- Remapping Masonry: A Comment
Until recently, Freemasonry mystified historians. Faced with an institution that dressed its members in aprons and dubbed them Grand High Priests and Emperors of the East and West, scholars usually declined the interpretive challenge, ceding the field to enthusiastic but often credulous antiquarians and conspiracy theorists. This situation has begun to change in the past decade or so, however. For scholars of the European eighteenth century, two trends have been particularly important in facilitating this new engagement with the mysterious brotherhood: the reinterpretation of the Enlightenment as a lived experience rather than simply a set of great ideas, highlighting the social and institutional loci of Enlightenment; and the Habermasian concept of the public sphere, focusing attention on social organizations outside the scope of state power. Together, these interpretive shifts created a new perspective from which Masonry no longer appeared irrelevant. Standing between ideas and experiences and between government and society, the secret order now seems to be located at the center of some of the century’s most important developments. According to a number of new scholarly studies, Masonry spread Enlightened ideas far beyond the narrow boundaries of salons and academies, while at the same time lodges helped constitute and encourage a public space that stood outside the government and could be used to critique it. Rather than participating in a separate and probably insignificant world, Masons were actually, in the title of Margaret C. Jacob’s influential 1991 book, “living the Enlightenment.” 1
In part, the papers in this forum draw upon these arguments, extending our knowledge of European Freemasonry into the post-Revolutionary years when the Enlightenment was buffeted and transformed and its vision of a broader public sphere was subject to new pressures. But they also suggest something different, a broader perspective that sees Masonry as more than a symbol of Enlightenment and the public sphere. The fraternity also tells us about a wide range of other issues—from changing views of women and charity, to the development of economic networks, and the ways that people interpret and imagine their communities.
This new perspective also creates problems of synthesis. Expanding our vision of Freemasonry to include so many disparate elements complicates the problem of understanding the fraternity as a whole. This comment first discusses some of the issues raised by the papers and then suggests further ways to think about the fraternity, using my own work on American Freemasonry in this period as a point of comparison that can help us both examine the fraternity’s constituent parts and integrate them into a broader understanding of their significance. 2
Janet Burke’s examination of the development of French lodges of adoption in the years surrounding the Revolution both summarizes her pioneering work on their earlier history and considers what these meetings meant for the position of women. An intensive study of lodge rituals and other Masonic activities leads her to argue that, despite growing attention to domesticity and orthodox religion, women Masons both expanded their power within the lodge and increasingly emphasized the practice of charity. Mingling men and women, French “co-Masonry” operated along a particularly interesting gender frontier, one that was often heavily guarded. In most other nations, the fraternity, as the term itself implies, was exclusively male. Its prohibition on female membership dates from the fraternity’s founding in early-eighteenth-century Britain, and defense of the exclusion of women formed a continuing (if seldom [End Page 275] central) part of Masonic apologetics. Part of the problem lay in the fraternity’s central trope. To eighteenth-century members, the metaphors of brotherhood were richly resonant, providing ways of emphasizing the seeming naturalness of their new ties and describing a society of relative equals that did not require a powerful patriarchal leader—a vision that mirrored a central strand of Enlightened thinking about society as a whole. Neither the English nor the French language, furthermore, offered a gender-neutral term for “siblinghood” that did not foreground subordination or parental authority. To include women, Masons turned to the trope of “adoption,” a less powerful concept that highlighted the createdness of the organization and bore more than a hint...