The Nature of History
The history of any organization, people, or civilization inevitably begins with questions about origins. “Where did I come from?” “Where did this begin?” “What does this mean?” These questions are often answered through legends, myths, history, and, at the personal level, genealogy. The study of history, however, requires mastery of methodology and specialized knowledge. History is a great art accomplished by members of a guild of historians that often looks not just to the facts as presented in the various narratives but searches for deeper meanings and truths. Advances in scholarship over the past 150 years have significantly improved our understanding of the past. One thing is certain, the historical context of an event is inescapable. This requires historians to read and analyze not just historical documents but also pamphlets, diaries, letters, and newspapers as well as the important philosophical, political, and religious works of the period they are studying to find clues about the “character of the age.” They reach beyond the canonical seeking a larger world inhabited by men and women of all classes.
History has no grand design. Its progress cannot be neatly categorized. There are no rules or laws which govern what is and what is not important. There is no one right way to grasp history nor is there any guarantee that any given project or any given history is singularly more valid than other well-researched approaches to the subject. History is change, and change is a surprise because it does not always happen in a linear fashion. History is also about linkages, but these linkages often come about by accident rather than design.
In thinking about the past, historians seek to improve cultural awareness as they investigate the persistence of certain institutions, traditions, and conventions. They seek for those tangible things which led to the creation of a group or society and which hold or held it together. A significant factor in most cases is the law of the land or organization. But unlike the law, which is rather straightforward, history is filled with compromise. Law is intended to provide predictability; history is not predictable. The past, noted William Harvey, the discoverer of the circulatory system, was filled “with the common subterfuge of ignorance.” But as the seventeenth century emerged—and with it the beginnings of Freemasonry—there appeared in many nations men of genius in a quantity never before seen in history who sought not only to understand the past but to judge and utilize its impact on the present and the future. In a much-truncated alphabetical order they included Bacon, Bernini, Bernoulli, Boyle, Brahe, Caravaggio, Cervantes, Corneille, Dekker, Descartes, Donne, Dryden, El Greco, Galileo Galilei, Halley, Hals, Locke, Malpighi, Milton, Moliere, Monteverdi, Scarlatti, Shakespeare, Spinoza, van Leeuwenhoek, Velázquez, Vermeer, and Wren. Some of these were Freemasons, and others had Masonic ties.
Their approach to the understanding of history would evolve into what is currently referred to as critical history. This approach to the study of the past involves strict analysis of the nature of the evidence cited to support historic contentions. Just because something appears in an official document does not necessarily make it correct. Nor is something that contradicts established, official sources correct, either. Critical analysis requires the historian to approach sources without bias or preconceptions. It also requires the historian to consider all sources in a form of comparative content analysis. Some authors, past and present, attempt to create what the past was like without employing any or only a few carefully selected sources. Others place a strong emphasis on surviving sources without a critical analysis of the survivors. Our access to the past is through those sources, but they often are in conflict and, as with all history, represent the world-view of the author to include his biases and limitations.
History is not an empirical science. It cannot be tested or evaluated in a manner similar to astronomy even though some empirical guidelines may be utilized. For example, if one wished to prove that the sun rose in the east, they would arise each morning for years and record the point on the horizon where they witnessed the rising sun. They would do this year after year, decade after decade. And they would not be alone; thousands and thousands of other people at thousands of locations on the earth over thousands of years would make similar observations and reach the same conclusion. The sun rises in the east. And if you go outside tomorrow morning, you can make the same observation and reach the same conclusion. This is empirical, verifiable, repeatable science.
Or you may wish to prove that your lead fishing sinker will go down in water while your cork float or bobber will not. You gather one thousand tubs of water into which you drop your lead sinker and your cork float. The sinker always goes down; the float always floats. Your conclusion, based upon repeated testing and observation, is that lead objects sink and cork objects float. In this case, you may even be able to apply your conclusion to other bodies with similar properties. Based upon your observations of the sinkers and floats, you theorize that a steel ball (metal, heavy, round) will sink when dropped into water while a wooden ball (lighter, of similar construction as the cork) will float. You then experiment to prove your theory. This, too, is empirical science.
History, unlike science, can neither be repeated nor observed a second time. It is done and over with immediately after the first observation. There are no instant replays in history. History, therefore, must depend upon different levels of proof to verify what was reported. Were Germany and Japan defeated in World War II? The first-hand observations of millions of individuals from various locations and at various times verify this conclusion as do the surviving documents of surrender signed by officials from many nations as well the political and geographical structure of the real world after those surrenders in April and August 1945. Similarly, did William the Conqueror invade and capture what became England? Again, the records of survivors as well as the very shape of all history and politics after 1066 in England support that conclusion.
