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Barbati Fratres – The Bearded Brothers and the Start of the Freemasons

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When you think of Freemasons, what typically comes to mind? A secret organization, shrouded in mystery? An ancient brotherhood with unknown ties of influence throughout history? Great! Because I am absolutely going to play that up!

I believe what I have uncovered and what you are about to read is unique. I have not found any historical beginnings of the Freemasons put together in the manner I am about to present. I came across the Latin phrase “Fratres Barbati” (or Barbati Fratres as I have more commonly seen it), in a small, yellow book my wife gave me for Father’s Day: The Philosophy of Beards. The book is a recent reprint from 1854, and is an excellent little read. Those two words, which translate as “Bearded Brothers”, sent me on a quest which quickly led to the Freemasons.

Ominous Forewarning: There is a chance that if you read this, and discover the ancient truths about the Freemasons, cloaked figures will appear without warning and snuff you out of existence. However, there is also a chance that if you have a serious beard and are into brick laying, you might get a pass. Proceed at your own risk.

The Conversi

In the Medieval times of Christendom, the Catholic church was both Church and State, and spread with the authority of God and the principles of politicians. Coming out of the Roman mindset, anything which was to be for God and about God should be done of the highest quality and magnificence, hence the grand cathedrals and statues of that period. Not only was the resulting architecture to be extraordinarily beautiful, but it was also to be holy; unblemished by human sin and nature as possible. Thus, monks were conscripted to do the work, in silence and with utmost reverence for the tasks at hand.

However, as the church spread, finding Christian laborers with the skill to cut stone as well as enlist to the monistic life became nearly impossible. Being that monasteries and cathedrals were of such significance, essentially claiming with great assertion that the area had been won for Christ, they had to be built and so a compromise was made. It is recorded that as early as 550 A.D., stone cutters of newly claimed territory, who had only recently been pagans, were enlisted to live with and work with the monks. These men were called The Conversi – meaning, “the way” or “monastic life”.

Different Men, Different Rules

As the early church believed it was its mission to enforce moral purity, those who worked for the church, such as the monks, were not simply employed, but rather represented the Catholic church with their dress and actions. The discipline for stepping out of line could be severe. Monks had to shave the tops of their heads, referring to the Biblical verse about a man having no covering upon his head except God, wear simple garments which would attract no underserved coveting of their neighbors, and, though not always enforced, shave their beards.

Throughout history, beards have been viewed as a sign of masculinity; one which many men took great pride in — kind of like we do now. While we view a beard, today, as looking cool and being a symbol of manliness, it was far more serious back then. Men would swear upon their beards, bless people by allowing them to touch their beard, and save clippings of their beard to be buried with them. So, then, as a sign of humility, monks would shave.

However, this wouldn’t work for yesterday’s pagans, the Conversi. Here is a bit of text I found talking about the special considerations given to this class of masons.

“As early as the era of the Merowingian Kings, about the year 550, in France, there was a fully developed system practised by these rulers of granting to individuals especial letters of safeguard or protection, which, when issued in the form of a written document, exempted the bearer from all and every local restriction.”

For hundreds of years the Conversi continued to work alongside the church, now fully Christian, but part of a distinct, freeborn lineage:

“As of 851 [The Conversi] whose social grade was more elevated than the ordinary workmen, and were freeborn, were filiates in the Abbeys, used a quasi-monastic dress, could leave their profession whenever they chose and could return to civil life. Converts who abstained from secular pursuits as sinful and professed conversion to the higher life of the Abbey, without becoming monks.”

In other words, they were “free masons”. Bound by their own creeds to a type of monastic life, but free to come and go as they pleased, free to dress as they pleased, and free to grow their beards, which they did.

The Barbati Fratres

The work of building monasteries, cloisters, and cathedrals became a science among the Conversi, passed down from father to son, from master to apprentice. It isn’t hard to understand how, over the centuries, this knowledge became very valuable. If a man could cut stone and build as these Conversi, he could work for the highest authority in the land and also have the liberty to live as a virtuous man ought to live; bound by his conscience before God and not the church. They were a brotherhood, cut and shaped over the centuries. They were the ones who placed their legacy over the ruins of fallen kings.

