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THE OLD CHARGES
By Wallace McLeod, FPS
"THE CHARGES OF A FREE-MASON"
The "Old Charges" have kindled the imagination of
Freemasons for centuries, and hundreds of pages have
been written about them. We might therefore imagine that
the topic was by now exhausted. Even so, the younger
brethren may need to be reminded of these remarkable
relics, that are sometimes called the "Title Deeds" of the
Craft. And who knows? Perhaps after all we shall be able
to say something new about them.
Many jurisdictions have in their law-code or their Book of
Constitutions a section entitled "The Charges of a
Free-Mason." These pages occur in The Book of
Constitution of the Grand Lodge under which I was initiated,
and that is what got me started on this subject.
Thirty-five years ago, when I became a Mason, I read
through these pages. Because they came near the
beginning, it seemed natural to assume that they were
important. Some parts sounded a little like the ritual. "The
persons made masons or admitted members of a lodge must
be good and true men, free-born, and of mature and discreet
age and sound judgment, no bondmen, no women, no
immoral or scandalous men, but of good report." "A man ...
is not excluded from the order, provided he believe in the
glorious architect of heaven and earth."
Other parts seemed perfectly true, and beautifully
expressed in the kind of English that we have forgotten how
to write. "Masonry is the centre of union between good men
and true, and the happy means of conciliating friendship
amongst those who must otherwise have remained at a
perpetual distance." This much could be related to the Craft
as I understood it, and it lent credence to the remainder.
I remember being upset when I was urged to stay for the
festive board, because I felt I should go home and attend to
my studies. Didn't my brethren know their Masonic
law-code? There it was in black and white. "You may enjoy
yourselves with innocent mirth, treating one another
according to ability, but avoiding all excess, or forcing any
brother to eat or drink beyond his inclination, or hindering
him from going when his occasions call him...." My
occasions were calling me, and they were hindering me from
But what was one to make of other portions? "No
master should take an apprentice unless he has sufficient
employment for him." "The master, knowing himself to be
able of cunning, shall undertake the lord's work as
reasonably as possible, and truly dispend his goods as if
they were his own; nor to give more wages to any brother or
apprentice than he really may deserve." "All the tools used
in working shall be approved by the grand lodge."
Such rules as these cannot apply in any literal sense to
most of us. Why then are they printed in some jurisdictions
for every Mason? The reason is historical. In its present
form more than 99% of the wording goes back two hundred
and fifty years. This is not the occasion to rehearse the tale
of how the Premier Grand Lodge of England was instituted
on 24 June 1717; or to tell the full story of the learned but
undisciplined Presbyterian clergyman, the Reverend James
Anderson, late Grand Warden. We simply note that in
1723, Anderson, with the approval of the Grand Lodge,
published the most influential work on Masonry ever printed,
the first book of The Constitutions of the Free-Masons.
Suffice it to say that he included a section entitled "The
Charges of a Free- Mason, extracted from The ancient
Records of Lodges beyond Sea, and of those in England,
Scotland, and Ireland, for the Use of the Lodges in London:
to be read At the making of New Brethren, or when the
Master shall order it." Apart from a dozen or so tiny
changes, the modern wording is identical.
ANDERSON'S SOURCES FOR "THE CHARGES OF A
Where did Anderson find this material? The second
edition of his Constitutions, printed in 1738, has a historical
section that reveals a bit more. He reports that at the
Annual Festival on 24 June 1718, when the Grand Lodge
was one year old, the new Grand Master, George Payne,
"desired any Brethren to bring to the Grand Lodge any old
Writings and Records concerning Masons and Masonry in
order the shew the Usages of antient Times; And this Year
several old Copies of the Gothic Constitutions were
produced and collated."
Even in those early days there were reticent Masons who
did not choose to risk disclosure. In his narrative of 1720,
Anderson says, "This Year, at some private Lodges, several
very valuable Manuscripts ... concerning the Fraternity, their
Lodges, Regulations, Charges, Secrets, and Usages ... were
too hastily burnt by some scrupulous Brothers, that those
Papers might not fall into strange Hands." Presumably
these manuscripts so wantonly destroyed were copies of the
old Gothic Constitutions.
