Why do we have degrees?

The word degree derives from the Latin word gradus, which means a step, and is also the root for gradual and grade. In Freemasonry, we include a regular step in our Ceremonies and take a symbolic rising step (one taken without moving forward), when the Lodge is raised from one Degree to another. This represents progress, growth and development in Masonic knowledge and understanding. In operative times, the young Mason would have progressed through grades of training. Beginning by being apprenticed to a master to whom he would have been indentured in a formal ceremony in which both the apprentice and the master would take solemn oaths. The former, to serve for a fixed period of time, usually seven years, and to protect his master’s interests. The latter, to bind himself to teach the young-man his trade, and ensure he was clothed and fed; though in some cases, the young man’s parents would have to pay a premium to cover the cost of training. The transaction, having been recorded on parchment, was sealed to make it binding; just as we now seal our obligations by saluting the Volume of the Sacred Law with our lips. The parchment would then be cut in two along a zigzag, resembling teeth; thereby becoming indented; derived from the Latin word dentes. Each party kept one half of the indenture, which could later be re-united and their serrated edges matched so as to authenticate the deed. At the end of the period of training, the young man would go through a final ceremony to be made ‘free of the craft’, allowing him free to pursue his trade.

This process is still mirrored in ritualised form when a candidate goes through various steps to become a member of a City of London Livery Company. He, having proved himself to be suitably qualified, takes the first step, to be made ‘free of the company’, a second, to become a ‘Freeman of the City of London’, and a third, to become a ‘Full Liveryman’. Freemasonry has also been influenced by the practices of the Mediaeval Universities, who likewise recognised ‘steps’ in education. The first three involved; • grammar in reading and writing; • rhetoric in public speaking, so as to inform, persuade, or motivate an audience; • and logic, so as to construct a sound argument. A person, having proved these proficiencies by examination, in what was called the Trivium, was then considered to be a Literatus. However, to graduate, he had to go on to master; • arithmetic, the science and philosophy of numbers; • geometry, the knowledge of the structure of the world and the universe; • music, which then meant the divine harmony of the created order; • and astronomy, which referred to the whole of creation. These subjects were in turn examined in the Quadrivium, and the successful candidate awarded his degree, and styled Artis Bacaloreum – known today as Bachelor of Arts. So it is that our Masonic rituals have been influenced by the customs of the old operatives (working masons), the practices of the City Livery Companies, and Medieval Universities. Such that we too have steps and degrees; stages in the learning process about Freemasonry and its meanings. However, having completed our progress through the three Degrees of the Craft, we still have much to learn about our wonderful order, as we continue our Masonic journey through our lifetime.