But all history is not as unequivocal in its interpretation nor does it always enjoy the unified conclusions of millions of observers. History is often more the art of probability than hard evidence or scientific analysis. The issue in history becomes not what makes events certain but rather what makes them more or less probable. The old maxim “winners write the history” is not always valid and has often been disproven. Critical analysis of history requires historians to carefully analyze, appraise, and balance every source. As will be noted later in this chapter, an inordinate amount of the historical record appears to have been destroyed purposely. An even greater part has simply been lost. For example, we have no extant first-hand accounts of the lives of Jesus or any of his immediate followers. Some of what may have existed may have been destroyed or not recopied because the accounts conflicted or were deemed improbable. Others did not survive because they were not considered important enough to be copied and recopied. Consider in relatively recent U.S. history how few letters exist that were written during the Civil War. There is no available estimate of the number of surviving Civil War letters, but considering that an estimated 2.75 million men and women served in the Union and Confederate military over four years and there were just as many if not more civilians writing to soldiers, it is obvious that the clear majority of personal, first-hand correspondence from that period has disappeared. And it must be kept in mind that most of what is extant comes not from the common soldiers who experienced the horrors of battle first-hand, but rather from their leaders, both military and political.
Prior to 1456, all documents were handwritten and, if they were to be maintained for posterity, they had to be carefully archived and recopied again and again. If a book or document was deemed questionable, it simply was not recopied or was archived in an inaccessible part of the library. There does exist in the surviving record, though, evidence of lost or yet to be found books. Some, like the Dead Sea Scrolls or the Nag Hammadi Library have been found in most serendipitous ways. The existence of other lost writings such as the Q document or the Sayings of Jesus may be inferred from existing documents or through direct reference by later writers. For example, most of what is known about Marcion and Marcionite Christianity comes from Tertullian who wrote five volumes attaching Marcion as well as from Epiphanius, Bishop of Salamis, not from Marcion or his immediate followers.
The question of forgeries of ancient documents must also be considered when making judgments about the past and how it was recorded. In the modern world, the exploits of Konrad Kujau and The Hitler Diaries are well known as are those of Mark Hofmann and The Salamander Letter or Mark Cusack with his J.F.K. Letters. But forgery is an ancient trade practiced by some noted artists and writers. Michelangelo created a sculpture of a sleeping Cupid which he artificially aged and sold to Cardinal Riario of Giorgo who, when he discovered it was a fraud, demanded his money back. What is interesting to art historians in this case is it was the forgery that served to promote Michelangelo’s career.
At a more arcane and esoteric level is the reported discovery of a first-person reference to a Secret Gospel of Mark. It was found by a Biblical scholar in a book with no cover or title page and appeared be an eighteenth-century copy of an older document—a letter written by Clement of Alexandria who died about 215. But how does one authenticate any letter or document from antiquity? It is a complex and time-consuming task. It usually begins with an analysis of the handwriting by paleographers. Does the handwriting match the purported age and origin of the document? But anyone with patience, skill, and an artistic flair can learn how to imitate handwriting from any age or any person. Another way to determine the age of a document is chemical analysis of the ink and paper or parchment. Yet a third is to authenticate the text by making a point-by-point analysis of vocabulary, style, and modes of expression. Consider how a comedian or any other individual imitates a person. They focus on special words that the person uses. For example, Theodore Roosevelt is often parodied by using the word bully. How do we know if a speech is an authentic Roosevelt? Let us assume that he used that word at a frequency of about one time for every 1000 words spoken. To imitate Roosevelt, the imitator might use that special word one time for every 100 words spoken. This is too much Teddy to be Teddy. The same process or frequency count may be used to discovery a forgery.
But why would anyone forge a historic document? There are numerous reasons; money being a prime consideration—the Hitler Diaries brought more than $4 million and art forgeries for money are common (see the 1966 movie How to Steal a Million). It is even conceivable that a scholar might forge a document. Dionysius the Renegade forged Sophocles and then ridiculed Heraclides for not recognizing the forgery. When a scholar possesses a super-sized ego accompanied by disdain for other scholars, he might just perpetrate a ruse to “pull the wool over the eyes” of acknowledged experts simply to demonstrate, if only for himself, his superiority.
Most historical documents were not created to deceive but many early histories of various organizations, and Masonry is an organization, utilized what in their time passed for history to create traditional connections. Others were simply misinterpretations or misunderstandings of the evidence found or the documents discovered while still others were attempts to provide legitimacy to existing political, cultural, religious, or societal institutions.
Any analysis of historical documents is fraught with problems; even the most skilled researcher can be fooled. When discovering history, multitude possibilities should be considered and, through various research techniques, a sound theory established regarding the reliability of any document.
History does not proceed in a straight line from point to point, from event to event. History is best described as a vast web with multiple points interconnected through a swarm of paths. No event in history may be explained based upon a single event. An example of the result of such a multitude of forces is World War II. Fascism arose in Italy under Mussolini in the early 1920s; militarism became dominant in Japan in the same period; and the Nazi movement came to power in Germany almost simultaneously. Russia underwent the extreme turmoil of civil war and became the Soviet Union while experiencing severe economic deprivation and, under Stalin, genocide; and civil war accompanied the rise of Mao in China. Various nations, such as India, began their move toward independence. Add to the mix the abject failure of The League of Nations to prevent any aggression; the United States’ failure to join that organization which had been championed by Woodrow Wilson; the world-wide economic collapse of the early 1930s; German perception that the Treaty of Versailles unfairly punished the German people; simmering anti-Semitism; German and Soviet political engagements; expanding nationalism (especially that of Japan) with the accompanying need for resources; American political isolationism; rapid advancements in technology; and, after the horrors of World War I, the tendency of the intelligentsia to ignore the impending markers of future destruction suggests that the cataclysm that began in 1932 inevitable. World War II, therefore, was not simply the result of Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939 nor of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. It was the result of a massive web of interrelated people, events, political movements, history, perceptions, and, even religion.
