THE WORD "MASON" was the name of a workman in the building Craft in the Middle Ages. In England that Craft was divided into five or six branches, called by different names, such as tilers, quarrymen, wailers, setters, etc., and each one of these was separately organized with its own officers, rules and regulations; in the large centers of population they were organized as Masons' Companies, each with a building of its own, and working under the borough (municipal) ordinances which governed Companies of all the trades, arts, and professions. These branches and companies were a part of the general gild system in which the whole of Medieval work and trade was organized, and which was governed as a whole by a large body of gild laws; these laws belonged to the Law of the Realm; and since there was also in operation a body of laws enforced by the church, of authority equal to that of the state, and called The Ordinances of Religion, each gild was under a triple government: its own rules and regulations; civil laws; church laws. If some custom, rule, or symbol was preserved by a Craft, and if it continues to be in use, it does not follow that it had its origin in some practice in the work of the gild, but may have been a church practice, or a practice required by the civil law.
Among the five or six branches of the general Craft of builders was one which confined itself to architecture properly so called, which is listed among the fine arts, and the practice of which is a profession. This branch belonged to the gild system in the sense that it came under general gild laws, but in a narrower sense was not a gild but was a fraternity; because after a member of it had finished his work in one place he moved on to another, some times from one country to another. The Craftsmen in this Fraternity were called Freemasons. It was from this particular branch, and not from the building craft in general, that our own Fraternity of Free & Accepted Masons descended. As a convenience, and to distinguish the first half of Masonic history from its later half, we call the workmen in the first period Operative Freemasons, and in the later period Speculative (or Accepted, or nonOperative) Freemasons, but this distinction must not be pushed very far, because as we have learned from the past half century of historical research there is not as much difference between Speculative and Operative as we once believed; in Freemasonry as a fraternity there has been an unbroken continuity from the end of the Dark Ages (about the Tenth Century) to the present time.
In order to make our history yet more intelligible we must carry the distinction between the Freemasons branch of the early building craft and other branches to a farther point. In the Fourteenth Century a number of Freemasons (though not all of them) began to organize permanent Lodges. After that date any given Freemason might or might not belong to one of those Lodges. A further step came when among the two or three hundred Lodges in Britain a few of them in London set up a Grand Lodge in 1717 A.D.; each and every regular Lodge or Grand Lodge now in the world traces its history to that Grand Lodge. The line of our history can therefore be plainly drawn: from the general Craft of Masonry (or building) at the end of the Dark Ages, through the branch of it called Freemasonry, through the permanent Lodges first set up among Freemasons in the Fourteenth Century, through the Grand Lodge set up in 1717 A.D., by a few of those permanent Lodges. We came from Medieval Operative Masonry, but we came from it along that particular path; in each year since the beginning, large areas of the building craft have remained outside the area which that path has traversed.
Architects were called Freemasons rather than Masons partly because they were in a fraternity and free to move about, partly because they worked in free-stone, and partly for a number of other and lesser reasons - the word in itself can tell us little about our history. These Freemasons designed and constructed the cathedrals, churches, chapels, monasteries, nunneries, palaces, guildhalls, borough halls, college buildings, forts, and other structures of a monumental type, for public purposes, which then as now, and everywhere, are architecture properly so called, and which stand far apart, almost in another world, from the simple structures of residences, stores, factories, barns, etc., which any man with normal skill and a few years of experience can learn to design and construct. The Freemasons were in a class apart from other Masons because their buildings were in a class apart from other buildings.
But it was not this superiority of the art of architecture to other building construction which alone gave Freemasons their great preeminence in the Middle Ages. In the long period between the end of the Dark Ages and the Reformation, in which there was a general illiteracy, and the sciences were forbidden, architecture was the only art to reach greatness, and next to the church itself it accomplished more to shape the world of the Middle Ages than any other agency - even now the Middle Ages are often represented or typified by a picture of a cathedral. Freemasons were then what specialists in the pure sciences are now, picked men, of extraordinary native ability and talents; they were given a long and severe training and education in a system of apprenticeship, and they each one had to be equally adept in engineering, geometry, building design, ornamentation, carving, sculpture - they had to be past masters in the use of stone, that grandest and most difficult of all the materials with which men have ever had to work. And since the structures which they designed and constructed were not only for public use but also in their design and ornamentation had to express the spirit and ideas of religion, government, education, and society the Freemasons built at the center of those realms of culture because their work carried them there; for more than two centuries they were the supreme men in Britain and Europe for their intelligence, knowledge, ability, and character. No other society in the world can look back to an ancestry nobler than our own.
Our pride in that ancestry could have been almost as great as it is had the Operative Freemasons done nothing more than to carry on at a normal level of excellence the old Roman architecture, called Romanesque, which they had recovered from the wreckage of the Dark Ages; but it happens that in the Twelfth Century they made a great new discovery of their own which was so epoch-making that in the whole history of the world's architecture only one other discovery (the Greek) can be compared with it. This was their invention of the extraordinary, radically new Gothic Style. It was this style which made the cathedrals possible (1500 of them), and which after it had percolated down to such details as the design of buttons and the shape of written letters of the alphabet gave to Europe that shape, form, and color which in all cultural matters is meant by "Medieval." It called forth a Freemason who was a new kind of man, who mastered arts and sciences not known to others at the time, a man as great in mind as in skill. That particular development within the wide expanse of the building Craft which finally led to our own Fraternity might have occurred if all architects for many generations had not been exclusively trained in the Gothic Style, but probably it would not have done so; therefore 1140 A.D., the date of the first Gothic building, is important in the history of Freemasonry.
The work of using a hammer and chisel on a block of stone was only one among many elements in the Fraternity of Freemasons. A Freemason had his family with him; if he had an apprentice that apprentice was as much a part of his own family as a foster son; the families of the Freemasons at work in the same place were grouped together in a separate quarter, or neighborhood; the Craftsmen at work, their Lodge, and their neighborhood, along with everything belonging to each of them, comprised the Masonic Community; and the rules and regulations, with the responsibilities of the Officers, included their Community and were not restricted to the Lodge only. Apprentices had training, schooling, education. Adult Craftsmen had to give as much of their time to thinking, to study, and to designing as to work with their hands, for without geometry, engineering, and carving they could do nothing. They were an organized Community, therefore there were Officers, meetings and conferences. The Community had its own funds, its own religious observances, its amusements, feasts, sports, its social life, and cared for its own injured, crippled, dead, the widows, and orphans. In the meantime the State and the Church were never far away, and civil laws and religious ordinances entered deeply into the Freemason's daily life to shape it in many ways. Much (and the present writer would say "most") of what we now call Speculative Freemasonry was in the practice of the Fraternity eight centuries ago.