Edited from ‘Freemasonry – Child of the Enlightenment? Or vice versa?’
Michael Spurr, AQC 109 (1996)
Louis XIV and Louis XV’s France was marked by centralized absolutism. Louis XV was five years old in 1710 when he succeeded to the throne, with the Duke of Orleans serving as Regent until 1723. For the following twenty years Louis was under the influence of his ex-tutor and chief minister, Cardinal Fleury.
At around 21 million in 1700 and 28 million in 1790, France’s population was one of the largest in Europe and dwarfed that of England, a mere 5 million in 1700 and around 8 million in 1790. France also dominated European arts and fashion, but lost out to Britain as the Enlightenment writings of Locke, Newton and others were absorbed by Europe’s elites. British philosophy and scientific ideas became fashionable and had a consequential impact on both religion and politics. Newton’s theories demonstrated that apparently impenetrable scientific problems could be solved by reason and the views of deists and latitudinarians struck a sympathetic chord with those Europeans opposed to religious diktat. Moreover, Britain’s example of a constitutional monarchy answerable to an elected parliament was balm to those living under absolutist regimes. These ideas gained impetus across Europe, not least through freemasonry, which was adopted rapidly in many of Europe’s capital cities and elsewhere.
Although there is limited supporting documentation, it is accepted that two Paris Lodges were established in 1726 followed by four more in 1729, and that the movement quickly became widespread with lodges established in Valenciennes, Lyons, Rouen, Le Havre, Pau, Nantes, Caen, Bordeaux, Aubigny, Avignon, Montpelier, Marseilles and Bayonne. New degrees appeared shortly afterwards: the ‘Scottish’ or ‘knightly’ degrees.
Scots Master degrees had been worked in London in 1733, perhaps earlier, and the current balance of evidence suggests that higher degrees were created in France during the decade thereafter and developed further with still higher degrees. Current research suggests an interconnection between Scottish, Irish, English and French freemasonry during this period that can be linked to the creation of the Royal Arch degree. Given the personal connections between Europe’s aristocrats, this should not be considered surprising.
French and other European aristocrats wished to embellish England’s three-degree system. They preferred a system in which they could be raised to ‘knights’ or ‘chevaliers’, rather than be compared to stonemasons, an approach aligned with the mediaeval chivalric orders with which they were familiar. Although it is hard to know precisely what influence freemasonry exerted on social and political developments in France, the speed with which it was adopted and the extent to which it spread suggest that its tenets had appeal.