It seems probable that leading members of the old masonic guilds had connections with the Knights Templar. What is not known is whether the Freemasons of today are in any real sense connected to the old guild of stone masons of the Middle Ages.
The Cathedral of Notre Dame was the work of a guild of masons under the leadership of the Cistercian Order. St Bernard of that order was said to have knowledge of the secret geometry of King Solomon’s masons. The master mason of this guild, and skilled in sacred geometry, was Hiram Abiff, who was to become a central symbolic figure in the Freemasonry movement of the early 18th century.
There were various masonic guilds or brotherhoods during the Middle Ages, and when King Philip IV of France began to persecute the Knights Templar in the early 14th century, the masonic guilds in France were also placed in danger. Like the Knights Templar, they were secretive and therefore suspect.
It was believed that the masons had knowledge of the sacred geometry of the ancients, and it was only one step from this to see them as possibly having maps that indicated the sites of ancient documents and treasures.
They had three degrees of membership, the highest being that of Master mason. The Master masons were the ones most likely to be privy to any secrets. It was those of the ‘third degree’ among the secret societies who were subjected to interrogation. This is the derivation of our modern term, subjecting someone to ‘the third degree’, meaning a ruthless interrogation to force the person to divulge information.
When an apprentice joined one of the old guilds, he had to swear not to reveal the secrets of the craft, and the masons might at that stage have introduced some form of secret communication by which they could recognise one another.
During the Middle Ages, masons worked on the building sites of the great cathedrals and other Gothic structures. The work required a high degree of skill, and a secret code, recognisable only to other masons, would have ensured that no one who was not properly qualified would be employed on such projects.
Masonic groups formed groups in towns, but lodges also provided meeting-places for masons who were working away from home. These lodges kept masons in constant touch with one another and with the society.
It was quite usual for noble European families of the day to invent mythical genealogical records for themselves so that they could claim bloodlines going back to some illustrious figure of the distant past. Some of the guilds did the same and claimed fascinating but highly unlikely origins for themselves.
The first English Freemason lodges were formed around the beginning of the 18th century. Although they adopted many of the rituals and symbols of the old masonic guilds of the Middle Ages and added more of their own devising, they were quite different organisations.
Within a decade or so, Freemasonry had spread to France and then to Germany and elsewhere in Europe. Freemasons were not required to have practised the trade of masonry, but tended to be drawn from a wide range of occupations and included many of illustrious reputation.
From what has been written in the last decades about Freemasonry today, it seems that modern Freemasons know little or nothing about the need to protect ancient great secrets, although this might well be part of the ritualistic role of the higher echelons. Even then, however, sacerdotalism is no longer claimed.
Decisions about the advancement of ordinary members are taken by this rather shadowy higher echelon, and one assumes therefore, that some kind of ‘enlightenment’ takes place, but the role of Freemasonry today is largely one of service and mutual support. It seems, however, that rituals and symbols remain very much part of their ceremonies.
Freemasonry accepts members of all religion, or no religion at all. Some lodges now include women.
When a society operates in terms of secrecy and has initiation rites and esoteric levels of membership, it is inevitable that conspiracy theories will arise regarding its activities, including accusations of subversive finagling. There is little doubt that Freemasons do indeed look after one another’s interests where possible, but the impressive number of famous and justifiably renowned Freemasons over the past couple of centuries suggests that most of the accusations are somewhat flimsy.
The very fact that the society has endured through the centuries and has counted some of history’s most illustrious figures among its members suggests that it has a powerful pull on the imagination of those who belong to it and that they find their connection with it fulfilling. There are thousands of Freemason lodges throughout the world.