The Most Important Book in any Masonic Researcher’s Library: Guest Post by Duncan Burden
Guest Post by Duncan Burden
Duncan’s Masonic Book Collection and Reviews
The Most Important Book in Any Masonic Researcher’s Library!
‘The Early Masonic Catechisms’
by Douglas Knoop, G. P. Jones and Douglas Hamer
GB SBN 7190 1201 5; The University of Manchester; The University Press.
Seriously this, without doubt or exception, is THE most vital book to have in your library if you are serious about looking into and understanding Freemasonry, whether you are interested in its conceptual development, its rituals and/or its history.
This work was first published in 1943, but it is the second edition printed in 1963 (reprinted 1969) that is really worth trying to get hold of, as the second edition includes additional material discovered since the first publication. This additional material was edited by another noted Masonic historian Harry Carr, yet he clearly appears to have maintained the method of presentation as already established by Knoop, Jones and Hamer.
This book was printed by Manchester University press, for the Quatuor Coronati Lodge 2076 (London); which already gives the first inclination of why this book is of great value, as it was not published with the aim for it to be a ‘best-seller’, or a ‘page-turning’ exposé of Freemasonry. Instead it was produced purely as an academic text, with the expectation it would only be used by Freemasons, and then only by those serious about understanding the history and development of Masonic ritual. Many Masonic halls (in England), that may have a library, would carry this book within its collection.
It is important to really appreciate the difference between an academic publication and standard publication. Virtually all books found in a bookshop are produced by publishers. Publishers are businesses whose interest is in producing books to be sold to the public. Publishers normally pay writers to forward manuscripts. These manuscripts are then passed to an Editor (who works for the Publisher) who makes sure that the manuscripts are good enough to be published. This process of editing, is not just to check spelling, grammar and layout of the book, they are also vital to publishers as they try and make sure that the manuscript is the best it can be – BUT – not the best it can be to explain a principle, or be academically correct, but to be engaging enough to be liked, or controversial, to be recommended.
Standard publishers are not interested in the concept of Academic publications. Academic publications are those normally printed through University Presses, these are vetted and expected to be focused on being academically correct. This makes the reading experience rather dull, but it will be academically sound. In academic texts the expectation would be that any argument presented in the text, if it is an assumption, or opinion, will highlight this fact and it would be expected that both sides of an opinion will be forwarded with equal merit. Academic books are the books normally referenced for source material.
It is worth noting that it is more important, when reading research publications, to check who the publisher is, rather than the author. Some publishers use authors who are doctors to try and encourage sales, by making their books ‘appear’ to be academic, but often these writers are far removed from the editing process, as such, and due to being paid, are still encouraged to write in a style more focused to sell books, rather than being really academically balanced. Again, this style of book is rarely found in recognised academic texts, or papers, as worth drawing reference to.
The actual publishers of this described work is the Quatuor Coronati Lodge 2076, recognised as the oldest Masonic research lodge in the world, and arguably the most respected. They are noted for publishing the papers that are academically accepted, for general distribution to Freemasons who are interested in Masonic research. In the early years, the subjects covered were more general in nature and later recognised as being academically questionable, and have been subsequently removed from the Lodge’s listing of papers of research. This dedication for academic excellence has entrenched the genuine credibility of this research institution.
This book is a study of the earliest known references to actual masonic ritual. Freemasonry is famous for its mysterious rituals, and, indeed, rituals are all that modern Masons do within the Lodges themselves. Every masonic meeting is, ideally, to perform a ceremony of advancement for a member, and if no Brother is present for advancement, then Lodges are rather at a loss as to what to do, as Freemasonry is based on the process of performing its rituals.
At the end of the 17th century and the beginning of 18th, Freemasonry didn’t have a set universal system of ceremonies. There was no uniformity to the wording or even structure of degrees that constituted the various examples of Freemasonry that could be found even in a single city. Some Lodges are believed to have worked with no specific ritual, just a traditional process that was an oral tradition, but gave the participants a certain amount of flexibility on what was actually said. For many casual researchers and non-masonic commentators on theories of Freemasonry, its rituals, its history and development, have is blatantly ignored this fact. The very existence of this book, ‘The Early Masonic Catechisms’, cuts through those misguided allusions by cutting the primary issues that challenges genuine Masonic research, by highlighting that not only did such diversity exist, but also that earliest records of Masonic ritual, which date from 1696, highlight this fact.
This is the purpose of the book, to present both the earliest examples of Masonic ritual, and presenting the source material in full, each with a presented review of the history of each document, giving the academic appraisal of the validity of each, offering a balanced assessment.
The book contains what are called ‘Catechisms’. Catechisms are ritualised verbal exchanges, when one person says an expected question to which an expected scripted answer is given. This style of delivery of a ritual seems to have been the primary method of how early Masonic rituals were presented, and a style that is still a mainstay of modern rituals.
‘The Early Masonic Catechisms’ lists and presents in chronological order the earliest examples of Masonic rhetoric, and describes the different sources. The sources vary from notes found in Lodge Record Books, individual papers found in a Masonic collection and also a series of pamphlets and booklets called ‘Exposés’.
‘Exposés’ are publications, or articles in Newspapers, that claimed to reveal the secrets of Freemasonry, and described rituals in full. For a long period of research into Freemasonry, these had been ignored, as not deemed unreliable, as obviously these were sold to make money, or to increase the sales of Newspapers. As such, as the motivation was just to sell the item, the content did have to be correct, just tantalising enough to seem correct to gain the sale.
Yet, as research has advanced, these many booklets and articles have come to be research, and although many seem to be false, some have raised specific interest. The reason for this is because as more Masonic material is being found and being made more available to research Masons, parallels between the texts is being seen, highlighting some publications of interest. Another reason, is that some pamphlets have been discovered actually in the private collections of known Freemasons, with handwritten notes in them, as if certain passages and words have been altered. This is something some Masons do today, as each lodge normally has slight differences in their rituals and would amend a modern published ritual, rather than print one of their own. This seems to imply that these certain altered ‘Exposés’ must have been close enough to what early rituals were being performed, that they only needed slight alterations so that they could be used as a ritual book. Or that some publications were so popular that certain Lodges decided to actually adopt them!?
Even so, Knoop, Jones and Hamer give rounded arguments for all points, and fairly advises the reader on why the selection was chosen. As such, gives the reader a beautiful glance into the early history of what is the most important part of Freemasonry, its rituals, up until 1730, which marks the time when something that would really resemble Modern Ritual, appears to phase into existence.
A fabulous book, but…
Do not expect to find this book through your public library, it is considered a private publication. It only had relatively short runs. It is still under copyright, so no PDF versions are ‘allowed’ to exist, but they can be found because this book is so important but so rare in the public domain. Copies do come on places like Ebay, priced around £80 – £150. Expensive, but a MUST!
~Guest Post by Duncan Burden
Duncan Burden has been a Freemason for most of his adult life and is a member of various Masonic bodies, such as the Royal and Select Master Masons, and Operative Masons. He is also a member of various Masonic Chivalric Orders, including the Knights Templar and Knights of the Red Cross of Constantine.
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