Yet reading history is not the single path to fully understanding man’s past nor, as Edmund Burke wrote, a prevention against repeating past errors. The discovery of history can be both instructive and destructive. History operates from the safety of the distance of time and may appear to provide information that leads us all too easily to underestimate actions or connections or to incorrectly interpret events, documents, and artifacts. It may also, though, enable us to properly interpret past happenings and use the lessons learned to govern the present and plan for the future. We have made impulsive use of historical research too often to strengthen rather than liberate our preconceptions. For example, when historians and anthropologists began studying the Mayan culture of Central America they concluded that Mayan interest in astronomy and building as well as chronology indicated that they were a peaceful people focused on non-violent pursuits. And even though there was ample evidence in the carvings that covered most significant buildings that warfare was endemic; many early Mayan researchers chose to ignore the evidence because it did not support their preconceived notion of or desire to document a peaceful people. This choice to ignore what is now obvious may have been the result of a continuation of the agenda of the international peace movement which was prominent among academic and political thinkers and writers before and after World War I. Ultimately this approach did not serve to properly report and interpret Mayan history. Critical historical analysis does, however, enable us to express our faith in mankind’s ability to correct misinformation and to properly establish his foundations and his beginnings.
The history of an organization is not that of spontaneous generation--the concept that each new organism was produced independently from some primordial substance or from nothing at all. History, like medicine, enables us to analyze the offspring as well as the parent. History and nature provide continuity with entities and, like blood, circulates, replicates, replenishes, changes, and sanitizes. As with any human organ, the study of history may carry out multiple functions. Ultimately, though, as noted by the English poet Alexander Pope, the proper study of mankind is man.
To study man and his organizations is the work not just of historians, but also of anthropologists, ethnologists, linguists, archeologists, psychologists, and a host of other scholars. Cultures and civilizations were active participants in our past, and functioned in conjunction with each other, not independently. Too much of popular history, however, is in the form of anecdotes which, though possibly accurate representations of a single time or set of words, are often taken out of context thus resulting in misrepresentations of the totality of events. These popular histories lead to unsupported myths and fantasies of origin and descent. Historical research, when properly done, often gives lie to popular misconceptions and accepted wisdom. That is its nature and its purpose.
Eusebius in his Church History recounts the story of Simon Magus taken from Acts 8: 9-24. Simon is described as a great magician who tried to convince the Samarians that his magic was miracles and he the great power of God. Eusebius is expanding, somewhat, on Justin Martyr who had written about Simon more than one hundred years earlier noting that the Romans became so convinced of Simon’s divinity that they erected a statue to him on the Tiber Island with the inscription Simoni Deo Sancto or To Simon, the Holy God. When the base of the statue was excavated in 1574, however, it was found to read Semoni Sanco Sancto Deo informing us that the statue was erected to Semo Sancus, a deity worshiped by the Sabines in Rome not to Simon from the Book of Acts. But this misinterpretation became part of accepted church history for almost fourteen hundred years.
So, it is with the history of Freemasonry. Much of what purports to be Masonic history appears to be either misinterpretations of facts or outright fabrications. There is little definitive, straight line documentation linking the modern institution and its practices to any single ancient organization, or political or religious movement. Modern Freemasonry is the outgrowth of myriad organizations, practices, motivations, historical periods, as well as political and cultural systems. Much of what purports to be Freemasonic history is highly romanticized, mythological, and mystical history written by non-masons for non-masons and involves no authentic approach to historical analysis. Too much is self-published and tends to be created more to support a myth or a preconception than to clarify the murky history of the Fraternity. These histories also tend to over-use the word secret for its sensational nature and its ability to attract an audience.
Freemasonry is not a secret society nor is it a political conspiracy with tendrils extending into industry, commerce, the church, and the educational system. Freemasonry is a living organization with at least four hundred years of documented history. And throughout those four hundred years and across the globe, it has transformed, innovated, and adapted itself to meet the needs of changing generations, philosophies, perceptions, and interpretations of the past.
