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.
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.