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by Pierre Mollier
Transcript of the Public Lecture given at the CMRC on 9 June 1999

When I start giving a lecture about masonic history in France, I usually quote, as a precious advice, this wonderful sentence of the great French historian Marc Bloch: "There is a mortal sin for historians: anachronism". Being a Freemason in France is of course a quite different thing at different times - 1760, 1830, 1905 or 1999. When, in circumstances similar to this one, where I am giving a public lecture in France, I tell those present "Please, if you want to understand this lecture, forget what you know as a Freemason living in Paris in 1999". Of course anachronism is a danger in all fields of historical research, and it is worth noting that Marc Bloch never dealt with masonic history. But I do think that masonic historians are, more than their colleagues in other branches of historical research, exposed to this "mortal sin"… especially in France. There is another difficulty which we face here today - I have heard that here in Britain, there is an organisation which is also called Freemasonry even if it appears to be quite different from what we, the French consider Freemasonry to be! So the word Freemasonry could be a concept that the French and English do not agree about. Of course, I am teasing the audience - but scholars should be careful about the differences which exist between the various masonic traditions. So, what could be the origin of interest for a British scholar to study French masonic history? I will try to convince you that there are some good reasons for you to look at French masonic history.

  1. The first reason is the study of an original institution which played an important role in the development of one of the leading countries in Europe during the last three centuries. French Freemasonry was involved in the political, artistic and philosophical life of France. Even if French professional historian discovered it only twenty years ago, in most of the fields of French Modern History [XVIII to XX centuries] you cannot make a serious study without considering the role of Freemasonry.

    You cannot study French Enlightenment without a glimpse at the history and work of the lodge Les Neuf Soeurs (The Nine Sisters) in the 1780s. You cannot understand the Napoleon adventure without considering the Grand Orient at that time, and so on. August Viatte, a historian of literature who wrote Les sources occultes du Romantisme demonstrated the great influence of esoteric masonry on Romanticism.

    But, at this academic Centre for the study of Freemasonry [CMRC], I presume the public will be more concerned about the motives to study French Freemasonry which are linked more to the general history of Freemasonry.

  2. Most of continental Europe discovered Freemasonry through French Freemasonry. So in Germany, Austria, Belgium, Netherlands, Italy, Switzerland, Spain, masonic brothers practice masonry which is influenced by the French system. Their rituals have strong French origins. Masonic meetings are organised around lectures and debates on a philosophical or symbolic matter. A good knowledge of French masonic history is very useful if one wishes to get some key information about the history of the lodges in general in continental Europe. Moreover Latin-American Freemasonry could not be understood without taking into account the strong French influence in the 19th century. Masonry has played quite an important role in politics in Mexico and Argentina and you will find a bust of Voltaire [an embodiment of French Freemasonry] in the Hall of the Grande Lodge of Chile.
  3. Even for British masonic history, the studying of French Freemasonry is very interesting. With original documents on lodges being so rare in Britain, French masonic archives from the period around 1740s to the beginning of 19th century could be very important.

    The origins of most of the oldest masonic traditions are of course British, but the first testimonies are often French, especially regarding the history of rituals. The great Harry Carr has made brilliant proof of this in his "Early French Exposure". Just as an example, the oldest knight Templars rituals in Britain are the Sheffield rituals circa 1790. In France the oldest ritual, recently discovered, dates 1750 and there are tens of manuscript copies dating before the 1790s.

  4. As a final point by which I will try to persuade you of the importance of studying the history of French Freemasonry, I will mention the development of the higher degrees. I truly believe that the oldest higher degrees which are part of the first British Speculative Freemasonry have their origin between 1740 and 1760 and this phenomenon is particularly linked to French developments. All the documents on the higher degrees before 1760-70 are French, even the first rituals of Royal Arch degrees, for instance.

Petit résumé historique

The classical historiography of French Freemasonry relies on three names: Thory, Ragon and Clavel … even if we know today that their books are quite unreliable, historically speaking! Thory published in 1812 Histoire de la Fondation du Grand Orient de France and in 1815 Acta Latomorum. Clavel is the author of Historie Pittoresque de la Franc-Maçonnerie published in 1843, and Ragon wrote in 1853 the Ortodoxie Maçonnique. For many years the three authors have been regarded as the main source of research by those who investigated Freemasonry in France. Masonic authors - I intentionally do not say historians - took all their historical informations from the three mentioned works. The story of French Freemasonry and its historiography is the chronicle of how historical researchers authenicate or invalidate the work of Thory, Ragon and Clavel.