There are multiple keys to historical research among them being the use of primary sources. “History tries to describe past events as they really happen. It aims at faithful representation. Its concept of truth is correspondence with what was once reality.” It is, notes von Mises “the search after facts and events that really happen.” And while a given historian’s account of the past is often influenced by his specific understanding of the problem and his world perspective, the work should be objective. Fiction, on the other hand, often depicts events that never happened and objectivity is not required, but this issue will be expanded on later as will other criteria used to determine what is to be considered historical. One problem, though, even with primary sources, is that of interpretation and value judgment. Historians are no more able to provide the ultimate truth or definitive history than anyone else. Another issue with historical analysis is the axiom that “winners write the history.” When a victory is secured, efforts are made to obscure if not destroy evidence of past conflicts or differences of opinion. But such efforts are generally not successful, and there tend to be traces left that can be scrutinized and analyzed to discover the truth.
When Henry VII of England ascended the throne in 1485, he intended to marry Elizabeth of York, the daughter of Edward IV and make her Queen of England. He was confronted with the problem of Titulus Regius which had been promulgated by Richard III, Henry’s predecessor whom he had defeated in battle at Bosworth Field. Titulus Regius had declared Elizabeth and her siblings to be bastards and thus not eligible to sit on the throne, even as consort. To address this issue, the order was suppressed by Henry and the Parliament roll on which it was recorded was burned by the public hangman. An additional order was issued that all copies were to be presented to the Chancellor before Easter 1486 for destruction on pain of imprisonment and fine. In the early sixteenth century, however, the original draft was found in the Tower of London and printed in 1611.
Another example of extraordinary survival may be found in the history of Hatshepsut of Egypt or the Foremost of Noble Ladies (1507—1458 B.C.E.). She was the fifth pharaoh of the Eighteenth Dynasty of Egypt coming to the throne in 1478 B.C.E. Considered by Egyptologists to be one of the most successful pharaohs, she was the daughter and only child of Thutmose I and his primary wife Ahmose. Near the end of the reign of Thutmose III attempts were made to eradicate Hatshepsut from the historical records. Images of her were carved off stone walls and at the Deir el-Bahari temple; her statues were shattered or disfigured and then buried in pits. An attempt was even made to wall up her obelisks at Karnak, but typical of the period and probably to save money, the new administration simply repurposed Hatshepsut’s structures thus leaving traces of her reign for future Egyptologists to analyze.
What, then, determines what is included in any given history and what is accepted as authoritative? First, as Dan Brown notes in his discussion of the establishment of the Biblical canon, there is the tendency to accept most readily ancient documents, but this alone is no guarantee of final acceptance. Codex Sinaiticus, for example, which is dated between 330 and 360, includes “The Shepherd of Hermas,” a book not found in the accepted canon. The Muratorian Canon, a fragment, consisting of 85 lines dated to the seventh century but containing features which suggest that it is a Latin translation of a Greek original written, possibly, as early as 170, maintains that “Hermas wrote [it] recently, in our times, in the city of Rome, while bishop Pius, his brother, was occupying the [episcopal] chair of the church of the city of Rome”  and thus, because it was too near to “our times” and the product of the brother of a recent bishop not an apostle was not worthy of inclusion in the canon even if it was permissible to read it in church but not as Scripture.
Other considerations for inclusion include authorship, acceptance, and point of view. As the Muratorian Canon notes about “The Shepard,” the author was known, but he was only a bishop’s brother, not an apostle. The pedigree of a document is critical to judging its content and establishing its place in the canon of history. Further, the general acceptance of a source among a knowledgeable population is also relevant. Some authors have proven themselves to be more reliable than others. Their contentions or reports are supported by other reliable sources, and there is a scholarly consensus about the documents relevancy and content.
British novelists L.P. Hartley in The Go-Between opened with the words “The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.” This implies, as all historians know, that when reporting on the past one must take into consideration the setting to include emotional, intellectual, cultural, religious, political, and social aspects of the society or group being studied. History is littered with letters, records, diaries, legal documents, and other bits and pieces of information. A history of an organization is not to be read as a phone book but within context to support inferences that lead to understanding. To do this, it is necessary to establish the significance and legitimacy of the source. Was there a Holocaust? Some writers content that there was not. The historically literate writer must access the source and use that assessment to validate or invalidate the claim.
Not everything that happened in the past is historically significant, and since significance tends to depend on perspective and purpose, not everything that is in a history book is important. Often it is there simply because the author was interested in it. Historical persons and events become significant when they can be linked to larger trends or events. What, then, is historically significant? It is best described as the collective evaluation or judgment of many historians that the event or person was probable as reported. And finally, and possibly most critically, what is the point of view of the document. Is it consistent with other documents of the period and does it report similar events in a comparable manner? Is it propaganda or particularly biased? What is the underlying theme of the document?
