Freemasonry and the risk of geopolitics in the eighteenth century

Oer-Weimarer_MusenhofIf we base our judgment on Alexandre Defay’s statement that “geopolitics studies interactions between the geographical space and the resulting power conflicts,”[1]it is arguable that from its very beginnings as an institution and an ideology, Masonry had a geopolitical dimension.


It is the vocation of every Mason, every Lodge, and every Masonic body to convert others, develop, survive, and therefore occupy and “exploit” a real and/or imaginary territory. Throughout the eighteenth century, Brothers, Lodges, and/or Obediences created networks that formed the Masonic ecumene. The geopolitical boom of Freemasonries was to reveal a certain mobility—practices of travel, hospitality, and epistolary and economic exchange. Travel was common practice in the Enlightenment. It was not a new habit, but it had become an illustration of man’s quest to explore the world and its phenomena, and expand his knowledge.

initiationau18mescopieMasons traveled the world as they traveled between Lodges. The art of travel thus favored and worked through Masonic networks. Travel made it possible to recognize and claim territories and spaces. A Masonic geopolitics of travel developed, based around networks of communication and affinities between Brothers, around those of Masonic organizations claiming transnational status (Cosmopolitan Lodges, Mother Lodges, and Obediences) that wanted to organize space according to a particular Masonic logic and design, or around those of states hoping to territorialize their Masonry and bring it under state control, while using it to serve their geopolitical and geoeconomic ambitions. The main social players in this geopolitics were travelers and migrants, princes, aristocrats, sons from rich families on the Grand Tour, diplomats, soldiers, sailors, men of religion, merchants, paleotourists, French pastors, exiled British Jacobites, artists, actors, tutors, students, and adventurers like Cagliostro (1743–1795) or Giovanni-Jacopo Casanova (1725–1798). Throughout the century, a veritable universal republic of Freemasons, a Masonic world and its corpus, was built. This republic was neither a contingent liberal and/or democratic political form, nor a state. Rather, it transcended and was widespread in both of these. It constituted a geopolitical project. This project was original and universal in terms of its geographical extent (even if it was in fact centered around the Atlantic, the North Sea, the Baltic, and the northern shores of the Mediterranean), its sociocultural composition of theoretically equal brothers of diverse religions (even if very few came from the Respublica cristiana) and opinions, its unusual structure’s combining of the Ancien Regime and modernity, and its common goal’s focus on several principles that were not always followed, namely the sincere practice of virtue, the disinterested acquisition of knowledge, and the unremitting search for the truth.

Masonic geopolitics also relied on correspondence. Masons, Lodges, and Obediences progressively built up an official corpus that was laid down with paper and ink. Tellingly, “being in the correspondence of” meant belonging to the network of a Lodge or Hiramic organization. There was a flow of official and/or private correspondence between Brothers, Lodges, and Masonic institutions, aiming to establish the legitimacy, prestige, and authority of the author, or even the receiver. Before long, power issues developed around correspondence networks, which became a source of endless rivalries, quarrels, and disputes. Throughout the century, patents became the focal point for Masonic geopolitics. The distribution of patents by Masons, Lodges, or Obediences to other Masons, Lodges, or Obediences for the purposes of Lodge formation, making Masons, awarding Degrees, or practicing rites became an important issue. He who solicited it sought legitimacy for his foundation, and he who transmitted it hoped to strengthen his network. Because sthere was no such thing as being too careful, patents were sought readily. Thus the Candeur Lodge, based in Strasbourg, sought patents from the first Grande Loge de France (GLDF; Grand Lodge of France) in 1763, then from the Grande Loge des Modernes (Grand Lodge of the Moderns) in 1772, of which it became number 429. It also sought inclusion in the Directoire Ecossais de Bourgogne (Scottish Directory of Burgundy), and aggregation letters from the Grand Orient de France (GODF; ) in 1777. Patents became an object of pride and an instrument of control, or even a source of revenue.

