It is not clear exactly when Freemasonry began but it is widely accepted to have originated from the stonemason trade guilds of the Middle Ages, referred to as Incorporated Trades or Crafts.
The term “incorporated” comes from the fact that these various craft organizations held Royal charters, or ‘Seals of Cause’ which allowed them to work exclusively within the Royal Burghs in the Middle Ages. The language and symbols used in Freemasonic rituals today come from these older craft bodies.
The earliest use of the term Freemason dates from around 1390 but referred purely to operative members. Prior to the formalization of Freemasonry as we know it however, Scotland was already beginning to see a shift during the 17th century where more and more nonoperative members were joining the old trade institutions. Throughout the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries in particular, the fraternity expanded across Europe and the Americas leading to the position today where you will find lodges globally.
The link between Masonic guilds and Modern Freemasons?
The original Masonic guilds were ‘operative’, in other words, concerned with the operating of the craft of stonemasonry. Modern Masons are ‘allegorical’ in that the rituals and ceremonies are symbolic. The Masonic lodges today are about mutual fellowship, support and charitable work.
Medieval Craft Guilds
In the Middle Ages, craft guilds were an important part of society. The word ‘guild’ comes from the Saxon word gilden, meaning to pay. A group of craftsmen would form a guild and charge a membership fee to join. Membership was restricted, and the various guilds worked together to set prices and ensure that the secrets of the trades were not spread outside the guild. There were two stages, or degrees, required to become a full member of a trade guild. Firstly, the Apprentice stage where a young boy would train under a Journeyman for many years, usually seven and often for board and lodgings only. To become qualified, he would present a Master Piece to the Incorporated Trade, in order to prove that he had reached a suitably high standard. On their approval he would only then become a Journeyman and be able to earn a good salary.