Living the Enlightenment: Freemasonry and Politics in Eighteenth-Century Europe

By Margaret C. Jacob | Go to book overview

Introduction
The European Enlightenment: The Birth of Modern Civil Society

In the 1740s the Parisian police arrested, searched, and systematically interrogated freemasons. We know about these events because the reports of what was said made their way into the records housed in the Bastille. 1 Spies, and at least one local priest with a grudge to satisfy, helped the authorities gather their information. In some confusion the police described their new detainees as "frimassons" or "frey-maqons," but it was not the name that worried them. The detailed interrogation reports reveal their concern. Repeatedly they asked the prisoners: "Is it not true that this assembly was for the purpose of electing a master of the lodge who in turn would choose two surveillants; is it not true that the record of the Election would be handed over to the secretary of the order who is M. Perret, notary?"2 Is it not true "that with various other freemasons you signed an act of Convocation in order to be assembled. . . . and that this assembly was for the purpose of electing a master of the Lodge? Did you write that act?"3

Elections, signed acts of convocation permitting an assembly, a legal record prepared by a notary, an assembly held with the expressed purpose of conducting elections -- these were the elements that alarmed the authorities, these were the words they used to describe the meetings. The answers they invariably got from the detained brothers and lodge officers, who displayed remarkable amnesia on many other details, was invariably "oui." With equal alarm the police wanted to know whether the lodge met "under the arms of M. the Count of Clermont," who in 1743 became the masonic Grand Master of France.

Clearly the authorities were confused. Was this a new corporate entity with pretensions at self-government, using forms of representative assembly possibly alien, possibly subversive? In other words, was this imported form of social behavior inherently political, and thus almost inevitably criminal? "All association (as one representative of the police put it) is always dangerous to the state, especially when it takes on the secret and appearance of religion." 4 Or was this another kind of potentially subversive assembly, one more familiar and alarmingly commonplace in

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