Origins of Masonic Memory Part II – The Renaissance

Renaissance

Giordano Bruno was an ex-monk and scientist, who mixed his ideas of science, religion, hermetic and memory all together in new and interesting ways. He created systems of memorization that were extremely complex but said to allow him to remember anything. His version of the art of memory was opposed by the followers of Peter Ramus, who argued his systems were too complex and unnecessary. They proposed they own version of an art of memory, that focused on organization and repetition. Both systems competed against each other and others for a long time.

Our next stop on the memory train is about 200 years later in renaissance Scotland.

During the late 1500’s in Scotland during their Renaissance period, a gentleman named William Schaw was made Master of Works in Scotland. This meant he was the government official that oversaw building operations in Scotland. Before taking the position Schaw traveled extensively learning as much about the building craft as he could. Then at the close of the century he set his mind to reorganizing the craft in order to make it stronger and better functioning. This cumulated in two documents called the Schaw statues, that laid down rules and regulations from everything on how apprentices and fellowcrafts should be educated to the keeping of written records.

The statutes, contains four important references to memory. One implicit and three explicit.

  • The first stated that upon their admission fellowcrafts where to choose a Brother to serve as their intender. An intender, according to later documents was usually the youngest brother of the lodge and he was to teach the new brother “those secrets which must never be written down” and “the mysteries of the craft”.
  • The second item and first explicit memory reference was that no person can be advanced without an essay and proof of memory. As essay refering not to a written work but a test of one’s practical skills.
  • The third stated that the Warden of Kilwinning should select six masons of high regard and superior memory to go out and examine all the masons of the realm in various aspects of the craft and on their “Ancient memory” (this probably referred to the traditions, charges, and ideas of the craft since time immemorial and what came to be known as the Masons Word). In this way the deacons could answer for all masons in the realm. (This practice is survived in our present day ritual in the lodge openings.)
  • The last reference, which has become fertile ground for much masonic research states that the Wardens of Kilwinning would test every apprentice and fellow craft in the “art of memory and science thereof” per their vocations, and if any had forgotten a point they were to pay a fine due to their laziness.

40 years later people came to discuss a new mystic ability called the Masons Word.

David Stevenson in his book The Origins of Freemasonry: Scotland Century 1590-1710, upon examining much of the historical record surrounding the Mason’s Word stated that possession of the Masters Word indicated a person was a properly qualified (both through skill in the craft and by having been regularly initiated) mason who could be admitted to work alongside other masons.” This allowed him to travel to different sites and become gainfully employed. In addition, it represented the general striving for mystical enlightment that was in vogue at that time.

During this period Masonic Lodges began to accept non-operative masons to their rank. These new members lacked the rigorous memory training of operative masons (they would have been exercising there’s daily in the practice of their craft for decades) but were still required to know the esoteric lore of the craft. Starting from 1699 we find the existence of a couple of special documents that detailed the ceremonies for giving one the Mason word and recognizing when someone was a mason. These were presumably created as memory aids for the non-operative brothers. The first half of the catechisms would describe a lodge and the things it contained and how one could identify themselves, while the second half of the documents would describe the method of initiating Brothers.

Based on his research David Stevenson believes that in the 17th century the concept of the lodge was also of “an imaginary building with places and images fixed in it as aids to memorizing the secrets of the Masons word and the ritual of initiation.” i.e. a memory palace or temple of memory.

This would soon change.