Crossing the Language Barrier to Make that Daily Progress in Freemasonry

Crossing the Language Barrier to Make that Daily Progress in Freemasonry

When I was a very new Freemason, I unintentionally allowed the language barrier to create errors in two of my early papers.

In one paper, I referred to the “broached thurnel” as “Freemasonry’s lost immovable jewel.” In the other paper, I referred to the “fulminate,” used to create a bright flash during a crucial point in an initiation, as “an old Freemasonic tradition,” strongly implying – because I believed it was – that it was no longer used in Freemasonry anywhere.

I was wrong on both counts. I’ve seen the broached thurnel is almost every French Lodge I’ve visited. While I’ve never seen a fulminate used in a French Lodge, I did see one in a store room there and was assured that some Lodges in Paris do still include it in their work.

It really doesn’t matter that other largely-English language scholars have made the same mistake about both of these items, that I could cite their works and still turn out quite a thorough paper. That I was wrong because I didn’t know I was wrong doesn’t explain it away.

Ignorance not only is no excuse; it’s dangerous. Freemasons are the shock troops in the war against ignorance. It is not a good thing for a Freemason to spread ignorance rather than fight it.

Neither paper ever was published. I doubt they ever will be, and with these errors born of ignorance, that’s a good thing.

I’m not aware of any Masonic tradition that does not direct Freemasons to make a daily progress in Masonry, which generally is reckoned as spending part of each day learning something about the Craft that the Freemason didn’t know before. In addition to the seven liberal arts, early 20th Century Masonic scholar Roscoe Pound, in the April 1915 edition of The Builder, identified five areas appropriate for Masonic Study: Ritual, History, Philosophy, Symbolism, and Jurisprudence.

Certainly, for Freemasons in Anglo-centric countries, it’s no real problem to find Masonic works in English. However, making that daily progress only in one’s mother tongue, cuts a Freemason off from progress to be gained in other parts of the world, and necessarily, renders their efforts in isolation to become isolated, provincial even. That leaves the Freemason open to the sorts of errors that I made and, worse, stunts that progress.

I believe it is incumbent upon Freemasons to open their daily progress enough to include works from other languages.

My observation is that English-only Masonic readers seem to be OK with pictures sourced from other language cultures. Images based on engravings by Louis Travenol, better known as “Léonard Gabanon,” of French Blue Lodge Masonry long have been popular illustrations in English-language Masonic books and papers, particularly in general works about the first three degrees. Daniel Beresniak’s very popular Masonic picture book “Symbols of Freemasonry” was first published in 2000 but clearly uses delightful images sourced from French Freemasonry.

Images, it seems, don’t become trapped behind the language barriers but words do.

And yet, there’s plenty in French Masonic scholarship in particular to motivate an otherwise English-only reader to blow the dust off a French-to-English dictionary or keep a browser window open to Google Translator. When I realized my errors in those two papers were caused by my ignorance of French Masonry, it didn’t take me long to find the works of Swiss occultist Joseph Paul Oswald Wirth, who wrote extensively about the Blue Lodge. More recently, I’ve been studying Philippe Langlet’s 2009 “Les sources chrétiennes de la légende d’Hiram” (comes with a very cool CD) and Joseph Castelli’s 2006 “Le Nouveau Regulateur du Macon – Rite Français 1801.”

One of my personal favorite works in French Masonic scholarship is Maurice Bouchard and Philippe Michel’s “Le Rit Français d’origine 1785,” published this past July. That was a follow up to Michel’s “Genèse du Rite Écossais Ancien et Accepté,” the most recent edition of which was published in February and also resides on one of my shelves.

Michel’s most recent work details what also is known as the “Primordial of France” (Rit Primordial de France) or even “canonical” (canonique) French Rite so widely worked in France today. It isn’t often a Masonic reader can read which paragraphs of a rite are connected to what passage or receive an explanation of how any rite was reconstituted, complete with columns, tables, symbols. And if the English reader allows the French language of the work to be a barrier, then the reader won’t get any of that at all.

I’m not suggesting that no efforts have been made at cross-cultural/language research in Freemasonry, because there has been a limited – though notable – amount of that. Lilith Mahmud’s “The Brotherhood of Freemason Sisters,” about gender history in Italian Freemasonry, was published by University of Chicago Press in 2014.

A very good sequel to Margaret Jacob’s 1991 “Living the Enlightenment: Freemasonry and Politics in Eighteenth-Century Europe” and the UCLA History Department Professor’s 2006 “The Radical Enlightenment – Pantheists, Freemasons and Republicans” is her 2011 “Les Premières franc-maçonnes au siècle des Lumières.” That book, co-authored in French with Arizona State University’s Janet Burke, was published in French by the Presses Universitaires de Bordeaux, prefaced by noted French Masonic scholars Cécile Révauger, Jean-Pierre Bacot, and Laure Caille.

Masonic works in languages other than English certainly are readily available, especially online. Detrad offers the very best in French language Masonic work, I’ve had delightfully opportunities to drool over books in their brick-and-mortar location next door to the Grand Orient de France in Rue Cadet, Paris. An entire paper was written in 2008 about Spanish-language Masonic books printed in the U.S. The Spanish language Masonic research journal “Revista de Estudios Históricos de la Masonería” actively produces Masonic works in that language.