The next year, at the Quarterly Communication in
September 1721, the Grand Master, His Grace the Duke of
Montagu, and the Grand Lodge, "finding Fault with all the
Copies of the old Gothic Constitutions, order'd Brother
James Anderson, A.M., to digest the same in a new and
better Method." The end result of these labors was the first
book of Constitutions, which was duly approved by the
Grand Lodge, and printed in 1723. Even as he asserted,
James Anderson did make use of the old manuscripts which
he termed "the Old Gothic Constitutions." We can tell from
the wording of his text that by the time of his second edition,
in 1738, he had obtained access to at least six of them, and
that he quoted and paraphrased them quite extensively.
THE OLD CHARGES: NUMBER, DATE, LOCATION,
What then are these Old Gothic Constitutions that were
so highly regarded in the early days of the premier grand
lodge? Today they are usually known as the "Old Charges"
or "Old Manuscript Constitutions," and we know a fair bit
about them. Despite the destruction wrought by zealous
brethren in 1720, the texts of 113 copies of these Old
Charges have come down to us, and there are references to
fourteen more that are now lost. Nearly two-thirds of them
are earlier than the first Grand Lodge of 1717 -- perhaps as
many as 75. Fifty-five go back before 1700. Four were
written about 1600, one is dated Christmas Day 1583, one is
about 1400 or 1410, and one goes all the way back to 1390.
Most are located in England; London alone has fifty-two.
Eleven are in Scotland -- none of them earlier than 1650;
four are in the United States, in such old centres as Boston
and Philadelphia; one was last heard of in Germany; and
one has wandered to Canada -- the Scarborough
Manuscript of about 1700, which is kept in the offices of my
mother Grand Lodge.
The Old Charges present various aspects. Some
fourteen are known only from printed transcripts. A few are
written on separate sheets of paper or vellum; about
thirty-three are written on sheets that are fastened together
in book form; but the typical form, represented by more than
fifty versions, is a scroll or roll of paper or parchment,
between three and fourteen inches wide, and anything up to
fourteen and a half feet in length.
Their connection with operative lodges is guaranteed by
the contents; but their association with speculative
Freemasonry is also well attested. Nearly a quarter have
been owned for over 200 years by private lodges in England
or Scotland. Another 20 have some traceable connection
with lodge meetings or lodge officers; for example, one, as
we can tell by the handwriting, was copied by the man who
was Clerk of the lodge at Edinburgh from 1675 to 1678;
three are by the Clerk to the London Masons' Company at
about the same date; another five are by the Secretary to
Grand Lodge some fifty years later.
THE OLD CHARGES: CONTENTS
The strangest thing about these one hundred and
thirteen texts is that they all say basically the same thing. If
you think about it for a minute, you will see that the only
possible explanation is that they are all related, and go back
to a single original, now lost. Evidently it was edited and
reedited dozens of times, and copied and recopied
hundreds of times in the years between 1350 and 1717, all
over England and Scotland. The versions that survive
represent only a small fraction of the ones actually penned.
The text is relatively short, and in its most common form
runs to about 3500 words, that is, a bit more than half a
page of a standard newspaper.
Let us summarize the contents, with a few typical
examples of the wording.
They all begin with an Invocation: "The might of the
Father of Heaven, with the wisdom of the glorious Son,
through the grace and goodness of the Holy Ghost, that be
three persons in one Godhead, be with us at our beginning,
and give us grace so to govern us here in our living that we
may come to His bliss that never shall have ending. Amen."
Then comes an announcement of the purpose and
contents, followed by a brief description of the Seven Liberal
Arts or Sciences; one of them is Geometry, or Masonry,
originally synonymous terms. Then we have a proof of the
fundamental nature of Geometry.
