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Dr. Wilhelm Begemann vs. the English Masonic History Establishment: A Love-Hate Story

The Correspondence Circle of Quatuor Coronati Lodge N° 2076 (E. C.) was founded in January 1887. Twenty-three applications were registered during the following month and, on March 3rd, G. W. Speth, then Secretary to the Lodge, reported thirty-seven applications altogether. Among the twenty-three applicants of February 1887 - their names are enumerated in the St. John’s Card appended to AQC’s first volume - two famous ones: Henry Sadler and Dr. Wilhelm Begemann.


HENRY SADLER (1840 - 1911)


1887 was also the year when Henry Sadler published his first book, Masonic Facts and Fictions, which changed in a radical way views then current about English masonic history of the 18th century.[1] Whereas Gould considered the Ancient Grand Lodge founded in 1751 as composed of ‘schismatic’ members from the premier Grand Lodge founded, according to the (sole) testimony of James Anderson, June 24, 1717, Sadler showed that schismatic was hardly an appropriate word, since it implied that the founding members of the Ancient Grand Lodge were former members of the premier Grand Lodge. Quoting the Minute-Books of the Ancients, Sadler demonstrated that such was not the case for any of them.


R. F. Gould - who never admitted Sadler’s theory and kept on referring all his life to the ‘schismatics’ - would hardly appreciate being fundamentally contradicted and is likely responsible for Sadler waiting until May 1st, 1903 - sixteen years ! - before becoming a full member of QC Lodge. Sadler was installed Master of the Lodge 8 November 1910, less than a year before his death.


Dr WILHELM BEGEMANN (1843 - 1914)


The case of Begemann - who was not admitted to the honor of becoming a full member of the Lodge - is even more interesting than Sadler’s. Volume 1 of Ars Quatuor Coronatorum included a paper by Begemann, ‘An Attempt to classify the “Old Charges” of the British Masons’, which represented a milestone in masonic history. Here are two excerpts of Begemann’s paper (Reader, please remember that there were no computers in those glorious days):

This [philological criticism of the Old Charges] can only be done by an accurate and laborious collation of the texts line by line, whereby we may estimate the greater or lesser degree of relationship existing between individual copies. [...] I have taken the trouble of collating the different versions and copies line by line, nay, word by word, which was indeed a very tiresome and laborious task, but enabled me to obtain a deeper insight into these very “microscopic peculiarities”.

(AQC 1, 1886-1888, pp. 152 & 161)

Nine further papers by Begemann were published in volumes 4, 5, 6, 12, 14 and 21 of AQC between 1891 and 1908. When Fred J. W. Crowe was installed Master of Quatuor Coronati Lodge, November 8, 1909, he chose the masonic publications of that fertile year - enumerating nineteen books amongst which Freemasonry in Bristol by Powell and Littleton, and Freemasonry in Pennsylvania by Sachse and Barratt [2] - as theme of his Inaugural Address. This brought him to mention Begemann’s Vorgeschichte and Anfänge der Freimaurerei in England:

This is the first volume of a History of Freemasonry in England which our learned Brother Begemann has in contemplation. The present volume deals with the Earliest History and Beginnings of Freemasonry up to the commencement of the eighteenth century. A second volume will deal with English Masonry from the foundation of Grand Lodge to the Union of 1813, while a third will embrace the History of Masonry in Scotland and Ireland. All those who are acquainted with Bro. Begemann’s writings can imagine the conscientious and painstaking manner in which he has approached his subject, in fact some of his work may really be called microscopic. A certain proportion of his book has appeared already in the form of papers contributed to the Zirkel Correspondenz der Grossen Landesloge der Freimaurerei von Deutschland, and it is to be regretted that English Masons in the past have to a great extent neglected the excellent papers that appears in this journal. Had this not been the case some controversial points that occur in Bro. Begemann’s work would, I think, have been cleared away, but in spite of these his book will have to be consulted by all real students of Freemasonry. It is undoubtedly an important contribution to Masonic literature. A review of this great work, by Bro. Dring, will appear in our Transactions.