However, Masons in the eighteenth century were both citizens of the aforementioned “republic” and citizens of a real country, which implied certain geographical constraints.

vernetbordeauxThe toing and froing of the Bordeaux Anglaise (English), which was founded in 1732 by Irish sailors and merchants but broadened its recruitment to French natives and adopted French as its liturgical language, was typical. The organization received new constitutions from the Grande Loge des Modernes in March 1766, and successively bore the numbers 363 (1766), 298 (1770), 240 (1781), and 204 (1792) of this Obedience, while itself forming other Lodges such as La Française, headquartered in Bordeaux (1740). Entering into the correspondence of the GODF, it received letters of aggregation from it in 1780. After itself setting up another organization in Bordeaux, the Etoile Flamboyante aux Trois Lys (Blazing Star of the Three Lilies), it was ostracized by the GODF, which confirmed the revocation of its correspondence in 1785. A minority of its members founded the Vraie Loge Anglaise (True English Lodge), patented by Paris in the same year. In 1790, theAnglaise sought new letters of aggregation from the GODF, but these were refused. The affair was not resolved until 1803.

Thus, Freemasonry was both a product and a producer of geopolitics, but in turn, it could itself become intertwined with the geopolitical undertakings of others. Throughout the whole century, it would interfere, interdepend, or compete with academies, salons, clubs, religious brotherhoods, cafés, and inns. There was consequently a geopolitics of what Daniel Roche calls “the Enlightenment space.”[2] Sometimes, Freemasonry would be instrumentalized by other structures, particularly certain groups and states attempting to use it for their own geopolitical ends. This explains the presence of “communitarian-national” Lodges in the Kingdom of Naples or the Ottoman Empire. Similarly, in Russia in the 1770s and 1780s, the three thousand Masons and hundred or more Lodges were divided. Some followed the English influence behind the poet Ivan P. Elaguine (1726–1793), secretary to Catherine II, named by London, and provincial Grand Master in 1772. Others joined the action of the Swedish System led by Prince Alexander B. Kurakin (1752–1818), and Prince Gavrii P. Gagarin (1745–1808). Meanwhile, some moved toward the Strict Templar Observance,[3] with Count A. I. Musin-Puskhin (1744–1811) and General Piotr I. Mélissino, of Greek origin (1726–1797). Others were Prussophilic, with the Zinnendorf Rite introduced by Baron Johann von Reichel (1729–1791). Geopolitical ambitions and strategies encapsulated Masonic objectives, with brothers easily moving between Obediences according to their interests and/or choices. These switches also showed the grasp that autocratic power had over the Russian Lodges and their adaptation to the foreign policy of Saint Petersburg. At a time when benevolence, happiness, urbanity, and virtue were meant to come together, Masons, Lodges, and Obediences mostly occupied the openings in Ancien Regime society. However, they did not break with it. They forged out microspaces of meeting and expression, simultaneously borrowing from ancient or supposedly ancient configurations, riding the associative structures of modernity, and benefiting as much as possible from the opportunities of the time. Thus, progressively and increasingly, a Masonic geopolitics grew up. Its success varied between climates and over the years.

