Dissension and Reform in the New "Civil Society": The Strasbourg Lodges of the Late Eighteenth Century
More than in any other place examined in this book, in France prior to the Revolution of 1789 freemasonry betrayed the nature of ancien régime society and culture. The lodges mirrored the social tensions and antagonisms of the old regime, while at the same time offering the alternative inherent in the new political culture of the Enlightenment: a public forum where individuals contested for power, voted and elected their representatives, found identity in a polity separate from the communal identity offered by kin, church, and estate. Of course many forms of eighteenthcentury sociability helped to create the new public space. Some historians have even argued that in France the corporate bodies, guilds, estates, and academies could inculcate ostensibly "modern" forms of social and political experience. 1 None of them, however, offered a kind of political experience so intense that after the events of 1789 and beyond they could still be remembered, as were the lodges, as bearing relation to the new social and political reality initiated by the French Revolution.
In this chapter we will try to recreate the experience of certain French lodges in the 1770s and 1780s, particularly lodges in Strasbourg on the French-German border. In the next and last chapter we will look at the workings of the French freemasonry as established after 1773 on a national level. For it we will rely upon the voluminous records of the Grand Lodge of France, made available to scholars only after World War II. After falling into hostile hands during the war, the records finally made their way into the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. For Strasbourg in the eastern province of Alsace the evidence also comes from rich masonic records preserved in private hands but now to be found in the municipal archives of the city. They provide us with everything from correspondence and orations to detailed descriptions of rituals and ceremonies.