The origins of Freemasonry are hidden in the mists of time, however there are several theories. The commonly accepted one is that Freemasonry developed and emerged from the Guilds of Stonemasons. Originally, Stonemasons lodges were closely connected with the Benedictine order of monks, but emancipated themselves from direct clerical influence and formed an alliance of German masons under the leadership of four main lodges of which the Strassburg lodge played a leading role. In the 11. – 13. centuries lodges throughout Europe prospered due to the construction of many cathedrals.
As literacy was confined to a privileged few, the masons knowledge and customs were passed on orally, and protected by the use of passwords, handshakes, and vaious symbols. This tradidion is upheld even today.
The oldest Stonemasons guild rules extant are dated 1458, and describe a pan-Germanic Brotherhood. At the head of the organisation is a freely elected leader – the Master – the office subject to reelection every year – whose duty it was to mediate and rule on disputes. All other bretheren were considered to be equal in status, however the „fellow craft“ (skilled craftsman) was expected to teach the „entered apprentice“ (as yet unskilled). A meeting was held monthly to hold discussions and resolve problems. Due to the dwindling demand for sacral buildings the Stonemasons guild lost its importance, and in 1731 it was dissolved.
In England, in the late 16th and 17th centuries, suitable members of the ruling classes and the „common man“ were permitted to join lodges as „accepted masons“, where neither birthright nor status were important for membership – solely personal suitability. The first such initiation of an „accepted mason“ was in the lodge „Mary’s Chapel“, Edinburgh, in 1600, where we find John Boswell of Auchinleck accepted as „non-operative mason“.
After the completion of St. Pauls Carhedral the number of lodges dropped considerably. The influence of the „accepted mason“ led to a reorientation of the lodges, as the ideals and ethics were considered of great value.
In 1717, four ancient craft lodges met to found the Grand Lodge of England. They met to choose a Grand Master (sayer), and under the leadership of the Rev. James Anderson, naturist John Theophilus Desaguliers, and historian George Payne agreed on basic forms, retaining the old Arms, secret grips, passwords and signs. Rev. Anderson then included these rules in his Masonic constitution, the „Ancient Charges“, published in 1723.
The Charges cover matters both internal to the lodge as well as relations to society at large, especially the relationship to politics and religion. He also wrote that women had no place in masonic lodges, and that only those lodges recognising and adhering to this constitution would be recognised. This incurred strong protest in general, and particularily from Scottish and York lodges.
The rapid expansion and popularity of Freemasonry led to criticism and anti-masonic legislation from both the Catholic church as well as many States. Masonry was forbidden in Naples (1731), Poland (1734), Holland (1735), France (1737), Geneva, Hamburg, Sweden, Florence and the Austrian Lowlands (1739). The severest oppression was by the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal. Various Catholic Popes has issued Bulls damning Masonry. (1738 Clemens XII. In eminenti apostolatus specula, 1751 Benedikt XIV. Providas romanorum , 1821 Pius VII. Ecclesiam a Jesu Christo , and Leo XIII. in several encyclica.
In France the „Grande Loge National“ (now Grand Orient de France) was founded on the 24th May 1773 under the leadership of the Duke of Montmorency-Luxembourg. He wrote a constitution containing the basic tenets of the French revolution. In a memorandum dated 1775 the words „the Law is an expression of the Will of the People“.
In the town of Le Pecq, the lodge „Les LibrePenseurs“ declared itself independent of the „Grand Loge Symbolique Ecossaise“, and agreed to accept both women and men as future members. Mme. Maria Deraismes was initiated on Jan. 14th 1892. After many ups and downs, the „Orde Maconnique ixte International ‘Le Droit Humain’“ – the first co-Masic order – was founded on April 4th 1893