Due to their flowing beards, which they refused to shave, they earned the name Conversi Barbati Fratres, or The Converted Bearded Brothers.

The following quote tells of their great bond and that the honor of the name, Barbati Fratres, should never be called into question:

“Blended with the active energy of their building talent, necessarily the Barbati Fratres, as denizens of the cloisters, manifested the essential spirit of fraternity. Of this the name itself must ever stand as an unassailable impediment to perverse induction.”

Secret Signs and Symbols

Because the work of the masons had to be done in silence, they developed a series of hand signals and gestures to “speak” while they performed their task of building. This, of course, made the group all the more select and secretive and hindered the transfer of knowledge except to those allowed to become their apprentices. I was able to find a bit on when they began to use symbols to mark their work:

“History attests with unequivocal certainty that as early as the year 1090, the Barbati Fratres used marks of a specific character, hewn upon stones, for purpose of proprietory distinction.”

The Barbati Fratres were becoming more united, but in the process, setting themselves apart from both society, the monks, and their Catholic overseers.

The Refusal to Shave and the End of Catholic Relationship

“In the year 1230, William Abbott, of Premontre, attempted to enforce compliance with the rule of the Clugniac order of Monasteries, upon the bearded builders and ordered them to shave off their beards.” – The Early Freemasons

As the Catholic church spread, control was harder to maintain. In an effort to enforce the churches standards, William Abbot attempted to impose the monastic shaving policy. A little more research shows that there may have been an underlying jealousy towards the free masons which they no doubt detected:

“We are told by Bro. Geo. F. Fort (in his Critical Inquiry Concerning the Medicevat Conventual Builders, 1884) that the school of dextrous Barbati Fratres incurred the anger of their coreligionists, by their haughty deportment, sumptuous garb, liberty of movement and refusal to have their long, flowing beards shaven – hence their name – thus tending to the more fascinating attractions of civil life as time carried them forward through the centuries to the middle of the thirteenth, when William Abbott, of Premontre, attempted to enforce the rule of shaving the beard.”

The Barbati Fratres refused to shave even a hair:

“They peremptorily refused, and threatened, if the edict were made mandatory, to set fire to every cloister in the country. This order and prompt refusal mark the absolute severance of the guild of Mediaeval Masons from sacerdotal control, and with the same ended for ever the direct or indirect authority of the Roman Pontilf over the Craft.”

The numbers of free masons had grown over the centuries and possibly outnumbered the monks. Their numbers, plus an intimate knowledge of the inner workings of each building, made their ability to enact their incendiary disapproval, very real. The authority of the church over the Barbati Fratres was thrown off.

Final Thoughts

I am not sure what happened between the time of William Abbots decree to shave and the separation of the Barbati Fratres from the church. Somehow, the society we now know as the Freemasons was created around the 1700s and became a popular, though secretive, fraternal organization, sans the beard requirement.

I absolutely love this story. I believe, at the heart of it, we have a brotherhood which feels the stirrings, however small, of an outside force creeping in and telling them how they are to live. It reminds me a good deal of the American Colonist, refusing to accept yet another tax hike on tea, more out of principle than anything else. We need more men like this. We need more brotherhoods.

I’ll leave the closing bit to another quote I found in an old book on the Barbati Fratres. It sums them up better than I ever could.

“The vast sense of conscious power, the great strength of personal independence and inflexible will of these mediaeval Freemasons may be inferred from what followed. Instead of proceeding to complete the sacrifice of their hirsute embellishment, with cringing humility and servile fear, these worthy ancestors of the modern craft deliberately refused. This refusal implies far more than the preceding moral attributes enumerated. It presupposes boundless courage to confront a power in the full swing of its dominion, rendered doubly embittered against defection from prelatial regulations, through vengeance meted out with an unstinted hand to the vanquished heresies of southern Europe. Vigorous manhood had long since been reached by these defiant barbati constructors, as attested by the offending affluence of beards, and therefore they possessed physical endurance for the singular tournament, but their diversified and widespread brotherhood supplied numbers almost equal to those of the Monks themselves. Such answer as they returned to the venerable prelate is also characteristic of the mediaeval Masons.”

Barbati Fratres!

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