Then there is an extended Traditional History of
Geometry, Masonry, and Architecture, taking up over half of
the text. It is based in the first instance on the Bible, the
only book that most people ever saw or heard of in the
Middle Ages. The art of building was invented, we are told,
before Noah's Flood, by Jabal; and metal-founding was
discovered by his brother Tubal-cain. They knew that God
would send destruction for sin, so they wrote their arts on
Two Great Pillars, that were found after the Flood. Then we
hear about Nimrod, and the Tower of Babel; and how
Abraham went to Egypt, and taught the Liberal Arts and
Sciences to the Egyptians; and how he had a student
Euclid (That's an incredible blunder! It brings together two
men who lived 1600 years apart); and then how King David
loved Masons well; how Solomon built the Temple, with the
help of King Hiram and his Master Builder -- whose name is
not what we would expect. One man who worked at
Solomon's Temple later went to France, and taught the art
to Charles Martel (Another howler! In real history he came
1700 years after Solomon); subsequently the Craft was
brought to England, in the time of Saint Alban (a leap
backwards of 500 years); and finally about the year 930,
Prince Edwin called a great assembly of Masons in the city
of York, and established the regulations used "from that day
until this time."
Then we have the manner of taking the oath; usually, for
some reason, given in Latin; a literal translation runs, "Then
let one of the elders hold the Book, so that he or they may
place their hands upon the Book, and then the rules ought
to be read."
Next comes the admonition: "Every man that is a
Mason take right good heed to these charges, if that you
find yourselves guilty in any of these, that you may amend
you against God. And especially ye that are to be charged,
take good heed that ye may keep these charges, for it is a
great peril for a man to foreswear himself upon a Book."
Next come the regulations or Charges proper. Some are
to administer the trade: "No Master shall take upon him no
lord's work, nor no other man's work, but that he know
himself able and cunning to perform the same...." "Also that
no Master take no work but that he take it reasonably...."
These are the ones that are still quoted almost verbatim in
"The Charges of a Free-Mason." Others do not concern
trade matters at all, but are intended to regulate behavior.
No doubt they were essential in a community of tradesmen
who were thrown together in close proximity for twenty- four
hours a day. Still, they are unexpected, and serve to mark
the masons' lodge as different from most other craft
organizations. "Every Mason keep true counsel of lodge
and of chamber...." "And also that no Fellow slander
another behind his back, to make him lose his good name or
his worldly goods." "And that no Fellow go into the town in
the night time there as is a lodge of Fellows, without a
Fellow with him, that may bear him witness that he was in
honest places." "And also that no Mason shall play at
hazard or at dice."
Finally comes the Oath: "These charges that we have
rehearsed, and all other that belong to Masonry, ye shall
keep, so help you God and Halidom, and by this Book to
your power. Amen."
THE OLD CHARGES: PURPOSE AND FUNCTION
This text, as we said, runs to some 3500 words. To write
it out by hand represents a substantial investment of time
and effort, and yet it was copied repeatedly. In the
circumstances, it is fair to ask what the Old Charges were
used for. To begin with, the rules and orders served a
practical purpose. They clearly were intended to regulate
the Craft. Twenty-five of the copies actually bear the
heading "Constitutions;" two more are hand-written on extra
sheets of paper bound in with the printed text of the
Constitutions; four were written in lodge minute books, and
one in the lodge's mark book.
We also know that occasionally they were treated like a
Warrant of Constitution. The old Scottish lodge at Stirling
had a copy of the Old Charges, written on a single sheet of
parchment; it had been mounted and framed, and the
members believed that their meetings would not be legal
unless the manuscript was exhibited in the lodge room.
Another text has the heading "The Mason Charter." In
former days the Lodge of Hope, in Bradford, regarded its
scroll as the authority for conferring the Mark Degree.