(AQC 22, 1909, p. 195)

Within the next five years, Begemann published the second volume of Antecedents and Beginnings of Freemasonry in England (1910) and two further books, Antecedents and Beginnings of Freemasonry in Ireland (1911) and the first volume of Antecedents and Beginnings of Freemasonry in Scotland (1914). Before writing the latter, Begemann thought necessary to go to Scotland in order to study the original lodge archives. Death prevented him to write the second contemplated volume on Scotland.


On January 2, 1914, Quatuor Coronati Lodge adopted its annual Report for the year 1913, which included the following:

The Lodge has also undertaken the publication of an English edition of the important work by Bro. Dr. Begemann, of Berlin, entitled The Early History and Beginnings of Freemasonry in England. The task of translation has been very kindly undertaken by Bro. Lionel Vibert, who will incorporate much additional information on the same subject contributed to by Bro. Begemann to the German Masonic periodicals, which hitherto has not been available for English readers.

(AQC 27, 1914, p. 2)

Begemann died in 1914. Quatuor Coronati Lodge Report for 1914, adopted January 8, 1915, a few months after the beginning of World War I, said: « It will be realized that the projected publication of the English Edition of Dr. Begemann's book has had to be postponed, although the translation is nearly completed » (AQC 28, 1915, p. 2). Remarkably Begemann’s name was indexed in AQC 27 but not in AQC 28.

The announcement of Lionel Vibert’s election as a member of the Lodge in 1917 mentioned « He had translated into English and edited Begemann's History of Freemasonry in England » (AQC 30, 1917, p. 2). Again, Begemann’s name was not indexed. Three years later, on January 2, 1920, a Bro. H. G. Rosedale, D.D., P.G. Chap., read a paper entitled ‘Some Fresh Material for classifying the Old Charges’, apparently the only paper ever read before QC Lodge which the useful Concise Index produced in 1971 by Bros. Hewitt and Massey doesn’t mention at all, either under the key-word Old Charges, or under the author’s name. This may be construed as a fervent desire on the part of the indexers to let that paper fall into eternal oblivion. Rosedale’s paper began thus:


Amongst the efforts which have been made to impress German ideals upon the Grand Lodge of England, there stand out prominently those of Dr. Begemann, a well known Mason of Berlin, who, by dint of that curious devotion to minutiæ so characteristic of all German students, made the Masonic world believe that the practical ideas of our own eminent Bro. Gould with respect to the Ancient Charges (of purely British origin) ought to be ignored, in order forsooth to make way for the Doctor's own complex, useless, and, I venture to say, false system of classification, a classification of purely German manufacture based on the weakest of all arguments, coincidences of sound.

To-day thoughtful students of Masonic lore are awakening to the fact that Dr. Begemann’s classification of the Old Charges is neither useful nor correct. This opens a wide door, and there lies before the Masonic world a road of liberty along which they may pass to an intelligent classification of the Old Charges, based upon historic facts and demonstrating the purely British influences which have made Masonry what it is.

(AQC 33, 1920, p. 5)

As Lionel Vibert - who commented Rosedale’s paper with strong words - became WM of Quatuor Coronati Lodge, November 8, 1921, the Toast to the WM delivered by Bro. Bradley included the remark that Vibert « has translated Begemann's history up to 1723. (This is rather of the nature of an English edition of the work than a mere translation.) » (AQC 34, 1921, p. 218)


On March 2, 1923, Vibert read in the Lodge his famous paper, ‘Anderson’s Constitutions of 1723’ (AQC 36, 1923, pp. 36-85) at the beginning of which he admitted: « I do not know that the work [Anderson’s Constitutions of 1723] as a whole was ever analysed in detail until Begemann undertook the task in the second volume of his History, pp. 154-248 » (again, the mention of Begemann’s name was not indexed).[3] Ten years later, 6 October 1933, Bro. Edwards devoted a similar paper to Anderson’s 1738 Constitutions, at the end of which he admitted frankly: « Bro. Vibert has eked out my very insufficient knowledge of German by placing at my disposal his unfortunately as yet unpublished translation of Begemann » (AQC 46, 1933, p. 430). Edwards’ remark was well illustrated by the fact that Begemann was quoted more than once on many pages of his paper. No doubt, both Vibert’s and Edwards’ papers were outstanding ones, but an important part of their analysis - and criticisms - of Anderson reproduced arguments which originated in Begemann’s book.


