[Reprinted from the MAKE: blog, 8 May 2012]
Back in MAKE vol. 09, aka the Fringe Issue (2008), I wrote an essay arguing that makers should take back Freemasonry. With things like Hackerspace Roaming Membership, a similar system is evolving anyway. Here’s the essay, inspired by Jean Gimpel’s great book The Cathedral Builders, and with a wonderful illustration by Hal Robins. Several readers asked if I am a Mason. I’m not, but it’s on my list.
Masonic Conspiracy Revealed!
When engineering culture detaches from reality.
Generations of conspiracy-minded observers have nurtured theories about powerful secret societies such as the Masons. Here is my theory: Occult institutions evolve out of professional
guilds after they stop caring about how to actually build things.
In every age, geeks gravitate to where the interesting action is, and in medieval Europe, this was the cathedral — the structure itself, the art, and the pipe organ inside. Like most people, I’ve always been amazed by the great gothic cathedrals, but it was French historian Jean Gimpel’s book, The Cathedral Builders, that gave me the real nerd’s–eye view.
Gimpel explains that starting in the last half of the 12th century, competitive cathedral builders broke the world’s record for the highest interior vault five times within 62 years: from the completion of Notre–Dame de Paris in 1163 (32.8 meters high), through Chartres, Rheims, Amiens, and finally to Beauvais in 1225 (48 meters high, collapsed in 1284). This space–race happened during what’s now called the Early Gothic era, when cathedral building was literally at its height.
Engineering culture flourished during this era, and the cathedral builders were the alpha geeks. They and their kind traveled throughout Europe and contracted independently with parishes and municipalities to build churches, bridges, and other public works. They scouted talent by hiring unskilled stonecutters from the local populations, and invited the most promising ones to apprentice. They formed an international maker subculture that was surrounded by an illiterate and innumerate population that relied on their work, but could never understand it. To outsiders (non–engineers), they must have seemed like wizards: they used strange implements and symbols, spoke their own terminology, and produced magical seeming sights, sounds, and structures.
Meantime, these builders had a unique relationship to the Church, which monopolistically financed and controlled all culture — like today’s Hollywood and Madison Avenue, combined. The Catholic Church needed the building expertise of “free masons,” who didn’t have to buy into any ideology or hierarchy, or even obey the local clergy. This gave the masons an unusually powerful position, which was inevitably eyed with suspicion.
Toward the end of the 13th century, as Europe became more nationalistic and political, Church funding for great cathedrals dried up. Design expertise was also tragically lost, and no one knew how to build as high anymore. This resulted in the Late Gothic style of cathedral, characterized by smaller structures that were built using old plans, but with more ornamentation added — lame.
Not surprisingly, the masons’ professional culture also began to change during the Late Gothic period. Inside the guilds, nepotism and politics replaced ability and contribution as the path to master status. What had become known as Freemasonry was more secretive, perhaps out of defensiveness; the great cathedrals stood as prominent witness to all the knowledge that had died with previous generations. By the 15th century, masons in Germany adopted professional codes that forbade speaking publicly of lodge activities or divulging old methods for rendering drawings. Throughout Europe, the building trades carried an overlay of secrecy, antique reverence, and the promise of access to great lost wisdom.
From Operative to Speculative
Jumping ahead, Gimpel describes Scotland in the 16th century, where a boom in castle building took place. Job seekers answered the calls for work, and traveled from all over to converge at building sites. But the assembled workers didn’t know each other and had no educational degrees to go on, so the structural–engineering geeks developed a secret system of hand signals to identify themselves to one another at job sites and distinguish themselves from the unskilled stonecutters who could only build walls. After recognizing the signs and gathering together, these masons could then approach the local authority and say, “We’re the master builders here, and you need to put us in charge.”
Around this same time, the masons in Scotland also formed a network of lodges where traveling members could stay and meet with other builder geeks. Conspiracists point to these Scottish lodges as the cradle of a mysterious occult society tied to the medieval Knights Templar, but as Gimpel writes:
Masonic historians have long thought that [the] secrets which the workmen were asked to keepwere of an esoteric nature. They were nothing of the sort … there is no reason to suppose that these secrets contained anything more esoteric than … discussions in the lodge … as well as technical secrets of the trade concerning, for example, the design of an arch.
But then something happened that changed Masonry completely, and (I believe) did eventually turn it into an occult conspiracy. Upper–class men who weren’t trained masons wanted to join Scotland’s Masonic lodges. They were refused at first, but were later accepted under the provision that they paid double the dues of working masons. We can only guess at the mixture of motivations that led these fancy lads to seek companionship in a professional builders’ society, but as a result, they gained access to a nationwide network of lodging and social contacts — an exclusive club, in the more modern sense.
This new membership policy gradually detached Masonry from its engineering roots, and within a couple of generations, more Masons were wealthy gentlemen than actual builders. But as the makers gave way to the schmoozers, the lodge system proved to be a resilient social construct. Masonry became political and social, rather than practical — a cabal of insiders, rather than a collective devoted to expertise and education. Expert trade knowledge and levels of technical proficiency evolved (devolved?) into an artificial system of signs, symbols, and access, whose function was to distinguish insiders from outsiders. But in the social context within which this knowledge operated, it was still powerful.
Here’s how it works. Let’s say you’re an insider who knows some secret mumbo–jumbo. Promoting the belief to outsiders that your secrets have great power makes this belief self–fulfilling because it makes outsiders think you have something on them. The more mysterious and powerful these inside secrets seem, the more effective the hype becomes. Now, if you imagine running this secretsas–status dynamic recursively, you get concentrically nested levels of power, a hierarchy that runs from complete outsider to innermost circle. Add the human imagination on both sides, and you spawn a thousand occult rituals and a thousand conspiracy theories.
Masonic historians refer to this great shift away from building as the shift from “operative” to “speculative” masonry, and the event that signified the completed transition is considered to be the establishment of the Grand Lodge in London, in 1717. Numerous books trace modern Masonry’s lineage from the Grand Lodge to today’s Masonic lodges, which combine, to varying degrees, the roles of community service organization, local chamber of commerce, and drinking club.
The Masonic blueprint has also informed other secret societies and organizations, ranging from the occultist Golden Dawn to college fraternities. However, I believe that the true heirs to the Masonic tradition are at makers’ fairs, s33krit hackers’ conferences, engineering departments, and other places where people share practical knowledge with other wizards.
So, what is to be done? Cities across America have beautiful Masonic lodge buildings sitting on prime downtown real estate. Lodge membership is graying, and many chapters have closed due to the lack of new members. I think this presents a grand opportunity. Let’s start a new Masonic Conspiracy! Let’s take Masonry back, and convert it from speculative back to operative! Let’s get all the makers we know to become Masons, and turn all those gorgeous, unused lodge buildings into temples of geekdom! Who’s with me?
Illustration by Hal Robins