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

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

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

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

Synopsis

Long recognized as more than the writings of a dozen or so philosophes, the Enlightenment created a new secular culture populated by the literate and the affluent. Enamoured of British institutions, Continental Europeans turned to the imported masonic lodges and found in them a new forum that was constitutionally constructed and logically egalitarian. Originating in the Middle Ages, when stone-masons joined together to preserve their professional secrets and to protect their wages, the English and Scottish lodges had by the eighteenth century discarded their guild origins and become an international phenomenon that gave men and eventually some women a place to vote, speak, discuss and debate. Margaret Jacob argues that the hundreds of masonic lodges founded in eighteenth-century Europe were among the most important enclaves in which modern civil society was formed. In France, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Britain men and women freemasons sought to create a moral and social order based upon reason and virtue, and dedicated to the principles of liberty and equality. A forum where philosophers met with men of commerce, government, and the professions, the masonic lodge created new forms of self-government in microcosm, complete with constitutions and laws, elections, and representatives. This is the first comprehensive history of Enlightenment freemasonry, from the roots of the society's political philosophy and evolution in seventeenth-century England and Scotland to the French Revolution. Based on never-before-used archival sources, it will appeal to anyone interested in the birth of modernity in Europe or in the cultural milieu of the European Enlightenment.

Excerpt

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. 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?" 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?"

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." Or was this another kind of potentially subversive assembly, one more familiar and alarmingly commonplace in . . .

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