The tools are there to do this work, the individual Freemason just needs to do it.

Yes, overcoming the language barrier as part of one’s daily progress in Freemasonry is work, and it’s far from easy. However, no one who is work shy should become a Freemasonry – no more than anyone who becomes a Freemason should become lazy. The results are worth it but actually doing that work is its own reward. The work is, after all, the thing.

 

 

 

2017 World Conference on Fraternalism, Freemasonry, and History (WCFFH)

2017 World Conference on Fraternalism, Freemasonry, and History (WCFFH)

More international Masonic conferences should start with a round table of the world’s best and brightest scholars of the craft talking. Just talking. Shop, mostly.

Which is how the World Conference on Fraternalism, Freemasonry, and History at the Bibliotheque Nationale de France kicked off in May, with what was billed as a “pre-conference workshop.” Several dozen scholars of the Craft met around a huge table in a meeting room in the Grand Orient de France headquarters in Rue Cadet in Paris with GOdF Library, Archives and Museum Director Pierre Mollier heading it all up.

It was an afternoon of something that doesn’t happen very much: scholars of Freemasonry talking across borders. In fact, this could well have been the first time it has happened with so many scholars representing so many parts of the world. More usually, scholars of the Craft concentrate on studies within their own language, often only within their own countries and their resulting work is narrow, as if other studies in other languages and countries don’t exist at all.

“We talk about Freemasonry,” said María Eugenia Vázquez Semadeni, who later in the conference participated in panels and chaired one. “We should be talking about Freemasonries.”

That nod toward the independent and yet concurrent evolution of Freemasonry on different continents and in different countries was in the background as the conference considered it’s topic, which was the influence of Andrew Michael Ramsay, commonly referred to as the “Chevalier Ramsay.” If you’re a Freemason and you don’t know who he is, chances are good you don’t live in France.

“He had a profound influence,” Paul Rich, who along with Mollier was one of he WCFFH conference chairs and is president of the Policy Studies Organization Westphalia Press, said during the round table discussion.

However, the influence Ramsey had was more deeply felt in France, where Ramsey’s work helped create a Freemasonry more romantic and less dogmatic than that which developed in English-speaking parts of the world, Rich conceded. “He has long been unreported upon in America,” Rich said.

However, few in those Freemasonries are schooled well enough about scholarship being done in other parts of the world to even notice that divergence. Which means English-speaking Masonic scholars especially are missing quite a lot, folks at the roundtable seemed to agree. “The finest research being done today is being done in France,” said UCLA’s Margaret Jacob, another Masonic scholar of great note who participated in the conference.

So far as that went, the message that came out of the round table discussion could have been a repeat of the call issued the previous weekend in Toulon from the International Meeting of Masonic Research Lodges, the ICOM: Let there be greater international cooperation in Freemasonic scholarship.

However, the round table discussion just couldn’t end with that conclusion. Instead, the conversation went off in an odd direction. Perhaps it was out of respect for our hosts or perhaps it was because, well, Paris. It was less about international cooperation between Masonic scholars and more about how French Masonic scholarship can save the Masonic scholarly world.

It was one of a number of examples that illustrates how disjointed parts of the rest of the conference became. While the better-organized ICOM was able take the message of dozens of scholars from across the world and develop one single call to action, the WCFFH really didn’t. Of course, there’s no reason why it had to.

Paul Rich and Susan Sommers

Paul Rich and Susan Sommers Photo Credit: Olimpia Sandoval

Some of the heavier hitters had not yet arrived the on the day of the round table. Susan Mitchell Sommers arrived the following day and delivered one of the highlights of the WCFFH, a version of the paper she developed with Andrew Prescott, “Searching for the Apple Tree: What Happened in 1716?” In that paper, Sommers and Prescott present their evidence that questions the traditional 1717 origin date for modern Freemasonry, making a good case that the real date probably was closer to 1721.

Another important panel during the conference examined the current state of women in Freemasonry in Europe and the United States, chaired by Drake University’s Natalie Bayer. This panel simply would not have happened, even in France, ten years ago.

While touching on topics such as comparing women and Freemasonry in 18th Century France, England, and Germany, the panel really lit up Cécile Révauger of Université Bordeaux Montaigne gave a very good break down of how the Grand Orient de France decided to allow its lodges to determine whether to accept women, now more than eight years ago.

That was quite a change for an Orient that once explicitly barred women from membership and may indicate how other male-only Masonic supreme bodies could relax its belligerence against other bodies that do accept women, Révauger said.

“It seems that more and more grand lodges are less willing to hold dogmatic views,” she said. “And more and more of them are willing to allow for inclusion and tolerance.”

I think that piece of hope is as good as any to take away from the WCFFH. If no unified call for action came out of the conference, it certainly was a good opportunity for many of the greatest Masonic scholars in the world to come together and pause long enough to review the history of the Freemasonry as they currently are researching it. “And 2017 is an appropriate time to review how that history has been received,” Jacob said near the conclusion of the round table discussion.

Another opportunity for such a pause is scheduled for May 17-18 in 2018 when a sort of mini-WCFFH is planned at the Historic Whittemore House in Washington D.C. The topic of that conference will be “Not Men Only: Sisters, Sororities, and Ritualistic Societies.” I will blog more about then when I know more about that.