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the jewels of the lodge


part II - Symbolism and the Teachings of Freemasonry

W. M. Don Falconer PM, PDGDC

The jewels are important instruments, stones and equipment that are used to convey lessons in morality.

The jewels defined

At first sight it might seem incongruous to speak of “the jewels of the lodge”, because in its most common usage jewels are articles of value used for personal adornment, especially when made of gold or silver and precious stones, which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as having been the prevailing usage of the word since 1590. Nevertheless the Oxford Dictionary provides another definition to supplement the prevailing usage, noting that since 1672 an ornament worn as the badge of an order, or as a mark of distinction or honour, also has been called a jewel. In conclusion, the Oxford Dictionary records that in the Middle English, spoken from about 1100 to 1500, jewel was used in a figurative sense to describe a precious thing or person as a “treasure” or a “gem”. This is the sense intended when referring to “the jewels of the lodge”. The derivation of the word is interesting, because it originated with the Latin iocus signifying a plaything or a trinket, then came through the Old French juel into the Middle English juel, which is jewel in modern English. In speculative craft lodges operating under most jurisdictions three movable and three immovable jewels are defined, which the brethren are exhorted to moralise upon. Those six jewels are the square, the level, the plumb rule, the rough ashlar, the perfect ashlar and the tracing board.

The Rev Dr George Oliver (1782-1867) was one of the most eminent writers on freemasonry in the nineteenth century. In his lectures entitled Signs and Symbols published in 1837, he said these important instruments, stones and equipment are called jewels because “they have a moral tendency which renders them jewels of inestimable value”. It is interesting to note that the square, the level and the plumb rule are called movable jewels in English and Scottish lodges, because they are transferred to the incoming master and his wardens each year, whereas in American lodges they are called immovable, because the square is assigned to the east of the lodge, the level to the west and the plumb rule to the south. In English and Scottish lodges the ashlars and tracing board are described as immovable jewels that “lie open in the lodge for the brethren to moralise on”. The two ashlars and the tracing board probably are called immovable because during the early speculative period they tended to be located in particular parts of the lodge. In particular, the tracing board was hand drawn on the floor before the commencement of each meeting. However, in American lodges the same jewels are called movable, because it is said that they may be placed in any convenient position in the lodge, which varies from lodge to lodge. In contrast, many if not most Irish lodges do not have a tracing board.

Having regard to the allegorical importance assigned to the jewels of the lodge, it is surprising that the authors of the early speculative rituals did not indicate what they considered to be the most appropriate positions for the immovable jewels to be placed in the lodge. Nor has the United Grand Lodge of England ever issued a ruling on the subject. As a consequence, it is difficult for an enquiring mason to find definitive answers relating to the placements of the tracing board and the ashlars. In practice they may be seen in various locations, which often are only a matter of convenience, but might be traditional in relation to the particular ritual being worked or the custom in the individual lodge, district or jurisdiction. Again in his lectures the Rev Dr George Oliver says in regard to the importance and symbolism of the immovable jewels:

“I will now call your attention to a Board with a few lines, angles and perpendiculars designed upon its surface. This is the Tracing Board; and though it may appear rough and of little use, is yet an immovable jewel and contains a lesson of inestimable value. This board is for the Master to draw his plans on, for the direction of his workmen; but its mystic reference is to the great charter of our religious privileges . . . You have now before you an unhewn block of marble, rough as when taken from the quarry. This is another immovable jewel, which points to the infant mind, rough and uncultivated as this stone; and as the marble can alone can be brought into a definite and useful form by the skill and judicious management of the expert workman, so the mind can only be trained to the practice of virtue by the sedulous and insidious instruction, . . . These reflections lead us to contemplate this stone in another and more perfect form. It has been under the chisel of the expert workman and now assumes the shape of a true die square, polished according to art, which can only be tried by the nice application of the square and compass. The mind of man, after its previous cultivation and progress through the chequered scenes of good and evil with which life abounds is here represented.”