In a sense, the Old Charges also served as The Work,
because they described certain procedures that were to be
followed when any man was made a Mason, and they
included little bits of ritual, such as the Invocation and the
Obligation. It is clear that some of them were actually used
at lodge meetings. One (the one in Canada) bears an
endorsement, describing a gathering at Scarborough in
Yorkshire, in 1705. Yet another, dated 1693, includes a list
of the members of the lodge.
We see then that they provided ordinance, authority, and
ritual, three practical matters. But as well they must have
had a psychological effect. They inculcated in masons a
sense of respect and reverence for their craft. They told
how it went back to antediluvian times, how it was
connected with famous buildings in the Sacred Writings, and
how it could number among its votaries even monarchs
themselves. This was no servile trade of recent devising,
but an ancient and honorable institution.
TEXTUAL CRITICISM AND ITS ROLE
The next question is, what do you do with 113 texts, all
nearly identical? Do you copy out each of them as
accurately as you can, and then publish your transcription?
Well, you may. In fact, this is what has been done with the
Old Charges. Exactly one hundred of them have been
published. But there is another way of approaching them,
and that requires a digression.
The craft of printing from movable type reached Europe
at some time about 1450. Before that date, all literary
works, all legal documents, all political propaganda, had to
be transcribed by hand. Copies were few in number, and no
two were identical. Each one was unique, laboriously
written one at a time by an individual scribe. If you have
ever had to copy out an extensive text, you will realize that
mistakes were inevitable. So far as books by ancient
authors are concerned, someone has said that the
transmitted text "in physical terms means a monk whose
knowledge of Latin hovers between insufficient and
non-existent, copying in a bad light from a manuscript in an
unfamiliar hand, feeling miserably cold and looking forward
to his dinner." No doubt much the same could be said of
those who copied out the words of the Old Charges.
The introduction of the printing press had two wonderful
effects. It meant that a large number of identical copies
could be made. And it introduced a standard of accuracy
previously undreamt of. Before publication the editor now
could read proof and correct his type as often as he wanted.
When we come to consider literary works written since
1500, we can normally assume that almost every word of the
printed page accurately reflects the intent of the author.
For older works the case is far otherwise. We do not in
most instances have the author's own handwritten text.
What we do have are transcripts, at an unknown number of
removes. Sometimes there are a very few copies, or even
only one (for example, the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf). At
other times a great many copies exist (thus, The Bible). In
either event, if we want to recover the author's actual words,
we cannot simply transcribe the text of a single manuscript,
for, as we have seen, scribes are prone to error. We must
make use of a discipline known as "Textual Criticism." "The
business of textual criticism" in the words of one authority,
"is to produce a text as close as possible to the original."
An example or two may serve to establish the utility of
the process. In the Greek text of the Old Testament, in the
Book of Ecclesiastes, some manuscripts read, "or the
pitcher be broken at the fountain" (epi tn pgn), but
Tischendorf's great Codex Sinaiticus has "or the pitcher be
broken on the ground" (epi tn gn). When we print our
authoritative text, how do we choose between them? Or to
take another example, in Chaucer's Troilus and Cressida,
Book 1, line 949, some versions have, "The rose waxeth
swoote and smothe and softe." Others have, "The lilie
wexith white, smothe and soft." Presumably both cannot be
correct. We must choose. But on what basis?
Or again, consider Shakespeare's Richard III; towards
the end of Act 4, when William Catesby enters with news of
the fugitive traitor, the first Quarto edition of 1597 has him
My liege, the Duke of Buckingham is taken, That's
the best newes; that the Earle of Richmond Is with a
mightie power landed at Milford, Is colder tidings, yet
they must be told. An edition published in London in 1700
lets Catesby say, My liege, the Duke of Buckingham is
taken, and then has Richard interrupt him with the words,
Off with his head. So much for Buckingham. A very good
line! So good in fact that Sir Laurence Olivier kept it in his
film version of the play! But how do we decide whether it
really belongs there? A century and a half ago it was the
rule to count the manuscripts and trust the majority. But now
we know that manuscripts must be weighed, not counted,
and one good one outweighs forty bad ones. Should we
then follow the best one, correcting it here and there from
other sources when it falls into manifest error? This
procedure attracted the scorn of one of the masters of
invective, who commented as follows. "To believe that
wherever a best MS gives possible readings it gives true
readings, and that only when it gives impossible readings
does it give false readings, is to believe that an incompetent
editor is the darling of Providence, which has given its
angels charge over him lest at any time his sloth and folly
should produce their natural results and incur their
appropriate penalty. Chance and the common course of
nature will not bring it to pass that the readings of a MS are
right wherever they are possible and impossible wherever
they are wrong: that needs divine intervention; and when
one considers the history of man and the spectacle of the
universe I hope one may say without impiety that divine
intervention might have been better employed elsewhere.
