Róbert Péter (General Editor) British Freemasonry, 1717-1813 (5 Vol Set), Routledge, London, 2016.
I publish the occasional review on my website, and this particular review was the result of a project suggested by the late John Slifco. John had asked if I could write a number of reviews for the website of the Roosevelt Center, and passed me copies of the volumes of British Freemasonry. John sadly passed away recently and in memory to him, I decided to publish the review here.
I was sat next to a Scottish brother from Glasgow at a Festive Board recently and he turned and asked me what I was working on at the moment. I replied I was writing a review for a set of five volumes entitled British Freemasonry. He was silent for a moment, though having known him for a while, I recognised that this was just a pensive moment before an extremely dark storm. As predicted he erupted angrily and in his Glaswegian accent, stated firmly that there never was, and never will be British Freemasonry; there is English and Welsh under the UGLE, Scottish Freemasonry under the Grand Lodge of Scotland and of course the Grand Lodge of Ireland that has lodges in Northern Ireland also. What followed was an interesting but lively conversation on how the editor, writers, researchers and publisher needed to seriously rethink the title and indeed some of the themes in the volumes.
The regrettable use of the phrase British Freemasonry was also used by Margaret Jacob in her work, and it shows a gross misunderstanding of the complex historical relationships and indeed rivalries of the Grand Lodges that existed for England and Wales, Scotland and in Ireland during the past three hundred years of Grand Lodge era Freemasonry. It also shows a neglect, or indeed a lack of respect, for the separate Grand Lodges and their individual cultures, their administrations and ritualistic developments.
Currently priced on amazon at £644.88 for the five volume set, the work itself is extremely expensive and as such would not find its way on many private bookshelves. Indeed the money would be better spent elsewhere, perhaps on a set of AQC volumes, Heredom volumes, or on a varied collection of Masonic literature, which in all fairness would bring to the reader a far better understanding of the history and development of Freemasonry.
The context of the word ‘British’ in relation to Freemasonry tends to generalise and indeed neglects the importance and the strong individual nature of the UGLE, the Grand Lodge of Scotland and the Grand Lodge of Ireland. However, the work itself also leaves its section on Scotland underdeveloped and quite stretched. Ireland’s representation is also weak. Wales is weaker still in its representation. Indeed, General Editor Róbert Péter knew this and has tried to explain it away in a section headed ‘Limitations’. Róbert Péter feebly puts forward that they were unable to draw on the material from the Library of the Grand Lodge of Scotland as they did not get permission to reproduce certain documents.
They also admitted that they did not included any Welsh material in their first four volumes, and the mention of Welsh Freemasonry in the fifth volume depends entirely on ‘a few English articles’. There is an incredible amount of Welsh Masonic material scattered around the libraries of Wales and in the Masonic Halls. I give talks regularly in north and mid Wales and there is an untapped rich history to discuss there, from the involvement of the Williams-Wynn family to the early lodges of the eighteenth century. This was an unfortunate and neglectful oversight and with a collection with such claims, the Masonic documents of Wales would have made it much stronger, especially with such a confident title. Thus the overall general editing and presentation of the entire work is unbalanced and neglectful, especially with the title boldly suggesting to cover British Freemasonry.
The work is not a run through of key documents and will not teach you about ‘British’ Freemasonry as the title suggests. The general editing itself, besides being unbalanced, certainly needed more strength to pull together the work of Cécile Révauger and Jan Snoek. The work would have benefitted from more input from Scottish, and certainly Welsh and Irish Masonic scholars, which could have resulted in a richer and more detailed section for those countries. The collection certainly does not live up to its expectations, but it will however provide some source material for the researcher if he or she can afford to do so. I found volume 3 of most interest, which focused on ritual, and Jan Snoek’s discussion on the Harodim Tradition and various high degrees in particular, though again input from Scotland and Wales was weak. It is a heavy, long work, expensive and the choice of title does not do the publication any favours.