Operative precedents

The jewels in modern lodges of speculative craft freemasonry have come down to us from the usages and customs of operative freemasons in earlier times. In operative lodges a particular stone was used as an emblem in each of the working degrees. The candidate was told, at an appropriate stage in the ceremony, that he represented that stone being wrought from its rough hewn condition, as brought from the quarries, to a state of perfection suitable for erection as a “living stone” in that most glorious of all Temples, “that house not made with hands eternal in the heavens”. Each operative degree after the first also had a representative jewel, which was a miniature representation of one of the gauges used to test the stone that symbolised the work of the degree. In operative lodges the ceremonies reflected the various stages in the preparation, testing and erection of stones in the temple of King Solomon at Jerusalem, emphasising their purpose and their importance in the structure. The symbolic teachings also were based on the work carried out to prepare, test and set up the stones in the structure.

The several types of stones and the working tools and gauges used in their preparation, testing and erection, therefore were of particular significance to the operative freemason. During his progress through the several degrees, the candidate in a lodge of operative freemasons was tested on the work he had prepared in the preceding degree, before being instructed in the work and the use of the gauges in the next degree. When a Fellow of the Craft had proved his ability to produce perfect ashlar stones, he was entrusted with a word and also with a sign representing the square, the level and the plumb rule as proof of his ability, but not as jewels of the degree. The operative degrees beyond that of a Fellow of the Craft involved special skills, increasing levels of supervision and additional responsibilities. The several relevant aspects of these duties were used symbolically to illustrate moral principles, especially those relating to the proper modes of conduct that should be followed in public and private life.

A Fellow of the Craft in operative freemasonry was a master mason in respect of his capabilities, but the title of Master Mason was usually reserved for the mason who had overall responsibility for a job. The Master Mason frequently was the chief officer of a lodge carrying out work under day labour in England, or the proprietor of a lodge carrying out work under contract in Scotland. Some of these operative aspects are reflected in the degrees of other branches of freemasonry, for which membership of a speculative craft lodge is a prerequisite. However, the direct relationship between the purpose for which a particular stone is used and its symbolic meaning no longer has a significant role in the work of speculative craft freemasonry. Nor does each of the speculative craft degrees have a jewel like that of the equivalent operative degree.

The jewels of office worn by the master and wardens in modern lodges of speculative craft freemasonry are derived from the insignia of office worn by their counterparts in the old operative lodges, except that the squares are different. In operative lodges the master’s insignia was a gallows square with arms three units and four units long, whereas in speculative lodges nowadays the master’s jewel is a try square with arms of equal length. It might seem to be an anomaly that the implements called movable jewels in speculative lodges, which are the square, the level and the plumb rule, are the working tools of a speculative Fellowcraft Freemason. However, in this context it should be remembered that in operative lodges a Fellow of the Craft was a fully qualified tradesman and a master of his craft, who was required to be proficient in the use of those tools. It also is important not to overlook the fact that possibly from as early as 1745, but certainly from no later than 1760, the square has been included as one of the three great lights in freemasonry, which must always be open on the pedestal whilst a lodge is at labour in speculative craft freemasonry. In a speculative lodge those three great lights are drawn to the candidate’s attention immediately after he has been obligated as an Entered Apprentice. The other two great lights are the Volume of the Sacred Law and a pair of compasses. When the lodge is at labour, the compasses with its legs extended are placed over the square on the open book. The square and compasses thus combined undoubtedly would be one of the best-known emblems of freemasonry.

In lodges of operative freemasons the rough ashlar typified an Apprentice and the perfect ashlar typified a Fellow of the Craft. On his entrance, a candidate for admission to the craft was placed in the northeast corner of the lodge. Later, Apprentices seeking advancement also stood in the northeast corner, but suitably qualified Fellow of the Craft seeking promotion stood in the southeast corner. This is why Apprentices and Fellowcrafts in speculative freemasonry are seated in the northeast and southeast corners of the lodge respectively. It also is why the rough and perfect ashlars are often placed in the northeast and southeast corners of speculative lodges, although sometimes they are placed in front of or adjacent to the Junior and Senior Wardens respectively. In some constitutions the jewels of the deacons also are derived from operative practice, for example the maul of the Senior Deacon and the trowel of the Junior Deacon in Scottish lodges.

