The challenge in writing a short introduction to any subject is in giving a complete overview without merely skimming the surface. With a subject is as complex and multi-faceted as Freemasonry that challenge is even harder. Add Freemasonry’s traditional secrecy and love of mythmaking – as well as that of its detractors - and it becomes like trying to get a firm grip on jelly.
In this new addition to OUP’s 'Very Short Introduction' series, Andreas Önnerfors, Associate Professor of the History of Sciences and Ideas at Gothenburg University, tries to get just a grip in an attempt, as he optimistically declares in his introduction, to bring some clarity to a much-misunderstood subject. Does he succeed? Well, yes and no. He certainly shows how hopeless such a task is: paradoxically, the clearest picture that can be painted of Freemasonry is a blurred one.
Önnerfors demonstrates the sheer variety of forms of Freemasonry, which he prefers to spell with a small ‘f’ precisely to make the point that there’s no one such thing, rather numerous different freemasonries, divided on ideological, organisational and national lines, a diversity which ‘make[s] it impossible to identify freemasonry as a unified or even unifying phenomenon’. He sums up that "freemasonry was never an international organisation with a single headquarters, an overruling governing body, and a truly consistent ideology".
The book brings out not just the diversity, but also the many contradictions and paradoxes in Masonry’s history: for example, 19th-century Freemasonry being both an instrument of colonialism and a vehicle for independence movements - a defender of the status quo and a hotbed of radicalism - depending on which Freemasonry (or freemasonry) you’re talking about. Then there’s the tension between its aim of furthering egalitarianism and democracy in society and its internal secrecy and hierarchy of authority.
Indeed, Önnerfors attributes Freemasonry’s very success to its fuzziness – the ability of lodges, especially in different countries, to diverge from the original function and structure established in England in the early 18th century, while (another paradox) retaining the traditional pattern of ritual and practice. Its variant forms are all the same, but different.
That said, Önnerfors does concentrate on the ‘mainstream’ form, that directly descended from Freemasonry’s official inception in London in 1717 – essentially that affiliated to and recognised by the United Grand Lodge of England. This highlights another problem with short introductions – and even more so with very short ones – as limitations of space inevitably lead authors to concentrate on the generally accepted version of events, brushing over controversial and contentious areas. Given its diversity and the many unresolved questions that surround it, Freemasonry doesn’t lend itself to neat encapsulation.
Önnerfors accepts, without any real discussion, Freemasonry’s origins in medieval stonemasons’ guilds, which "merged with the scientific and associational culture of the early Enlightenment, creating an eclectic mixture of intellectual and religious traditions." He’s dismissive of alternative origin theories, particularly of a connection with the Knights Templar. However, he doesn’t, in my view, give due weight to the crucial question of not just how, but why a medieval craft organisation should have transformed itself into a secretive philosophical network – from ‘operative’ to ‘speculative’ forms - a process that suggests that some other factor or factors were at play.
He also gives little attention to the Jacobean form that, shortly after Freemasonry’s first appearance in England, established itself in the exiled Stuart court in France (and from which many of the more controversial claims, such as its Templar origin, emerged), clearly regarding it an inauthentic copy of the original.
Freemasonry’s relationship to the esoteric and occult is dealt with similarly. For Önnefors – whose specialism is the cultural history of the Enlightenment - Freemasonry is very much a product of that era. Although he notes the tension within the emergent Craft between Enlightenment reason and rationality - and its embracing of the new experimental approach to science - and its interest in esoteric subjects such as alchemy and Mesmerism, he seems to consider only the first as representing ‘real’ Freemasonry. Likewise, he gives little space to the explicitly occult Masonic systems that exist primarily in continental Europe, implying that they are later, fringe developments. However, he notes the ‘esoteric content’, especially from the Cabala, of the earliest known Masonic rituals, as well as possible references to Hermetic practices in the celebrated Schaw Statutes of 1598/99, which, surely, suggest that esoteric interests were present from the start.
The first three chapters look at Freemasonry’s history and cultural impact from its emergence in the 18th century. The focus is on Europe, as "the history of freemasonry in Africa and Asia is still under-researched." Presumably for the same reason, there’s only one brief mention of Prince Hall Freemasonry, the predominant form among African Americans. A chapter is then devoted to Masonic ritual and ceremony and the myths, such as that of Hiram Abiff and the building of the Temple of Solomon, on which they are based.
The one particularly enlightening chapter that does break with most histories of Freemasonry is ‘Brotherhood Challenged’, which gives more space than usual to the role of women, and disputes the usual assumption that Freemasonry began as an all-male institution into which women later attempted to break. I was fascinated to learn, for example, that women were active in the medieval stone-masons’ guilds - from which Önnerfors concludes that, when Freemasonry transformed itself into its speculative form, women were actively excluded – and that criticism of Freemasonry for not accepting women began almost immediately, with the first mixed or all-female lodges being established as early as the 1740s.
In his introduction, Önnerfors distinguishes between the two popular views of Freemasonry, ‘idealization and distrust’. The first – Freemasonry’s preferred image – sees it as an enlightened, cosmopolitan fraternity working for the betterment of society, the second - that of its opponents – as at best a vehicle for corruption, and at worst the undermining of the social order. Although he states that one of his aims is to strike a balance between these two views, his emphasis is very much on the first, more positive image, with the ‘distrust’ only being dealt with in the final chapter, which covers everything from suspicions of Freemasonry as politically subversive – and the attempts to suppress it by both the extreme left and right, for example by the Nazis - to the more extreme conspiracy theories. The section on the latter isn’t as comprehensive as it might have been, using as it does Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol and an episode of The Simpsons as representative of the popular perception of Freemasonry’s place in conspiracy culture.
Önnerfors is rather generous when it comes to the lower-level mistrust. Although he acknowledges scandals such as that of the Italian P-2 lodge, he suggests that investigations such as that of Parliament’s Home Affairs Select Committee in the late 1990s were the result of pressure based on popular suspicion rather than anything solid – an example of a decline in the standards of public debate so that ‘arguments of passion are now placed above those of rational deliberation’ (and, unnecessarily, equating such suspicions with Brexit and the election of Donald Trump). In reality, the Committee’s inquiry was the result of genuine concerns about – and examples of - the involvement of Freemasons in police and other corruption. (Önnerfors never says whether he or not he himself is a Mason, but he’s clearly well-disposed to the Craft.)
To sum up, then, while this Very Short Introduction provides a fairly decent overview of the subject, there’s a lot that’s left out or given only a cursory treatment. Readers looking for a clear and coherent picture of what Freemasonry is and what it’s about won’t find it here, but should learn that such a picture is an impossibility, given Freemasonry’s (or rather freemasonries’) confusing – and confused – nature. -- Clive Prince