Fiction, on the other hand, while it does tend to give the reader a sense of presence, is not intended to accurately recount events but rather to enable the reader to view the world through the perspective of the characters. Fiction is a “web of imagination” constructed by the author. Fiction writers are more like advertising people or public relations specialists than tour guides. Historical fiction may be a stepping stone to history, but it should never be confused with the real thing. It may lead readers to study the history behind the novel and, as in the case of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code even compel scholars like Bart Ehrman to refute numerous historical and religious errors as he did in his 2004 book Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code. The Da Vince Code has also served as a repository of errors about Freemasonry, its practices, and its history. The Priory of Sinon is a well-debunked piece of fiction created to enrich a single person. There is no documented link between the Templars and Freemasonry. In addition, neither Walt Disney nor Richard Wagner was a Mason; the association between Rosslyn Chapel and the Templars is spurious; and Brown’s understanding of modern Freemasonry and church history are riddled with errors. In addition, and contrary to Brown’s fiction, Da Vinci himself received only one Vatican commission and, as Ehrman clearly demonstrates, Constantine had nothing to do with the Biblical canon. “I have to keep emphasizing that Dan Brown was writing fiction. Even though he claims that his ’descriptions of . . . documents . . . are accurate,’ in fact they are not . . . for some of us the historical record really does matter. . . All the more reason to know whether their [fiction writers] historical claims are true or flights of literary fancy.” 
The purpose of early Masonic histories, suggests Knoop and Jones, was to give the emerging fraternity something like the well-documented and still existing charters and records of privileges enjoyed by the operative guilds. It appears also that many well-meaning clergymen (many early Freemasons were clergymen) and others well-learned in The Bible, classical literature, what at that time purported to be history, and out of a desire to show the ancient nature of the Craft by demonstrating its Biblical as well as traditional connections, complied their histories much as Ussher compiled his chronology. Whatever their motives, these early compilers were honorable men who used the historical standards of their day which tended to be based on scripture and those authorities then known to them directly or indirectly to write their histories. These histories should not be taken seriously when compared to historical research conducted over the past two hundred years, but they do provide a solid foundation for Masonic allegory and ritual.
History today is much like a human being. When you look at the family tree of any person you note the web-like structure; the many individuals involved; the passage of time; the different countries and cultures; and the wide variety of events that contributed to the experiences of all who came before. What a person is today is the product of a long, involved past coupled with each person’s unique set of experiences, education, expectations, views, politics, faith, and genetics. Consider the family tree that includes individuals who fought on both sides during the American Civil War with the grandfathers of those nineteenth century individuals including members of the Continental Army of the Revolution as well as Hessian soldiers paid by King George III. Further back that tree may include Normans and Saxons who fought on opposite sides at the Battle of Hastings with the Saxons being the descendants of Viking raiders who invaded England and settled near York and Normans who descended from Roman senators or centurions. The further back you go, the more intricate the connections become and may genetic tracers from a multitude of regions on several continents. Freemasonry is no different.
The human imperative to discover “where we came from” has fueled the practice of genealogy for generations; so too it has led to the desire to establish and understand the history of the Masonic fraternity. As with the genealogical quest, now so greatly facilitated by genetic analysis, new tools coupled with old analytical techniques and documents newly discovered or rediscovered provide many potential links. To understand fully the human organism, you must analyze the various genes which compose the final product. Each gene has its original but each may also have its mutation. Combined, the human is the product of that progression. Freemasonry is a similar combination or progression. To understand the modern structure one should consider all contributing factors and institutions, and determine which links are valid and which are not. Is there a link between ancient craft guilds and their practices and Freemasonry? Did the mystery religion traditions factor into early Masonic practices? How much of craft guild practice was a function of its involvement in the mystery play cycles? To what extent did the human focus on ritual practices through the ages contribute to Freemasonry? To what extend did the various cultural revolutions such as the Enlightenment and the Renaissance contribute to the founding of the Fraternity? The questions are endless, but they provide a beginning point.
The history of any group appears to issue from the primal search to determine “why it became what it did.” In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, this question was commonly answered, as it had so often been done in the past, by fabulists and myth-makers with the ensuing rival accounts of the same phenomena. Did these fabulists and myth-makers realize that their search for origins tended to render them more defenders and persuaders than seekers for historical information? The answer is an emphatic “No.” These antiquaries, as Knoop and Jones note, wrote out of an ancient and honorable interest in the Craft and its history. “The results, whatever the motives, cannot be taken seriously today; but the compilers probably did their best according to the standards of their time, basing their accounts upon scriptural and such other received authorities as were directly or indirectly known to them.”
These historians originated, studied, and wrote in a period before there was a fundamental grasp of historicity. They understood the need for chronology and thus presented their stories in such a manner, but there was little attempt to verify or document people or events, or account fully for motivations and variations in the narratives. They were, in a modern sense, naïve, but they were doing their best to illuminate man’s condition and explain his past in light of current events and political realities. The problem with all history, however, is that of intent, especially original intent. The historical record does not always present a unanimous, single voiced account of the past nor does it come to us through perfect and complete records. In fact, for much of history, there is a significant lack of evidence of most events and as significant a misinterpretation of what evidence is or was available.
A major motivation that leads humans to study history appears to be the security which such study implies. There is security in reviewing the artifacts and writings of past eras. The past does not appear to change. Much like Monday-morning quarterbacking, it is safe. But it really is not. With each succeeding generation of scholars, there are new realities to be pondered or brought into the open made possible by some recent discovery or some old discovery reevaluated and reinterpreted. When we read ancient texts in the light of new findings about language, meaning, and history, we discover that we can now know things of which our ancestors had no knowledge or even suspicion. All historians feel some degree of self-satisfaction in this process. Consider medicine as example. Reading Morgagni’s (1682-1771) clinical notes, we discover that he described hardening of the arteries and myriad other conditions, and even demonstrated that strokes were not the result of a lesion on the brain long before such medical diagnosis became standard or any treatment devised. Morgagni made the observations, but it depended upon future generations to interpret them correctly and to use them clinically.
