny looking aprons and stuff.
We are among the largest benefactors in the World.
As this paper shares our ROOTS are very deep, and we need to be PROUD of who and what we are and not only WHAT we do.
Have a wonderful Day & God Bless