How the world is managed, and why it was created, I cannot
tell; but it is no feather-bed for the repose of sluggards."
Clearly we don't dare move in that direction!
Well, then, we can guess, on the strength of our
understanding of the author's practice, or the sense
demanded by the context. If we are well-trained and
sensible, we shall be right some of the time. But there is
another way, which minimizes the guesswork. It involves
determining the family relationships of the various
manuscripts, and then inferring what must have stood in the
ancestor of all the extant versions. That is the way in which
the text of ancient authors is normally recovered. That is
"textual criticism." Though many of the manuscripts of the
Old Charges postdate the introduction of printing, they
behave much like earlier manuscripts, and they may be
approached in exactly the same way.
THE FAMILIES OF THE OLD CHARGES
The manuscripts of the Old Charges exhibit a basic
similarity, but they fall readily into "families," each of which
displays a large measure of textual uniformity. This
classification was first worked out by the great Masonic
scholar Dr Wilhelm Begemann in 1888. There are eight
Actually, apart from one copy which is in a class by itself,
the families fall into two great groups. One (which has nine
descendants) clearly stems from an original composed
before 1400; it was wordy, repetitive, and slow-moving, like
so many other works composed in the Middle Ages. At
some date in the sixteenth century it was completely
revised; a lot of the excess verbiage was pruned away, and
the whole thing was made much crisper and easier to read.
This new text, which is called the "Standard Original"
Version, does not survive, but was the ancestor of 95
What needs to be done is to recover the original text of
the "Mediaeval" version and of the "Standard Original." This
can be accom-plished with a fair measure of certainty. The
Mediaeval Version is not hard to reconstruct. The Standard
Original is somewhat more laborious, but in an Appendix to
the printed version of this paper, we present a tentative text
of it. Before we turn to consider it, we may appropriately
explain how it was reconstructed.
WORKING OUT THE RELATIONSHIPS
First we must work out some of the relationships of the
various copies. We do this by making detailed comparisons
of the readings of individual passages. We take a portion of
the text in which we are reasonably sure what the original
said, and then we note which manuscripts diverge from it.
We shall generally find that a certain group of texts will
share a whole series of these new readings, and we may
safely assume that they are all descended from a common
ancestor. Sometimes the new reading will arise from a
misunderstanding; sometimes it will be a modernization of
an old word; sometimes it will be an expansion of the text, or
an abbreviation of it. A few examples will make the process
At the very beginning of the text, the Invocation starts off,
"The might of the Father of Heaven." Apparently in one
copy the first three words were illegible or torn away, and
the transcriber filled in the gap by writing in their place, "O
Lord God the Father of Heaven." There are eight
descendants, all in the Tew Family.
When the author is talking of Egypt in the time of
Abraham, he says: "And in his days it befell that the lords
and estates of the realm had so many sons that they had
gotten, some by their wives and some by other ladies of the
realm, for that land is a hot land, and plenteous of
generation." Someone had trouble with the writing, and
converted the passage into nonsense: "for that land is a holy
land and plenished generation." Fifteen manuscripts have
this or something like it. They belong to the Sloane Family.