Yesterday may be a comfortable place to be, but it is not conducive to full understanding or to the utilization of that understanding to address current concerns. The Greeks and Romans, notes J.G.A. Pocock, were not fully aware, as we are aware, of civilizations that existed in their immediate past. For them, there was no past world of which they felt the need to possess evidence, to explore, or to explain. They were centered on the here and now comparing their civilization with others then in existence and assuming that the past had been no different. As historiography moved into the medieval period and then the Renaissance, coupled with an emphasis on classical learning and antiquity, it began to focus on the past. The men of these periods sought to model themselves upon antiquity by accepting newly rediscovered teachings as authoritative. But, the imaginative mind of the Middle Ages, especially, led to a composite reading of ancient texts that mixed the past with the present. Medieval and Renaissance art is replete with images of Hector and Alexander, both ancient Greek characters, depicted as European knights in full armor; of Christ’s trial taking place in a feudal castle according to feudal law and tradition; and numerous images of various Middle Eastern Biblical characters and events depicted in European settings with European faces dressed as Europeans of the period in which the art was produced. In addition, prior to the modern age, history traditionally focused primarily on what the writer perceived as important people doing important things with men being the central character in most histories and narratives.
Common men and just about all women tended to be omitted from the historical record or only described in a cursory manner. For example, as R.V. Turner and Helen Castor note, while we have a detailed description of Henry II of England to include his hair color, complexion, freckles, eye color, and even his chosen hair style (closely shorn), there is no similar record of Eleanor of Aquitaine, his wife. She was a woman and thus unworthy of such note. And when there are records of the appearance of an individual, either in the chronicles or other sources, they do not always reflect the historical record. Henry V of England had been shot full in the face with a cross bow bolt at age sixteen. Such an injury would suggest that his outward appearance was not especially pleasing and though often described as muscular, manly, and kingly, the one accepted portrait, a profile with a tonsure hair style, does not suggest a handsome man by modern standards. Yet the dramatic depictions of the man by actors such as Kenneth Branagh and Laurence Olivier never suggest this youthful facial wound or the appearance seen in the only accepted portrait.
One aspect of modern perception must not be overlooked in this discussion. So much of what modern man—especially twentieth and twenty-first century man—thinks he knows about history comes not from the historical record but from media, especially films and television. Even in the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries, dramas and fictionalized history created vivid images of the past. Shakespeare depicts Richard III as a crooked, limping hunchback. History suggests otherwise. He was a warrior king who fought and won battles in full body armor and rode considerable distances on horseback. Similarly, cinematic representations of Catherine, first wife of Henry VIII of England, are most often of a dark-haired, dark-eyed female with a pale complexion. Both the historical record and period paintings indicate that she had chestnut hair, blue eyes, and the ruddy cheeks of her French, English, and Norman ancestors who included John of Gaunt and Edward III. Finally, though at six feet and two inches, General George Patton was an inch taller than George C. Scott, Patton’s voice was far from the sonorous tone of Scott’s. Why, then, do some historians, dramatists, and others write their histories as they do and did? Why not report accurately and without bias so that future generations would be fully cognizant of the nature of their past?
Pocock suggests that early attempts to establish the history and antiquity of so many political, social, and governmental institutions was based on the concept of the immemorial and encouraged the creation of legends about remote times when true heroes and people of great stature were the creators of so many things. Legally, in England, for example, this immemorial custom was often considered binding in the present based on the past. The practical utility of any history is that it provides moral and practical guides of what to do and what to avoid in the present. These accounts of ancient heroes, customs, and mores by historians and others thus took an active part in shaping the present.
LEGEND, MYTH, AND HISTORY
The words legend and myth are often used interchangeably to refer to past events, especially those of which there is little or no documentation. There are significant differences, however. A legend appears to have some basis in fact with the inclusion of historical names and events. History becomes legend when it is exaggerated or romanticized. The founding of any great nation contains such legends. Did George Washington throw a silver dollar across the Delaware or the Potomac or Rappahannock River? Probably not. While silver dollars were first minted in 1793 six years before Washington died, the width of the rivers tends to refute the legend, but it persists. The truth of Washington’s existence has been adapted to meet allegorical needs. Myths, on the other hand, are archetypical storytelling which seek to explain difficult concepts using personifications and allegories. Myths tend not to be chronological and are often cyclical in form. The basic content of a myth tends to be timeless with the events being symbolic rather than expressions of actual events.
Some significant differences between legends and myths are summed up in the table below.
Events occurred, people existed but the evidence has been exaggerated or is insubstantial.
No documentation of people or events
Tends to focus on recent past.