Between the delivery of both papers, Begemann’s name was mentioned once in Bro. Dring’s In memoriam read in 1928 by Bro. Norman, then WM of Quatuor Coronati Lodge: « At the time of his death he was [...] having in hand arrangements for the publication of the translation of Begemann's History of Freemasonry in England » (AQC 41, 1928, p. 287).




It seems hardly necessary to remind the Reader of the importance of the masonic books and papers authored by Bro. Douglas Knoop, alone or together with Mr. G. P. Jones and sometimes also with Mr. Douglas Hamer.[4] All three were on the staff of the University of Sheffield where Knoop (b. September 16, 1883) was Professor of Economics since 1920, Jones Lecturer in Economic History, and Hamer Lecturer in English Literature.


Their numerous papers [5] were much appreciated [6] and since 1943 and 1944, when Early Masonic Catechisms and Early Masonic Pamphlets were issued, both books remained a ‘must’ in every masonic student’s library.


Likewise, from Gould’s « until some one with abnormal gifts and untiring industry succeeds in classifying the various texts of the Spurious Rituals or alleged “Exposures,” with a similar accuracy to that attained by Dr. Begemann in his masterly analysis of the Manuscript Constitutions of the Society. » (AQC 16, 1903, p. 35), to Wallace McLeod’s « This classification [of the Old Charges] was first worked out by the great Masonic scholar Dr Wilhelm Begemann in 1888 » (The Old Gothic Constitutions, p. 7, Bloomington 1985), one would assume that Begemann’s name was unanimously praised by members of Quatuor Coronati Lodge... were it not for an extraordinary ten pages long paper, ‘Begemann’s History of Freemasonry’, jointly authored by Bro. Douglas Knoop and Mr. G. P. Jones in AQC vol. 54 (1943).[7] The paper ended thus:

we welcome this opportunity of paying a somewhat belated tribute to his [Begemann’s] zeal and skill as a masonic historian, and of expressing our regret that he was unable to complete his History of Freemasonry as originally planned.

(AQC 54, 1943, p. 95)

A somewhat belated tribute indeed, remembering that the review by Bro. Dring of Begemann’s History of Freemasonry in England, announced in 1909, was never issued in AQC, that its some 1,000 pages translated by Vibert were never published, and that not one of Begemann’s books was ever reviewed in the Transactions of ‘The Premier Lodge of Masonic Research’. But what kind of tribute did Knoop and Jones intend to pay to Begemann’s zeal and skill as a masonic historian ?

His History had at least one great admirer in England, the late Bro. Lionel Vibert, who undertook the onerous task of translating the two volumes relating to England, so as to make them available to English readers, and it was the untimely death of Bro. E. H. Dring which prevented the publication by Messrs. Bernard Quaritch of that translation. [Was it really ? Vibert’s translation was completed by 1921, Dring died October 25, 1928, Vibert, December 7, 1938 !] Even at this date we venture to bring the valuable work done by Begemann to the notice of the Brethren, not in a formal and detailed review, but by way of an attempt to assess the History as a contribution to masonic studies, and to give the author his due position among masonic historians.

(AQC 54, 1943, pp. 86-7)

After this warning exordium - due position were carefully chosen words - brotherly critics fall on Begemann’s grave like leaves in autumn. His strong philological interest leads him to devote fifty pages to discussing the meaning of the three words “lodge,” “mason,” and “freemason.” To elucidate the meaning of the last two, he quotes no fewer than 104 examples of the use of these words from 1212 to 1737. None of these appear to us to be a new discovery [...] his first-hand study [of the MS Constitutions of Masonry was made] mostly in facsimiles or reprints [...] by giving too much space to it, Begemann upset the proportions of the History [...] Begemann tapped no new sources of information but some of his comments and observations suggest new interpretations of previously established facts, interpretations with which, in some cases, we do not find ourselves in agreement [...] In retrospect, however, it [1717] has become all-important in the eyes of those masonic students, of whom Begemann is one, who interpret freemasonry only as the organization which has from time to time prevailed among freemasons, in preference to the more modern and wider conception of the subject, which regards freemasonry as comprising both the organization and the practices, which have at various times prevailed in the craft. [...] In his general approach to the study of masonic history, Begemann was in no sense a pioneer [...] writing more than twenty years after the publication of Gould’s History of Freemasonry, [Begemann] was able to avail himself of certain new researches concerning Anderson and the early days of Grand Lodge, which had been published in A. Q. C.