Rebold's Histoire des Trois Grandes Loges, Daruty's Histoire du Rite Ecossais Ancien et Accepté and Jouaust's Histoire du Grand Orient de France (1866) represent the second step in the development of masonic bibliography in France. These authors tried to be a little more scientific then their predecessors, but for most of the time and whenever in doubt, they still referred to Thory. Rebold is a good source of information for the study of Freemasonry in XIX century France, as he was quite a reliable witness. Darury's book is an honest compilation of what has been written on the high degrees during the XVIII century. For the study of the Scottish Rite, Daruty is an interesting account. His book presents the oldest version - not the original - of Patente Morin that Pike sent him; this is quite a valuable account as other versions of Pike's document have been lost. Jouaust wrote his short book as if he was in the Grand Orient Archives for one day only! His book is probably the first historical essay on Masonry made at a quasi- professional standard.

Looking further for the sources to study French Freemasonry we come to the strange book of an antimasonic millitant. In 1912, La Franc-Maçonnerie en France des origines à 1815, les ouvriers de l'idée révolutionnaire appeared, written by Gustave Bord. This work quotes many new sources, but very unfortunately without giving any references. When the documents which refer to this work, however, are discovered from time-to-time, they usually show that Bord was right. His book is difficult to use, but the information given should be taken into account in a serious study of French Freemasonry.

With all these books we come closer to the issue of studying Freemasonry from the archival sources.

Arthur Groussier, The Grand Master of the Grand Orient was a socialist MP and an engineer, who in 1931 published the first book using modern historical methodology. When in 1931 he published Constitution du Grand Orient de France par la Grande Loge Nationale - 1773, for the first time a special point in masonic history was studied with critical examination through the use of the archives. Moreover, this work gave for the first time in the appendix a full transcription of many important masonic documents which nobody seems to have seen since the eighteen century. Arthur Groussier's work is in this sense a model for historical methodology in the study of French Freemasonry. What he wrote might have been evident for a classical historican, but it was very new in the field of masonic history.

Two further works have introduced high levels of research standards in French masonic erudition - Roger Priouret's book La Franc-Maçonnerie sous les lys and especially George Luquet's wonderful book La Franc-Maconnerie et l'Etat en France au XVIII siècle. Georges Luquet was an acclaimed scholar in Philosophy and the Grand Chancellor of the Grand Collège des Rites (The Grand Orient Supreme Council). Both of the afore mentioned authors, but particularly Luquet, discovered new information on masonry in the classical sources of the Enlightenment. They studied diaries and memoirs of the XVIII century, correspondence available in the archives, Police Archives etc. and found numerous quotations on Freemasonry which gave direct testimony on the development of the Craft in France. For the first time Priouret and Luquet took masonic history out of the masonic ghetto. Even if Luquet's book is not known as it deserves to be, he is as important an author for French history as Knoop, Jones and Hammer were for masonic scholarship in Britain. His work is especially important for giving hundreds of XVIII century testimonies and quotations on the establishment of the first lodges in France.

It is quite peculiar that the two most important historians of French masonry of the late XX century were not masons. During the 1960's Pierre Chevallier published two master-pieces with Les Ducs sous l'Acacia and La Première Profanation du Temple Maçonnique. Those books extended the research of Priouret and Luquet. Chevallier was a qualified historian specialising in the XVIII century. He had a deep knowledge and insight into the classical sources and especially of the police archives. His book gave for the first time a quite accurate description of the development of French masonry between 1725 and 1750. The information contained in this work is about who joined masonry, where and when, where the first lodges were etc.. But, as the atypical scholar Robert Amadou once said - we will learn very little in those books about our predecessor's Freemasonry. The question of rituals, masonic systems used, what was the regarded substance of Freemasonry in those times, what the people were looking for when joining - these are the questions which were left unanswered. Pierre Chevallier give very little information on these questions and it may be that as a professional historian he limited himself to the traditional methods of historical erudition and did not find that kind of information in the sources he most usually consulted - police archives. There is a part-truth in the following bad review of Chevallier's book given by Amadou:

Book superficially perfect… but perfectly superficial!

Nevertheless Chevallier's books are essential for masonic scholars looking at French Freemasonry. Chevallier published also a classical and enchanting - although maybe not academic - Histoire de la Franc-Maçonnerie Française in three volumes.

Another author who advanced scholarly research into Freemasonry in France was Alain Le Bihan. Franc-Maçons et ateliers parisiens de la Grande Loge de France au XVIII siècle and Loge et Chapitres de la Grand Loge et du Grand Orient de France are the daily tools of the French masonic scholars. If Pierre Chevallier got the maximum of information from the classical historical resources of the XVIII century, Alain Le Bihan for the first time gave a global approach and showed the treasure of French masonic archives. Alain Le Bihan was the first modern scholar to work on the Grand Orient Archives.

The resources for the study of French Freemasonry are:

  • The Grand Orient Archives
  • The Grand Orient Library
  • Masonic department of the National Library

Regional and local monographs:

  • Tours and Touraine - Fénéant
  • Toulouse - Taillefer
  • Normandie-Le Havre - Lecureur-Pringard
  • Aix-en-Provence

Information on bibliographical resources may be gained from La Lettre de l'IDERM, a monthly newsletter of the Institute for the study of Freemasonry at the Grand Orient.

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