Focus is on ancient past.
Facts are execrated, even fictional.
No evidence to support story.
Notable, documented historical figures.
Gods and the supernatural.
Explanation of natural phenomena through symbolism, no objective proof.
History tends to focus less on abstractions and conceptual indispositions, and more on factuality. In history, the study of the text becomes a matter of anchoring the words in context with the understanding that not all texts are verbal. There does not appear to be a great general theory of history but rather plurality and diversity. History is complex and filled with permutations. It is a puzzle with most of the parts missing or defaced.
A historian must diligently strive to work through the legend as in the case of Heinrich Schliemann and the discovery of Troy. The legend, propounded by Schliemann, is that he became fascinated with Troy when his father read him the Iliad. This long poem led him to search for proof of Troy, the Tiryns, and Mycenae by first going into business to make his fortune and then utilizing those funds to search Hissarlik in Turkey for the fabled city. The historical record tells a different story. Schliemann was a brilliant, talented con man who, nevertheless, changed the course of archeology. He traveled the world visiting Russia, England, Mexico, Greece, India, Egypt, and Turkey. He went to ancient monuments, sat in on university classes, attended lectures in comparative literature and languages, wrote reams of pages in his diary, and made friends and enemies wherever he went.
There is no doubt that by 1868 at age 46 Schliemann was focused on archaeology, particularly the history of the Trojan War. In June of that year he was in Pompeii and in July at Mount Autos, said to have been the site of the palace of Odysseus. Schliemann returned to Paris in the fall of 1868 and became an expert on Troy and Mycenae. In 1871, shortly after marrying seventeen-year-old Sophia Engastromenos and based upon a long exchange of letters with British archeologist Frank Calvert, Schliemann focused his work in Hissarlik, one of three candidates for the site of Troy. He assumed that Homeric Troy was the oldest (an invalid assumption), he quickly moved through the upper levels of the mound until he reached fortifications which he identified as ancient Troy. In May 1873, Schliemann reported finding a cache of gold objects which he designated Priam’s Treasure. Subsequent excavations indicate that the site originally designed by Schliemann as the Troy of the Iliad was of early Bronze Age origins long before the Mycenaean Age and that the treasure reportedly found there did not appear to belong to the Trojan Wars.
Did Schliemann discover the Troy of the Iliad? Obviously not; Troy is still being discovered with recent archeology showing that the city was far larger than originally envisioned, extending well into the surrounding plain and that the site had been used by the Greeks as well as the Romans. The site of Troy is now believed to have housed nine cities and indicates at least 46 levels of habitation. But with Schliemann, the myth of Troy took on new life; but further research supported only part of his original contention. Myth became reality. History presents many of the same problems: a dearth of evidence; misunderstanding of what is found; and the tendency of some historians to fail the test of serendipity and creativity by creating false links between disconnected things to force relationships.
One great myth that even in the modern era is often still believed though repeatedly disproved is that the earth was accepted by everyone as flat until Columbus and Magellan demonstrated otherwise in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. Pythagoras had theorized the spherical shape of the earth in the sixth century B.C. Eratosthenes, a Hellenistic mathematician and astronomer based in Alexandria, calculated the circumference of the world in the third century B.C. based upon observations made in a deep well in Syene in what is now Egypt using accepted mathematical formulas (geometry) and established its circumference as 39,690 kilometers, an error of only 389 lilometers. There is even evidence that Columbus had access to and probably consulted Henricus Martellus’ map of the world created about 1491. This map, with its accompanying notes and annotations, shows a spherical earth with Asia, Africa, and Europe clearly delineated. It does not, however, show the New World, an error that would have resulted in Columbus thinking that he had landed close to Japan not the Bahamas. This map, as had other maps of antiquity, represented the earth as spherical, not flat.
The dissolution of the Monasteries in England under the reign of Henry VIII between 1536 and 1541 resulted in the destruction of virtually all records of churches, monasteries, convents, and other religious institutions in England, Ireland, and Wales. These records included not only ecclesiastical writings but also birth, death, and marriage records; records of land transactions; family genealogies; and diaries and chronicles. It is estimated that this loss represented about fifty percent of the written record of English history. During the English Civil War (1642-1651) and the following Commonwealth (1649-1653), a significant part of what remained disappeared. This was followed in 1660 by the Great Fire of London and, in the twentieth century, by the destruction that resulted from the Blitz. Other great losses of historical records include the burning of the library at Alexandria, the sack of Rome, the destruction of the House of Wisdom in Baghdad, and the fall of Constantinople in 1453.
The library at Alexandria, founded in 235 B.C., underwent successive attacks beginning in 48 B.C. and ending with the final and complete destruction of the institution in 391 A.D. The numerous sackings of Rome began with the attack by the Gaul’s in 390 B.C and was followed by subsequent attacks in 410 through 546, 1084, and 1527. These attacks and sacks removed from existence an untold wealth of information. The Mongols’ destruction of the House of Wisdom in Baghdad in 1258 resulted in the loss to the western world of Greek documents salvaged at Rome’s fall thus removing from the Western tradition what had been salvaged from previous sacks of the Eternal City. In the New World, the written record of the Mayan culture was virtually destroyed by Catholic missionaries and only three codices remain. The Nazi regime and other fascist groups throughout Europe burned books on a scale unmatched in previous history. Anyone doing genealogical research in the United States becomes quickly aware of the destruction of primary documents over the relatively short 408-year history of this nation, especially during the Civil War of 1861-1865.