Such excerpts from the first half of the paper bring the reader to understand the true-intended meaning of giving ‘the author his due position among masonic historians’. Toward the end, however, Knoop and Jones recognize and appreciate the very large amount of solid work which he [Begemann] put in his History.




The Knoop and Jones’ 1943 paper on Begemann seems to me indirectly related to their last book, The Genesis of Freemasonry,[8] whose Preface is dated October 1946, a Preface in which only two historians are mentioned by name: Gould... and Begemann:

[...] it is now some sixty years since Gould’s History of Freemasonry made its appearance, and more than thirty since Begemann’s volumes on early English, Irish and Scottish masonry were published in Germany. [...] We feel [...] that, as frequently happens in other branches of history, the time has come to endeavour to re-write the history of freemasonry in its earlier phases.

A recent re-reading of the Genesis left me with mixed feelings. Along its first seven chapters (the book comprises fourteen) which cover the pre-Grand Lodge period, the authors write with an easy style conveying an impression of facility. This is quite understandable since they had written many papers - which make sometimes dry reading - about medieval building industry and the organization of masons in the Middle Ages. Their style changes with the second half of the book, devoted to the period after 1717. There is hardly a page which doesn’t include repeated words of caution, seldom met with in the book’s first half, such as suggest, appear, would seem, apparently, possibly, likely, not infrequently, culminating (p. 290) with a remarkable It therefore seems not impossible...[9]


Exactly in the middle of The Genesis (p. 165), the devil’s name, Begemann’s,[10] appears together with that of Anderson: « If Preston believed everything that Anderson wrote, Begemann hardly believed anything, unless it was supported by independent evidence. » And right underneath:

Whilst it is undoubtedly desirable to have confirmation of any historian’s statements, wherever possible, we are not prepared to follow Begemann when he accepts the omission of any reference to some event in the minutes of Grand Lodge, or in the contemporary press, as proof that such and such an event did not occur, in preference to accepting the positive statement of Anderson that it did occur.

The above words sound like a liberating explosion, as if Knoop and Jones had been asked that question once too often, namely: Are you prepared to follow Begemann ? And from the depth of their hearts, comes the answer: No, No, No, A thousand times No ! Taken together with the paper issued in 1943, it conveys the impression that Knoop’s - and Jones’ ? - mixed feelings towards Begemann certainly included exasperation for his ‘microscopic’ analysis, probably respect for his knowledge, and possibly envy for the sharpness of his eye and of his pen. Begemann initiated the still current classification of the Old Charges, whereas they, Knoop, Jones (and Hamer), admitted in 1943 their own inability to formulate a satisfactory one for the early masonic catechisms (Introduction to The Early Masonic Catechisms, p. 19).


Lastly, Begemann transgressed one unwritten law of Quatuor Coronati Lodge - only native historians may exert critics about the masonic history of their own country -, which goes so far that a kind of self-censure results in most English members refraining from commenting upon Scottish and Irish masonic history. Could their harsh critics of Begemann’s writings express a kind of Freudian transfer compensating Begemann’s critics of Anderson as a historian ? Knoop and Jones jumped at Anderson’s defense in their 1943 paper: « we question whether it is permissible to pick and choose among Anderson’s statements in the way in which Begemann appears to do, accepting some and rejecting others, sometimes without giving any reason at all ». (AQC 54, p. 90)


Recently, however, in his Inaugural Address, Bro. R. A. Gilbert revealed the following story: « Early in 1948 Douglas Knoop had prepared a controversial paper on Dr Anderson that the Board of General Purposes felt to be unsuitable for publication. [...] and only his death shortly afterwards [11] prevented a first class row [...] ». (AQC 107, 1995, p. 4)


Isn’t it a strange coincidence ? Could that paper on Anderson, considered unsuitable for publication by the Board of General Purposes, be intended by Bro. Knoop as a belated admission of the well-founded critics of his love-hate object, Dr. Wilhelm Begemann, and as a testimony of admiration paid - at last - to his memory ?