Early speculative jewels

One of the earliest known references to the jewels of a freemason’s lodge is to be found in records connected with operative freemasonry in Scotland. In the Edinburgh Register House MS dated 1696, which has been endorsed with the title “Some Questions Anent the Mason Word”, there is a catechism which sets out fifteen questions that must be put to a mason who claims to have the Word, as well as the answers he was required to give before he could be acknowledged as a mason. To the question: “Are there jewells in your lodge?” the reply was: “Yes three, perpend esler, a square pavement and a broad ovall.” Every freemason should be familiar with the square pavement, but not all freemasons may know the other two jewels.

The perpend esler or ashlar is an important stone used in the construction of masonry walls, but it is not the perfect ashlar stone required to be produced by a Fellow of the Craft as a test piece in operative lodges. Nevertheless the early speculative freemasons called it a perfect ashlar, possibly mistaking perpend for perfect. In speculative lodges the perpend ashlar was later replaced with the finely polished cubical stone used in modern lodges. The square pavement, to which a great deal of symbolism attaches, is no longer called a jewel and is usually included in the furniture of the lodge. The broad ovall is one of a multitude of names by which the broached thurnel appears to have been known, which will be discussed later. The perpend ashlar is commonly called a header and is usually three units long and one unit square in cross-section. It passes through the wall from the inside face to the outside face, tying the leaves of the wall together for added strength. The end faces of a perpend ashlar are dressed to conform with the surface finishes of the exposed faces of the walls, but all other faces are broached or scabbled to provide a good bond with the courses of stone through which it passes. The running stone used in wall construction is similar to the perpend ashlar, but it is broached for bonding on all faces except those that are to be exposed, which are dressed accordingly.

At the end of his training in the stone yard and before he could be released from his bond, an Indentured Apprentice in operative freemasonry was required to produce a satisfactory test piece in the form of a rough dressed ashlar, usually three units long and one unit square in cross-section, suitable for finishing as a perpend ashlar or a running stone. Before an Indentured Apprentice could be passed as a Fellow of the Craft, he was required to prepare a perfect ashlar as a test piece, similar in shape to a rough dressed ashlar, but fully dressed and properly polished on all faces. In operative freemasonry in Scotland, when an Indentured Apprentice had satisfactorily completed his term as an apprentice and had been released from his bond, his name would be entered in the books and he could take charge of a small gang of Indentured Apprentices, from which the title Entered Apprentice in speculative freemasonry was derived. In operative lodges a Fellow of the Craft with sufficient experience preparing finished ashlar stones, who had demonstrated his ability to control a small gang of masons, could then become a Fitter and Marker. He would be engaged in the fitting and marking of stones in the stone yard, ready for erection on site. Later still, a Fitter and Marker who had demonstrated sufficient skill in handling stones in the stone yard might become a Setter Erector, who would be engaged in assembling the stones in the structure. Freemasons with proven skills in these classes of work could advance progressively to become foremen, intendents and superintendents.

Later speculative jewels

In the early 1700s, when an apprentice was being tested on the catechisms in a speculative craft lodge he would be asked: “What are the immovable jewels?” to which the answer was: “The trasel board, rough ashlar and broached thurnel”. The word trasel, sometimes corrupted to tarsel, comes from the Old French through the Middle French trestel, which signified a bar or beam supported by legs, whence is derived the English trestle. The trasel board was the trestle table on which sketches were drawn, or over which the plans were spread. The trasel must not be confused with the indented tassel, which in the old catechisms is often called the indented tarsel, in which tarsel comes through Middle English from the Old French tassel. Among other things, tarsel or tassel signifies an ornamental piece of fabric, which in modern English is the tassel or ornamental tuft of threads usually on the end of a cord. It is interesting to note that a torsel, which is a plate supporting the end of a beam in a brick wall, is also called a tassel, but that comes from the French tasseau signifying a bracket. Although most of the practical aspects of these jewels have been omitted from the speculative explanations, the philosophical aspects of the instructions that were given in operative days have been incorporated and expanded upon.

