PROCESSIONS, PAGEANTS, ASSEMBLIES

With the subject of processions, discussed on page 808, may be connected pageants and assemblies, because at some three or four periods in the history of Freemasonry the three had the same importance for both the public and Craftsmen. In the earliest period of the Operative Craft assemblies were in general forbidden by the King, whether public or private—if public they were generally called assemblies or congregations, if private they were often called covines; it was feared lest large numbers of peoples met together might plan united action against their temporal or their religious rulers.

An assembly could, however, be held on written permission, or patent, from some lord, prince, or king; and the author of the original version of the Old Charges made much of the fact that when it had held its General Assembly in York to receive a charter, the Fraternity held it by royal permission, which proved that it had not been an unlawful congregation or covine. Even after they had formed a new and permanent General Assembly, or Grand Lodge, in 1717, the Lodges did not feel easy in their minds until they had secured patronage from a member of the nobility, the Duke of Montague, and, as the events proved, they were wise, because when in 1799 the Parliament forbade secret societies (“covines”) the Noble Patrons of the two Grand Lodges went in person and obtained exemption for the Fraternity by name.

In the heyday of the gild system pageants were a prominent, established, constituted municipal event, provided for in the law, supervised by the Mayor and Aldermen, and belonging to the customs or rules of the gilds themselves.

These pageants consisted of floats, each mounted on a wagon, each boat having some general significance, or else was one act in a connected series of acts. They were so elaborately and richly costumed, the “machinery” used was so ingenious, and the arrangements to be made were so extensive, that a pageant like the famous Corpus Christi at Chester might cost many thousands of dollars; and records of the gild and City Companies, each of which participated, show that there was often much complaint about costs. The custom was for each gild to contribute one float, or “waggon.” It does not appear that Freemasons were very often in these pageants; where they had local gilds or companies they usually were small; where many Masons worked on a cathedral they had not a gild but a Lodge.

The Church and the State between them exercised a rigid control of these pageants, censored the words spoken, and the actions, costumes, and machinery.

This fact explains the early fear Masons had of Masonic pageants; it explains also why Freemasons enacted their own ceremonies in secret; they knew, oftentimes, that the Church would condemn them for heresy, or at least would frown upon them as novelties or innovations; in a time when the people had no books, and priests preached few sermons, pageants became a book, and the Church made sure to see that it was an orthodox book.

The ceremonies used by the Freemasons then would, if we could now see them, be innocuous and innocent in our eyes, and with no theological significance; but our own familiar and innocuous ceremonies, were we by miracle to enact them in the year 1200 A.D., would condemn us to burning at the stake; the Tiler at the door of the Medieval Lodge and the guard against eavesdroppers were of more than ceremonial importance; certainly no Freemason would wish to see his own emblems and ceremonies exhibited in a pageant.

By the Eighteenth Century the pageant had become a procession, but even as processions they had their dangers, as Dr. Desaguliers and his Brethren discovered in the early years of Grand Lodge. Streets were narrow; a procession stopped traffic and interfered with stores and shops (the typical Medieval village or town had no stores); street arabs were inspired to rowdyism; the more solemn the procession the more likely it was to be parodied by a mock procession—an acted-out cartoon. Moreover, processions often were used for political propaganda, or as public protests, or as threats to gentlemen in power, or as invitations to popular revolt, or as a challenge to some rival party, etc. The Grand Lodge forbade Masonic processions, even the old custom of the ceremonial conducting of a new Grand Master from his home to be installed in the Grand Lodge room. When Preston and his fellow officers from the Lodge of Antiquity met at church, they walked together only a few feet, and wore no regalia except white gloves, yet they were expelled by the Grand Lodge.

What a procession might mean in the terms of pubs lie order, and at times of political crisis, is best seen in the history of the troubles in Ireland which led to the foundation or the Orange Society; and in the history of Cambridge and of Oxford Universities when in the battles between Town and Gown what began as a procession would up as a riot. At the present time what we Americans call “Masonic processions” are not processions as Eighteenth Century Masons would have understood the word because they do not enact anything or signify anything; they are nothing but a walking together,” not for the purpose of putting Masonic emblems or regalia on public view but in order that when the members of a Lodge attend a church or a funeral or go to lay a corner-stone they go together.

The difficulties Grand Lodges and Grand Masters have of deciding whether to permit them or not may be owing to their confusing a present day “marching together” with the very different processions of the days when the first rules were made.

(See Historical Reminiscence of the City of London and its Livery Companies, by Thomas Arundell; Bentley; London; 1869; it is very rich in materials OF gild processions, pageants, etc.; see Chapters XXIV and XX~Y, and consult Index.)

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