In the recent history of the United States, the 1921 fire in the basement of the Department of Commerce Building in Washington, DC, destroyed ninety percent of 1890 US Census records leaving a 20-year gap in the genealogical record. The July 1973 fire at the St. Louis National Personnel Records Center destroyed an estimated eighty percent of all U.S. Army personnel records from late 1912 to January 1960 (World War I and World War II) and seventy-five percent of U.S. Air Force records from late 1947 to January 1964 with the total estimated loss of between sixteen and eighteen million files. In the twenty-first century, reports indicate that six percent of all PCs fail annually or 4.6 million loss episodes each year. It is also estimated that more than forty percent of all companies experience some degree of data loss annually. All of which suggest the flawed logic that there are sound records of our past. Add to this fact that prior to 1436 and the invention of the printing press, the concept of readily available records in multiple copies was unthinkable. And until the development of electronic computing and digital storage in the second half of the twentieth century, information archiving was a cumbersome affair requiring large spaces and complete with a variety of dangers from fire to water, moths, and beetles.
A summary of the history of that great charter of liberties commonly known as the Magna Carta (generally considered the most significant early influence on the rule of constitutional law in the English-speaking world) is a prime example of problems with how historical documents have been maintained and interpreted. Magna Carta was not the first written law, even in England. Sumerian tablets from Mesopotamia contain laws written prior to 2,100 B.C.E. The Code of Hammurabi was incised into a stone stele in 1754 B.C. E. The Ten Commandments were placed into written form in the sixth century B.C.E and the Roman Code of Justinian and Salic law of the fifth century both laid down rules for human society. It is the legend more than fact that has given Magna Carta its place in Western history.
King John of England was well versed in law. He was trained by his father, Henry II, to know how government worked—inside and out—and how to manipulate it to his wishes. Eventually, John ran afoul of his barons, but more importantly, the Catholic Church. He was excommunicated by Innocent III in 1207 and England was placed under interdict—no church services: no weddings, funerals, or masses. A typical comment made about John was that written by Matthew Paris: “Foul as it is, hell itself is defined by the fouler presence of John.” There is no original of the document in existence. What survive today are four different copies in written form which are engrossments or written records of an oral agreement hammered out months before in June 1215. Two of the surviving copies are located in the British Museum in London; one is at Lincoln Cathedral; and a fourth is housed at Salisbury Cathedral. Even though the language is virtually identical in the four copies, a form of heavily abridged Latin, one is square; two are what in modern typography would be considered portrait and one landscape. John signed none of them. One of the copies in the British Library does display the melted remains of the king’s seal rather than his signature. The British Library copy was exposed to fire in 1731 (which melted the seal) and a poorly done restoration attempt served to wash off much of the ink and half-dissolve significant parts of the parchment thus requiring the utilization of imaging technology to read the text. They are magnificent documents, none the less, and provide a foundation for an understanding of English and American law. They do not, however, provide the researcher all answers to all questions about the evolution of English or American legal systems.
A significant part of the historical record has been lost and this includes documents relating to the founding of Freemasonry. The entire history of Masonry, operative and speculative, is spotty. For the craft guilds, trade secrets were paramount which discouraged putting them in any tangible form. Likewise, the very nature of speculative Freemasonry with its focus on mystery (see Chapter VII) and secrecy resulted in a dearth of historical records. In Chapter III may be found four primary documents associated with the Fraternity including the most ancient, the Regius manuscript or poem. Appendix I provides a list of more than 140 other such documents. Appendix II provides a list of English Liberate, Charter, and Chancery rolls or ledgers which relate directly to the operative guild from which the modern Fraternity appears to have evolved. It is possible, therefore, using such documents and other available information, to construct a plausible history of Freemasonry and to draw conclusions based on that construct. Searching outside traditional sources and considering contributing factors is essential to understanding and to the development of the history of any organization.
Robert Willis, M.D. The Works of William Harvey. (London: Sydenham Society, 1847), p. 116.
Ludwig von Mises. Theory and History: An Interpretation of Social and Economic Evolution. (Auburn, AL: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 1957), p. 274.
Von Mises, p. 274.
The Muratorian Fragment. Located at http://www.bible-researcher.com/muratorian.html, line 73.
Ehrman, Truth and Fiction, p. 190.
Douglas Knoop & G.P. Jones. The Genesis of Freemasonry: An Account of the Rise and Development of Freemasonry in Its Operative, Accepted, and early Speculative Phase. (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1949), p. 1.
Dan Jones, “The Mad King and Magna Carta,” Smithsonian, Vol. 46, No.4, p. 54.