By proceeding in this fashion, it is possible eventually to
draw up a full table of the relationships of all the
manuscripts in the branch. Then we can use the table to
reconstruct the ancestors of each of the branches. From
them, we can recover the progenitor of the family, and then
the Standard Original.
As we work through the individual copies, we find that
each writer has his own personality, and some of them are
quite strongly marked. Most of them try conscientiously to
copy exactly what is before them. If the words they imagine
they see don't make sense, well, so be it! They still
transcribe them. Thus, in one passage, the writer of the
Embleton Manuscript read "craft" as "ghost" ("Our purpose
is to tell you how ... this worthy GHOST of Masonry was
begun"). The Phillipps Manuscript No 3 has "nurses"
instead of "nuncheons" ("Saint Alban ... gave them two
shillings sixpence a week and threepence to their
NURSES"). And three members of the Hope Branch
transcribed "stones" as "sconder" or "scounder" ("If he have
no SCONDER for him, he shall refresh him with money").
Some of these corruptions would be utterly unintelligible if
we did not have other texts to provide the correct reading.
Unfamiliar names are particularly vulnerable, and so
frequently we meet such monstrosities as "Harmonise"
instead of "Hermarines;" "Mirth" for "Nimrod;" "Nimmorah"
for "Nineveh;" "Fireland" for "Jerusalem;" "Brenithmen" for
"Frenchmen;" and "Hoderine" in place of "Edwin."
Some scribes, if they come to a passage they could not
read at all, would leave a space just the right length. Thus,
the writer of the Antiquity Manuscript could not decipher the
word "pagan," and left a blank ("In his days the King of
England ... was a [BLANK]"). Of course, if in turn a later
copy is made, then sometimes the blank is closed up, or
filled in by guesswork, and we lose all indication that
anything is awry. So two younger relatives of the Antiquity
Manuscript filled in the gap for the word "pagan" by
Occasionally we encounter somebody with a bit of
initiative, someone who is not afraid to rewrite a phrase or
two in the interest of clarity, or what he takes to be clarity.
From time to time a studious type intervenes. A few of them
made a habit of checking assertions against their Bible, and
sometimes they would substitute a scriptural quotation for
the original version. Thus, the original told how Tubal-cain
"found smith's craft, of gold, silver, copper, iron and steel."
One group of copies carries instead the statement that
Tubal-cain was the "instructor of every artificer in brass and
iron" -- words which come from Genesis 4:22.
THE RECONSTITUTED TEXT
The text that we finally recover does not hold any real
surprises. It is close in wording to many of its offspring,
though it does not coincide with any of them. It is certainly
more authoritative and readable than its earliest surviving
descendant, the Grand Lodge Manuscript No 1. In
hundreds of places the readings differ. In most, to be sure,
the difference is not substantive; but in several dozen there
is a real distinction.
The exact date of the Standard Original is uncertain, but
we can determine the limits within which it was composed.
The extreme limits are 1470 and 1560. Perhaps Poole's
pronouncement, "some such date as 1520-40," is as good
The text has a distinct flavor of Middle English. Words
that were current 450 years ago, but are now obsolete or
changed in meaning, occur regularly: "land of behest"
(meaning land of promise); "clerk" (for scholar); "made a cry"
(for made a proclamation); "cunning" (for skilful); "hight"
(for called); "journey" (for day's work); "mete" (for measure);
"nuncheons" (for light refreshments); "travel" (for exertion);
"tree" (for timber); and so on.
Perhaps at this juncture I hear someone say, "Why
bother?" Why go to the effort of reconstructing a lost
manuscript? There are many reasons that make it worth
while. Not least is the sheer intellectual satisfaction of
bringing order out of chaos. There are practical benefits as
well. If you are concerned with the contents of the Old
Charges, the material you need to consider is reduced to
Now, instead of arguing about which one of the 113
variant readings we should follow, we have a single text.