It is generally accepted that the rough ashlar refers to a rough hewn stone as brought from the quarries, which in olden times usually was cut one eighth to one sixteenth of an inch larger than the required finished measure. However, the meaning of the broached thurnel in the catechism is uncertain. It seems most likely to have been derived from the usages and customs of the operative masons in Scotland. In Scotland, broach meant to rough-hew, to groove or to scarify and a broaching thurmal, broaching thurmer or broaching turner was the chisel that operative masons used to carry out broaching work. A common form of the broaching thurmal is a narrow serrated chisel similar in many respects to the scutch, which is a cutting and dressing tool used by a bricklayer. The name probably derives from escousser, an Old French word meaning to shake off. It is evident that the three immovable jewels referred to in the old catechisms of an apprentice logically symbolised three aspects of his employment. The first aspect comprised the instructions he received for the work he was to carry out, which were represented by the trasel board. The second aspect related to the tools that he would use to execute the work, represented by the broached thurnel. The third aspect was his finished product, represented by the rough ashlar. Another possible derivation of thurnel is as a variation of the French tournelle, meaning a turret, referring to the shape of the chisel, tournelle in various forms having been a commonly used word in England from about 1400 until at least the 1750s.

Yet another derivation of thurnel has also been suggested and seems to be very appropriate, because it was a word that was in general use in England from the early 1400s until at least the late 1700s. That word was the German thurm, which means a tower Moreover, as the French tournelle and the German thurm almost certainly have a common ancestry, deriving from the Old French and the Medieval French tur meaning a tower, it seems likely that the Scottish thurmal or thurmer evolved from the same source. In any event, the cutting face of one form of the chisel generally used as a broaching thurmal is somewhat similar in appearance to a small castellated turret when viewed from above. Very early French tracing boards and some contemporary English tracing boards depicted a cubical stone surmounted by a pyramid, not unlike the squat stone churches with stocky spires often seen in Europe. This also was called a broached thurnel in early English speculative lodges and is still depicted on French tracing boards, although long ago it disappeared from English tracing boards. French freemasons have always referred to this stone as “la pierre cubique a pointe”, which literally means a pointed square stone. The original French ritual, still in use, explains that it is a model of a spire or turret, whose various outlines provide a means of teaching the apprentice how to develop the forms of the square, the triangle, the cube and the pyramid. Whatever may have been the derivation and intended symbolism of the broached thurnel in early English speculative lodges and the broaching thurmal in old Scottish lodges, it had disappeared from use by 1720.

As the rough ashlar had always been a feature in lodges of operative freemasons, its use in lodges of speculative craft freemasons followed as a natural consequence. However, the sequence of events that brought about the replacement of the perpend ashlar by the cubical perfect ashlar as a jewel in modern speculative lodges was progressive in nature, varying from location to location and even from lodge to lodge, with no clear boundaries between one usage and another. The available records scarce, whilst those that are available seldom record the dates when one custom lapsed or another was introduced. Nor has any clear reason emerged to explain why the perpend ashlar was replaced by the cubical perfect ashlar. All that can be said with certainty is that the cubical perfect ashlar seems to have been in general use in English speculative craft lodges by about 1800. As the perpend ashlar is an emblem of perfection and strength, coupled with the bonds of brotherly love, it is a more expressive symbol than the cubical perfect ashlar. It therefore provided a more complete illustration of the improvement that an apprentice is required to make from his rough and unpolished state, if he is to achieve that state of discipline and education that is essential for his advancement and which is the hallmark of the experienced craftsman. Because the bonding of men in a strong friendship is one of the important objectives of speculative craft freemasonry, the omission of the perpend ashlar from the jewels of modern speculative lodges seems strange and a significant loss of symbolism is the result. Taking into account the approximate time when the perpend ashlar disappeared as a symbol, it seems likely to have been one of the consequences of the disagreements between the Antients and the Moderns prior to the formation of the United Grand Lodge of England.

