Home > History > Women’s Agency and Rituals in Mixed and Female Masonic Orders

Women’s Agency and Rituals in Mixed and Female Masonic Orders

  • Title: Women’s Agency and Rituals in Mixed and Female Masonic Orders
  • Author: edited by Alexandra Heidle, Jan A.M. Snoek
  • Series: Aries book series; 8
  • ISBN 13: 978900417295 (hardback : alk. paper)
  • Publisher: Brill Academic Publishers
  • Published: 2008
  • Format: PDF

One cannot say when Freemasonry began, because there is no question of an explicit foundation. Rather, it was a long process in which a large number of diverse currents within Western Culture merged, until, from a certain moment in time, it becomes recognizable for us as a precursor of what we now call Freemasonry. We find the term ‘freemason’ from the 14th century onwards in England. It does not so much refer to workers in the building trade in general, as rather quite specifically to those sculptors who were sufficiently qualified to work the expensive material ‘freestone’, as well as to ‘Master Builders’, whom we would call architects today. It is only in 1598, however, that we first find a document which refers to people, calling themselves ‘masons’, coming together in a ‘lodge’, and knowing a system of degrees of which at least one is conferred by means of a ceremony, in which certain recognition signs and words are communicated. This document—the so called Schaw statutes—is Scottish, and the lodges named in it are situated in Scotland. At about the same time we find in England the first reference to the so called ‘acception’, a formation within the Masons’ Company of London in which only the most outstanding members of this Company, as well as some erudite outsiders, were ‘accepted’. Here too we are apparently dealing with a ritual form of incorporation, and it is this group which refers to itself as ‘Freemasons’.

In 1717, four of the then existing lodges in London united themselves and elected a Grand Master. Thus was formed what later would be referred to as the ‘Premier Grand Lodge’. The Constitutions, which this Grand Lodge published in 1723, show that this organization then worked with a system of two degrees. In 1725, the existing material of these two ceremonies was rearranged, resulting in the system of three degrees—Entered Apprentice, Fellow [of the] Craft, and Master Mason—which still forms the basic structure of Freemasonry today.

Apart from a few exceptional references to female freestone masons in the Middle Ages, and an even smaller number of incidental initiations of women in the early 18th century, Freemasonry is so far an exclusively male phenomenon. This is not only the result of the character of the work involved. In Great Britain it is also socially acceptable. After all, this is the land of the ‘gentleman’s clubs’, forming part of the reality in which both men and women grew up.

This situation, however, changes as soon as Freemasonry starts to spread abroad. In 1720, a lodge is formed by English and Scottish merchants in Rotterdam. From 1726 onwards we find lodges in Paris, and other cities soon follow: Lisbon and (probably) Mannheim in 1727, Madrid in 1728, Florence in 1732, The Hague in 1734, Stockholm in 1735, Hamburg in 1737, Dresden in 1738, Berlin in 1740, etc. For the subject of this volume, however, France is of special interest.

In France at that time an English vogue prevails. It is thus not surprising that also Freemasonry, coming from ‘England’, soon becomes popular, especially among the nobility, the well-to-do citizens, and many clergymen. But it is particularly among the nobility that the position of women is distinctly different from that in England. The noble ladies are delighted when their husbands discover a new English game, … as long as they are allowed to join in. It is thus not surprising that we find mention in France of initiations of women into masonic lodges as early as the 1740s. Only shortly before, a booklet was published containing rituals for a male lodge, which show remarkable similarities to those which will soon after be used by the adoption lodges.

Around the same time, a rather large number of mixed orders was created, which were not really masonic, but were nevertheless often to some extent inspired by the example of Freemasonry. Among the best known are the Order of the Mopses (mops = pug-dog, chosen to exemplify fidelity), which was already active in Vienna in 1738, and the several libertine Ordres de la Félicité (Orders of Felicity), found from 1743/45 in France.7 Such orders flourished in the early and middle 18th century not only in France, but also in Germany. Bärbel Raschke’s contribution on “The Relationships of Androgynous Secret Orders with Freemasonry” mainly concentrates on the example of the “Ordre des Hermites de bonne humeur” in Sachsen-Gotha (1739- 1758), about which she discovered important documents, the most significant of which is included in extenso at the end of her article, together with a full list of all its members. This order was created at the court of Sachsen-Gotha by the Duchess Louise Dorothea von Sachsen-Gotha in the French philosophical-literary tradition of the préciosité, integrating both chivalric and masonic traditions, as well as the pastoral tradition initiated by Honoré d’Urfé’s novel L’Astrée. Orders like these had both male and female, but always highly aristocratic, members, many of them being members of more than one such order at the same time. The men were often Freemasons as well.

This resulted in transfer of ideas between the different orders involved. These mixed orders will have paved the way for the subsequent creation of adoption lodges from the middle of the 18th century onwards, which, however, never became as popular in Germany as they were in France, possibly precisely because of the availability of these other orders.

Women have been structurally part of the masonic enterprise from at least the middle of the 18th century. Yet, little is known about the ways in which they themselves obtained and exercised power to influence the systems they were involved in, in order to adapt them to be more appropriate to their needs. This volume intends to concentrate on two aspects: Women’s agency (i.e. the power women gained and exercised in this context) and rituals (i.e. the role of men and women in changing and shaping the rituals women work with). These two aspects are closely related, since it requires some agency to realise changes in existing rituals.

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