Let us take a passage with a wide range of variants. In one
portion of the traditional history we are told that St Alban
raised the wages of masons from a penny a day, and made
it right good. But what did he raise it to? Some versions
say two shillings a week, others two and six, yet others
three, or three and six, or even four or four and six. What
was the original figure? Textual criticism enables us to say
that the Standard Original and the Mediaeval Original both
had two shillings and sixpence. It is at least possible that
this figure may have some implications for dating the
original composition of the Mediaeval Version. If it
represents the actual wage that was then current, it points to
the mid-fourteenth century. The average pay for masons
was fivepence a day (or 2/6 a week) at Oxford during the
years betwen 1351 and 1360. On other grounds the date of
this early version had been set between 1350 and 1390.
Or again, consider the name of the architect of
Solomon's Temple. In modern Masonry of course he is
called Hiram Abif, a form which goes back ultimately to the
Bible. You will see it hinted from time to time that the name
of Hiram was a Masonic secret, transmitted by word of
mouth through the middle ages, while written texts carried
instead the "substitute name" Aymon; this (we are told) is a
corruption of the Hebrew word meaning "master workman."
In two texts the architect is called "Apleo," which (we are
assured) is another Hebrew "substitute name," meaning "the
secret." Speaking for myself, I do not believe any of this.
Aymon, or more probably Aynon, was certainly the form in
the Standard Original. Where other names appear instead,
they arise from one of two causes. One is a simple
misunderstanding, of the sort that we have noted elsewhere.
Aymo (in which the suprascript stroke represents a final N)
as written in a script of about 1600 could easily have been
misread as Apleo. The second is conscious correction. The
name Hiram begins to appear about 1675, and it occurs in
eighteen copies. And we can prove that in each of these
texts the new name was introduced by one of those scribes
who consulted their Bibles, and found the name Hiram there;
we can prove it because without exception he gives a
Biblical reference or allusion. Probably in at least some of
these instances he checked his Bible because the name in
front of him was illegible or unfamiliar. In short, there is no
evidence for any "secret doctrine" here.
There are occasional dividends that arise out of our
study. As you browse among the Old Charges, from time to
time you find little extra bits added in a single copy, or a set
of manuscripts. Sixteen versions have a further body of
regulations, apparently added about 1650, headed "The
Apprentice Charge," including: "And that he shall not purloin
nor steal the goods of his master or dame, nor absent
himself from their service, nor go from them about his own
pleasure by day or by night without license of one of them."
This is clearly operative. Another special group of rules,
called "The New Articles," is found in four members of the
Roberts Family. They are said to have been adopted in
1663. They include: "That no person shall be accepted a
free mason unless he be one and twenty years old or more."
This probably concerns the non-operative Craft. There
are scriptural tags that allude to the craft of building, and to
craftsmen, to the works and wisdom of God, and to the
raging of the heathen (this last in Hebrew); there are
citations of the traditional verses that commence, "In the
beginning" (both Genesis 1:1 and John 1:1). There are
texts on scorning the profane, and on the virtues of the
mathematical sciences (in both Latin and Greek). There are
notes on the size of the stones in Solomon's Temple; on the
date at which the Company of Masons was incorporated.
There are sometimes brief hints of ritual or procedure
beyond what we already know. The Dumfries Manuscript
No 4, of about 1710, has a whole series of questions and
answers, of the sort that we know were used in early lodges
("Where lies the key of your lodge? In a bone box..."). The
Carmick Manuscript of 1727 has a drawing of the lodge. It
is triangular in shape; at the corners are placed the Master,
the Warden, and the Fellowcraft; the Entered Apprentice is
set to the Master's left; in the body of the lodge are drawn a
mosaic pavement, the square and compasses, a plumb-rule,
a hammer, a trowel, a mariner's compass, and two great
pillars. Six manuscripts have an oath of secrecy, that must
go back at least to 1650. "These charges which we now
rehearse to you, and all other the charges, secrets, and
mysteries belonging to Free Masonry, you shall faithfully
and truly keep, together with the counsel of this lodge or
chamber. You shall not, for any gift, bribe or reward, favor
or affection, directly or indirectly, for any cause whatsoever
divulge or disclose the same to either father or mother,
sister or brother, wife, child, friend, relation or stranger, or
any other person whatsoever, so help you God, your
Halidom, and the contents of this Book."