[1]              Sadler’s Masonic Facts and Fictions (1887) was not reviewed in AQC but his Masonic Reprints and Historical Revelations (1898) received two reviews, both issued in AQC 11 (1898). One by Speth alluded to Sadler’s first book in the following words: « It is always an intolerable nuisance to have to recast opinions held for years » but Speth added that « for some years past [he has] accepted the main points of the new theory ». The other by Gould which shows his feelings for Sadler: « For Bros. Chetwode Crawley and Henry Sadler I have an unbounded esteem and regard, but they will I hope excuse me for thinking that as critics of the “Moderns” they have lost somewhat of their judicial equipoise, in the enthousiasm with which they have espoused the cause of the “Ancients” ».

[2]              Vol. I of Sachse and Barratt was issued 1908, vol. II in 1909. A third volume followed in 1919. Crowe must have received galley proofs of the Bristol book which bears the year-date 1910, its Preface by Hughan being dated ‘Torquay, 9th November 1909’, the day following Crowe’s Address.

[3]              Vibert’s paper was printed In the Quaritch facsimile edition (1923) of Anderson’s Constitutions of 1723 with some modifications. He moved the sentence mentioning Begemann from the head of his text to its very end, changing its wording into: « Dr. Begemann undertook a detailed analysis of the text in the second volume of his Freimaurerei in England, being, I believe, the first to essay that task. ». The Quaritch edition was reprinted as Facsimile Edition in 1976 together with the 1738 Constitutions, also in facsimile, and a Foreword by Bro. Eric Ward.

[4]              The respective responsibility of Knoop and Jones in the works they signed conjointly seems a matter of conjecture. For instance, a development interspersed with ‘in my opinion... to my mind’ p. 25 of AQC 53 (‘Pure Antient Masonry’ issued under the sole name of Bro. Knoop), remains identical in wording but for ‘in our opinion... to our minds’, p. 156 of The Genesis.

[5]              Douglas Knoop’s first paper in AQC appeared in vol. 42 (1929), his last one in vol. 59 (1948). In between, with the exceptions of vol. 43 and 58, at least one - sometimes several - paper from him, written either alone or together with Jones, appeared every year. Two in vol. 44 (written alone); in vol. 48, 51 and 53 (one written alone, one with Jones); and in vol. 54 (both with Jones). Three (!) in vol. 45 (two with Jones, one with Jones and N. B. Lewis) and in vol. 55 (one alone, two with Jones).

[6]              Although disagreements upon points of masonic history seem to have resulted in growing tension between Bro. Poole and Bro. Knoop since 1938 (see AQC 51, p. 25; AQC 55, p. 305 [« Bro. Knoop seems to me to have a perverse way of misunderstanding what some other people say »] & 320; AQC 60, p. 39-40; AQC 61, p. 153).

[7]              The text of that paper about Begemann was first printed as a pamphlet for private circulation in 1941 (AQC 55, 1942, p. 311).

[8]              Papers including matters later included in The Genesis were read by Knoop before Quatuor Coronati Lodge in January and October 1942. They were printed in AQC 55 (issued in 1944).

[9]              The difference of style is likely related to the critics formulated against Knoop’s hypothesis (see Knoop’s and Jones’ answer to their paper ‘Masonic History Old and New’, AQC 55, especially p. 319.

[10]             Begemann’s name appears p. 10 of Genesis with a remarkable slip: « In reviewing his [Begemann’s] work in A.Q.C., liii, we pointed out [...] ». Of course, one should read AQC 54 instead of 53 (liii). However in that paper issued in AQC 53 (foot-note 5, p. 14) Knoop admits that it was a Bro. A. L. Miller who made him aware of the existence of Begemann’s book on Scotland, which seems to have given quite a shock to Knoop. He mentions it - using the word ‘confess’ ! - in his Begemann’s paper (AQC 54, p. 86): « We have to confess that as recently as 1939, when our Scottish Mason was published, we were unaware of the existence of his Prehistory [sic] of Freemasonry in Scotland. ».

[11]             Knoop died October 21, 1948, one year after The Genesis was issued.