When engineering culture detaches from reality.
By Paul Spinrad
Generations of conspiracy-minded observers have nurtured
theories about powerful secret societies such as the Masons.
Here is my theory: Occult institutions evolve out of professional
guilds after they stop caring about how to actually build things.
In every age, geeks gravitate to where the inter- and controlled all culture — like today’s Hollywood
esting action is, and in medieval Europe, this was and Madison Avenue, combined. The Catholic
the cathedral — the structure itself, the art, and the Church needed the building expertise of “free
pipe organ inside. Like most people, I’ve always been masons,” who didn’t have to buy into any ideology
amazed by the great gothic cathedrals, but it was or hierarchy, or even obey the local clergy. This
French historian Jean Gimpel’s book, The Cathedral gave the masons an unusually powerful position,
Builders, that gave me the real nerd’s-eye view. which was inevitably eyed with suspicion.
Gimpel explains that starting in the last half of the Toward the end of the 13th century, as Europe
12th century, competitive cathedral builders broke became more nationalistic and political, Church
the world’s record for the highest interior vault funding for great cathedrals dried up. Design exper-five times within 62 years: from the completion of tise was also tragically lost, and no one knew how
Notre-Dame de Paris in 1163 ( 32. 8 meters high), to build as high anymore. This resulted in the Late
through Chartres, Rheims, Amiens, and finally to Gothic style of cathedral, characterized by smaller
Beauvais in 1225 ( 48 meters high, collapsed in structures that were built using old plans, but with
1284). This space-race happened during what’s more ornamentation added — lame.
now called the Early Gothic era, when cathedral Not surprisingly, the masons’ professional culture
building was literally at its height. also began to change during the Late Gothic period.
Engineering culture flourished during this era, Inside the guilds, nepotism and politics replaced
and the cathedral builders were the alpha geeks. ability and contribution as the path to master
They and their kind traveled throughout Europe and status. What had become known as Freemasonry
contracted independently with parishes and munici- was more secretive, perhaps out of defensiveness;
palities to build churches, bridges, and other public the great cathedrals stood as prominent witness to
works. They scouted talent by hiring unskilled stone- all the knowledge that had died with previous gen-cutters from the local populations, and invited the erations. By the 15th century, masons in Germany
most promising ones to apprentice. They formed an adopted professional codes that forbade speaking
international maker subculture that was surrounded publicly of lodge activities or divulging old methods
by an illiterate and innumerate population that relied for rendering drawings. Throughout Europe, the
on their work, but could never understand it. To out- building trades carried an overlay of secrecy,
siders (non-engineers), they must have seemed like antique reverence, and the promise of access to
wizards: they used strange implements and symbols, great lost wisdom.
spoke their own terminology, and produced magical-seeming sights, sounds, and structures.
Meantime, these builders had a unique relationship to the Church, which monopolistically financed
From Operative to Speculative
Jumping ahead, Gimpel describes Scotland in the
16th century, where a boom in castle building took