RETROSPECT AND PROSPECT That perhaps is
almost enough for us to say today. In this paper I have tried
to do several things: first, to introduce you to the Old
Charges; second, to explain how we can work out the
relationships of the various copies; third, to recover a text
which is older than any surviving copies; fourth, to argue
that this is worth doing.
Incidentally, I hope that you have learned a bit more
about the men who wrote our manuscripts. We have seen
the constant tension between fidelity and utility. Some
scribes regarded the texts they were copying almost as
sacred relics; they transcribed what was before them with as
much accuracy as they could muster, even when it had gaps
in the text, or did not make sense. Others treated the Old
Charges as working documents, which had to be intelligible;
they modernized the language, filled the gaps, corrected the
errors. But most of their alterations were casual surface
changes, and had little fundamental effect on the contents.
What now remains to be done? Well, we can attempt to
improve the text of the Standard Original Version. We can
continue to study the text in detail, and see what it tells us
about the Craft in the first half of the sixteenth century -- a
period from which this sort of evidence has hitherto been
lacking. We can set out the evidence for the affinities of the
various families of the Old Charges; then it will be easy to
describe the peculiarities of each new descendant, and to
set forth its relationships. And we can proceed to trace the
paths by which this text spread across England and even
There is one other class of dividend that I neglected to
mention in its proper place, and it might be an appropriate
note on which to close. From time to time the manuscripts
include poems or songs about the Craft. As the great Carl
Claudy observed, there are not many Masonic poems that
"satisfy the critical ear as well as the loving heart." To be at
once "metrical, poetic and Masonic" is a rare gift. In some
specimens of doggerel we can derive a perverse sort of
delight from the combination of banal sentiment and bold
assonance. (Bold assonance! That's what they say now
when they mean "bad rhyme.") I think of Rob Morris's lines,
written in 1854.
We meet upon the level, and we part upon the Square;
What words of precious meaning those words Masonic are.
We could compile an anthology of such things from the Old
Charges. Let me give you an example or two. From the
Newcastle College Manuscript, of before 1750:
Come all you Masons, hear what I do say.
Here is a strict account for you this day....
If that a mason or brother some relief do crave,
Do not requite him like unto a slave.
You know that charge that we have heard all over,
That we must be kind the one unto the other.
From the Woodcock Manuscript, of before 1740:
To our Lodge we invite
Lords, Gentlemen, and Knights.
None of any low degree are admitted.
We think it no disgrace
To go to such a place,
Where kings and volunteers may be lifted.
From the Dumfries Manuscript No 2, of before 1700:
prove true in mind;
I pray you, love your fellow well.
And Brothers, then
Prove true again.
This day your Craft all crafts excelled.
But besides all the bad verses, there are a couple of nice
pieces that say something worthwhile. There is one entitled
"The Prophecy of Brother Roger Bacon," which comments
pungently on the political situation of Europe in 1713, and
reveals something of the ritual of the time. But of them all,
my favorite is a bit of verse copied at the beginning of three
texts of the Old Charges. It's hardly great poetry, but it is
technically competent, and it carries a certain intellectual
and emotional freight. It alludes to the traditional history of
the Craft, and reminds us that monarchs themselves have
been promoters of the art. It's very early, not too far from
1600, but despite the date it expresses an affection for the
fraternity that sounds strangely modern. It is an acrostic;
that is, if you take the first letter of each line in order, they
spell a word: M A S O N R I E.
M uch might be said of the noble art,
A craft that's worth esteeming in each part.
S undry nations' nobles, and their kings also --
O h, how they sought its worth to know!
N imrod, and Solomon the wisest of all men,
R eason saw to love this science then.
I 'll say no more, lest by my shallow verses I,
E ndeavoring to praise, should blemish Masonrie.