Speculative tracing boards

Tracing boards were an important piece of equipment in all operative lodges. The inventory of stores recorded in the Fabric Rolls of the York Minster in 1399 includes “ij tracying bordes”. In lodges of operative freemasons the locations of the tracing boards was entirely a matter of convenience to suit the work, but at least one would have been kept in the office of the Super Intendent of Work in the stone yard and another at the building site. During the construction of large buildings, such as cathedrals, there usually were drafting offices as well as the site offices. The practical tuition given in conjunction with the ceremonial work of an operative lodge, which customarily commenced at noon on the sixth day of the week, was carried out with the aid of a plan sketched on the floor or a drawing laid on a trestle board. The sketched plans and the trestle board were usually placed in the centre of the lodge room, so that those under instruction could gather round them.

In operative lodges the tracing board was used to give practical instruction to the candidates in the development of the required shapes of stones, as well as to prepare the required templates to mark out the stones appropriate for the work of the degree. It was also used to illustrate the setting out of the work and to show how the stones should be assembled in the structure. In the early speculative lodges it was customary to draw a plan on the floor of the lodge room using chalk, charcoal and any other suitable medium, much as would have been done in an operative lodge. Like the drawings of the operative freemasons, they were placed in any convenient location where the members could gather around. This practice continued until painted or printed pictures of the “floor drawings” or “floorcloths” first became available in about 1744 in France and in about 1760 in England. The location of modern tracing boards at the western end of the squared pavement, or in any other position offering a clear view, is acceptable and is in keeping with ancient practice.

The oldest known set of speculative tracing boards in Great Britain belongs to Lodge Faithful, which was founded at Norwich in 1753 and now meets at Harleston in Norfolk. These tracing boards are dated 1800 and depict the modern form of rough ashlar and perfect ashlar appearing on the tracing board of the First Degree. The modern ashlars are also depicted on a set of tracing boards that was painted by William Dight in 1808 for the Lodge of Unanimity and Sincerity, which meets at Taunton. A set of tracing boards painted for the Chichester Lodge in 1811 by Josiah Bowring, a portrait painter of London, also depicts the modern ashlars. These boards appear to be the prototypes of the famous set of boards that John Harris painted in 1821, from which most modern tracing boards have been derived. The rough ashlar depicted on the tracing boards is usually placed at the foot of the Corinthian column representing the Junior Warden, who traditionally is in charge of the apprentices at labour. For a similar reason the perfect ashlar is usually placed at the foot of the Doric column representing the Senior Warden, who traditionally is in charge of the craftsmen at labour.

During the evolution of modern speculative freemasonry there seems to have been a tendency to rearrange the symbolism and related rituals of operative freemasonry, in what might best be described as a perceived orderliness and regularity. This might have been the underlying objective in replacing a perpend ashlar with a cubic perfect ashlar, which possibly was influenced by a work entitled The First and Chief Groundes of Archytecture, which was published by Ihon Shute, Paynter and Archytecte in 1563 and reprinted in 1912. The early speculative freemasons included many erudite scholars who wrote our rituals in the best literary English of their day. Among them, no doubt, there would have been some familiar with Ihon Shute’s work, in which he offers the injunction that “Ye shall make a four square stone like unto a dye”. He then gives a description of the origin and rise of the architectural orders, which was repeated almost word for word in some of the old masonic lectures, much of which has been incorporated with very little change into our modern rituals.

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