Just Good Friends

Caroline Moorehead

  • The Brotherhood: The Secret World of the Freemasons by Stephen Knight
    Granada, 325 pp, £8.95, January 1984, ISBN 0 246 12164 5
  • The Calvi Affair: Death of a Banker by Larry Gurwin
    Macmillan, 249 pp, £8.95, October 1983, ISBN 0 333 35321 8

When a Mafia suspect called Joseph Miceli Crimi led police, in March 1981, to an office safe in Castiglion Fibocchi, near Arezzo, which contained the names of prominent Italians and documents linking them to a series of dubious and highly confidential deals, the stability of the entire country came under threat. So, too, did the international institution of Freemasonry. The 962 people listed all belonged to a secret Masonic lodge, called Propaganda 2, and as Italian Freemasonry fell into disrepute, so the ripples of self-questioning spread outwards, to other Masonic brotherhoods. In France, there is now open discussion about Masonry’s close ties to the Socialists and speculation as to the part influential Masons played in the 1981 Elections. (The current French Grand Master is Air Force General Jacques Mitterrand, the President’s brother.) In America, it is widely known that 17 Presidents, including Ford and Reagan, have been Masons. The dollar bill bears not only the likeness of George Washington, who was initiated into Masonry in 1752, but the all-seeing eye, its symbol. Yet the precise nature of the Masonic bonds, the rituals exacted of its members, and indeed the very origins of the society, remain remarkably little explored.

It was fashionable among Masons in the 18th century to claim that Masonic roots were to be found among the Druids or the Essenes, Jewish monks of the pre-Christian era. Historians are more cautious, tracing the beginnings of the movement to the wandering, skilled stonemasons of the Gothic age, who needed some way of identifying each other and some unifying guild to protect their qualifications, though they allow that its philosophy and rituals draw heavily on far earlier sources – Hinduism and the Kabbala, for instance. What is certain is that as far as England was concerned Freemasonry in its modern form was born when the gentry – though quite who this gentry was is again not clear – first perceived in the Medieval Christian guild of masons a potential base for a fraternity of like-minded people, sharing the same semi-religious, semi-philosophical views and willing to use the vehicle of a secret society to help each other advance in the world. The first English gentleman to join an English lodge is said to have been Elias Ashmole, the antiquarian who founded the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. That was in 1646.

By the early years of the 18th century the old guild aspect of Freemasonry was largely gone: in its place stood a highly conservative, increasingly fashionable network of lodges, each of which met regularly to talk, initiate new members and reaffirm the Masonic ritual. Secrecy, an essential element of the Masonic atmosphere, was guaranteed by formal oaths, backed up by penalties; respectability by inviting royal protectors to become figureheads. (Queen Elizabeth II is the present Grand Patroness.) The year 1717 marked the foundation of the British Grand Lodge, out of four merged London lodges, and in the course of the century the rituals took permanent shape around the legend of King Solomon’s Temple, while the Masonic message crossed the Channel to France, probably borne there by Jacobite exiles. In Britain the middle and professional classes have provided the society’s main support ever since the period of consolidation.

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