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by Albert G. Mackey

In the history of every ancient nation there is a prehistoric and a historic period. The prehistoric period is that which has no records to prove the truth of the events that have been attributed to it. It is made up of myths and legends, founded-some of them, in all probability-on a distortion of historical facts, and some of them indebted entirely to imagination for their invention.

The historic period is that which begins with the narration of events which are supported by documents, either contemporary with the events or so recently posterior to them as to have nearly all the validity of contemporary evidence.

Just such a division of periods as this we find in the history of Freemasonry.
The prehistoric period, more commonly styled the legendary history, embraces the supposed history of the rise and progress of the Institution in remote times, and details events said to have occurred, but which have no proof of their occurrence other than that of oral tradition, unsupported by that sort of documentary evidence which is essentially necessary to give a reliable character to an historical statement.

The historic period of Freemasonry commences with the time when written or printed records furnish the necessary testimony that the events narrated did actually occur.

In treating of the history of nations, scholars have found great difficulty in precisely defining the point of separation between the prehistoric and the historic periods. As in natural history, it is almost impossible to define the exact line of demarkation between any two consecutive classes of the kingdoms of nature so as to distinguish the highest species of a vegetable from the lowest of an animal organization, so in political history it is difficult to tell when the prehistoric period ends and the historic begins.

In Freemasonry we meet with the same embarrassment, and this embarrassment is increased according to the different standpoints from which we view the institution.

If we adopt the theory (as has been done by a few writers too iconoclastic in their views) that Speculative Masonry never was anything but that which its present organization presents, with Grand Lodges, Grand Masters, and a ritual of distinct degrees, then we are compelled to place the commencement of the historic era at that period which has been called the Revival in the second decade of the 18th century.

If, with more liberal views, we entertain the opinion that Speculative Masonry was founded on, and is the offspring of, the Operative system of the Stonemasons, then we must extend our researches to at least the Middle Ages, where we shall find abundant documentary evidence of the existence and character of the Operative parent to which the Freemasonry of the present day, by a well. marked transition, has succeeded.

Connecting the written history of the Operative Masons with that of its speculative offshoot, we have an authentic and continuous history that will carry us back to a period many centuries anterior to the time of the so-called Revival in the year 1717.

If I were writing a history of Speculative Masonry merely, I should find myself restricted to an era, somewhere in the 17th century, when there is documentary evidence to show that the transition period began, and when the speculative obtruded into the Operative system.

But as I am really writing a history of Freemasonry, of which the Operative and the Speculative systems are divisions, intimately connected, I am constrained to go farther, and to investigate the rise and the progress of the Operative art as the precursor and the founder of the Speculative science.

The authentic details of the condition of Operative Masonry in the Middle Ages, of its connection, if it had any, with other organizations, and its transmutation at a later period into Speculative Masonry, will constitute the historic narrative of Freemasonry.

Its prehistoric narrative will be found in the myths and legends, which were, unfortunately, for a long time accepted by the great body of the Craft as a true history, but which, though still credited by many, are yet placed by most modern Masonic scholars in their proper category.

These legends, some of which are preserved in the rituals, and some are becoming almost obsolete, have a common foundation in that traditional narrative which is known as the Legend of the Craft,1 and which must first be understood before we can with satisfaction attempt to study the legendary history of the Institution.

But this legend is of such length and of so much importance that it demands for its consideration a separate and distinct chapter.

I, by no means, intend to advance the proposition that all the myths and legends now taught in the Lodges, or preserved in the works of Masonic writers, are to be found in the Legend of the Craft, but only the most important-those that are still recognized by the more credulous portion of the Fraternity as genuine and authentic narratives-receive their first notice in the Legend of the Craft, although they are indebted for their present, fuller form, to a development or enlargement, subsequently made in the course of the construction of the modern ritual.

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Last modified: March 22, 2014