Medieval Masons

Richard H. Ryder, 2017

As Masons, we know the story and lessons of Solomon’s temple.  The historical lineage of modern Masonry dates to medieval days when the castles and cathedrals were built by operative masons, edifices that took scores of years to complete.  When the need for these structures diminished the seeds of speculative Masonry were sown. It is speculative Masonry that we practice today.  Speculative Masons use the working tools of operative masons to impart important lessons that improve us in all our roles.  But, what was it like to be an operative mason during Medieval times? This article will introduce you to life as a mason during this period.

A bell at sunrise and again at sunset demarcated the working day of operative masons during medieval times.   An hour break at lunch and a short period in the afternoon for a refreshing drink were the only opportunities during the day for workers to rest and refresh themselves.  Sundays and holy days brought the only full days of relief from the toils of construction.

During the heat of summer workers enjoyed two, one half hour breaks in addition to the period for lunch. During the winter months, due to ice and frost, work was slowed or even stopped; many men were sent to the quarry or returned to the land, and columns were covered with straw and dung for protection. As expected, pay was greater in the warmer months.

The number of cathedrals and castles built are very impressive, especially given the manually intensive labor required to erect a structure of stone.  With none of the building equipment we have today, it was the brute strength of men and animals, coupled with rudimentary lifting apparatus, that allowed these immense structures to be constructed. According to Michael Johnson, in his book The Freemasons – The Illustrated Book of an Ancient Brotherhood, “In France alone in the Middle Ages, from 1050 to 1350, more stone was required for eighty cathedrals than was used in Egypt during the millennia when the pyramids were built. By the end of the Middle Ages it has been estimated there was a church for every two hundred inhabitants.”

The life expectancy of a male during the Middle Ages was less than forty years, which meant that men who worked during the initial construction of a structure may not live long enough to witness its completion.  In fact, some buildings took over a century to complete, meaning that several generations would pass before the toils of the original workers would result in a completed structure.

There was no Social Security, welfare program, or unemployment services in those days; these men were on their own.  It is no wonder that guilds or professional brotherhoods began to support the workers and their families.  A hierarchy of leadership was created and rules of admission were formed. Michael Johnson explains that “After serving as an apprentice for the required period, the young mason could be admitted to the lodge as a companion to finish his training. Or he could leave the lodge to travel and look for work at another construction site and seek admission in another lodge, to work for another Master.”

As speculative Masons, it is important that we appreciate the history of our Fraternity, if for nothing else than to put our experiences into perspective with those who came before us.  Many men joining our ranks today express interest in the history of Freemasonry, the understanding of which helps us to better appreciate our Masonic lineage.

In future, occasional articles The Mavens Journal will expand upon the life of an operative Mason during the middle ages. Stay tuned.

Source: The Freemasons – The Illustrated Book of an Ancient Brotherhood, Michael Johnson, 2012

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