Individual Masons played a part in this development, for example the German, Stürtz, whom Pierre-Yves Beaurepaire charmingly called a “traveling salesman for the Royal Art.[4] With patents from the Berlin Union Lodge, in the 1740s he formed Lodges and initiated dozens of Brothers, particularly in Frankfurt am Main, in addition to the postmagistral degrees that he distributed freely. Certain elitist Lodges also entered into a geopolitical construction, for example theAnglaise (Bordeaux), the Vrais Amis de l’Union (True Friends of the Union) of Brussels, the Pera Oriental (Constantinople), the Union(Frankfurt), the Irlandaise du Soleil Levant (Irish Lodge of the Rising Sun, Paris), which received medical students from Eire, the Candeur(Strasburg), and The Crowned Hope (Vienna). An archetypal example was Saint Jean d’Ecosse (Saint John of Scotland), based in Marseille, which on the brink of the Revolution became a veritable Obedience with around 30 affiliated Lodges in the French Mediterranean Midi, on the maritime routes of the Levant (Eastern Mediterranean), and in the Antilles, as well as contacts with around a hundred groups throughout Europe. Three-quarters of the members of Saint-Jean d’Ecosse were merchants or similar. The great endogamous families of the Marseilles Chamber of Commerce (Audibert, Clary, Hughes, Isnard, Samatan, Seymandi, Tarteiron) were dominant. For the overrepresented Protestant elites, it provided social recognition and a means of integration. Its members also included most consuls installed in the port (Austria, Denmark, Piedmont-Sardinia, Poland, and Tuscany), as well as eminent representatives of the local nobility and the royal authorities. The organization had a true geopolitical strategy. Affiliation with the network was free: a weighty argument compared to the “free donation” (taxes) required by the GODF. The Daughter Lodges (Genoa, Palermo, Valletta, Salonika, and Constantinople) positioned themselves on the commercial routes of the port city. In Smyrna (which had 100,000 inhabitants at the time, half of whom were Muslims and a third of whom were Greek), the Marseille branch bore an almost programmatic name: Saint-Jean d’Ecosse des Nations Réunies (Saint John of Scotland of the Reunited Nations). It was a meeting place for Western merchants and a few representatives of the local economic elites (almost exclusively Christians). However, like most Lodges at the time, it practiced a flexible form of Masonry as a result of structural weaknesses (high absenteeism, turnover, selective and variable charitable activities, individual conflicts for power, and so forth) that often depended on the geopolitical context.

However, it is on the level of Obediences that a geopolitical analysis is most relevant. In theory, the Masonic cosmos extended worldwide. In reality, it equated to the European world. Several Obediential conceptions competed to structure it. Broadly, four are most noteworthy: The English conception. Very early on, the Grand Lodge of London (later the Grand Lodge of the Moderns) theorized the constitution of a sort of Masonic Commonwealth organized around itself: the self-proclaimed Mother Lodge of the World. It had a sort of unbalanced condominium (London dominating) with the Grand Lodges of Ireland and Scotland, and a constitution policy outside England of provincial Grand Lodges and 30 provincial Grand Masters, named from 1730 to 1789. Some were without a group, and some pursued independence, such as François Bonaventure du Mont, Marquis of Gages (1739–1787), who was made provincial Grand Master of the Austrian Netherlands (now Belgium) in 1770. He made his province an autonomous Masonic entity, neglecting to pay taxes to London and delivering patents. In theory, the English Obedience did not give itself the power to directly create Lodges in the geopolitical sphere of the provincial Grand Lodges. However, it often betrayed this principle. Above all, the Grand Lodge of the Moderns gave itself the proclaimed right to recognize (or not) a Masonic body and proclaim it regular (or irregular), whilst opposing the territorialization and nationalization of Masonic organizations. However, the main reason for the failure of this geopolitical model was the long war (1751–1813) between the Moderns and the Ancients in England and in the British colonies, and the resistance of the national and nationalist Obediences to London.

220px-Carl_Gothelf_von_Hund_und_AltengrotkauThe “Germanic” conception, represented by the Strict Templar Observance, was formed in the 1750s by the Silesian Baron Carl Gotthelf von Hund und Altengrotkau (1722–1776). It would collapse due to its Germanocentricism (among other things) after the death of Duke Ferdinand of Brunswick-Luneburg-Wolfenbuttel (1721–1792), who became its last Grand Master in 1772. The Strict Templar Observance was a part of the constant activity of the trans-German secret societies that participated in the political and cultural homogenization process affecting the German-speaking elites. It can therefore be seen as the Masonizing version of theReichspublizistik, the vast corpus of juridical and historical texts gathered in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, giving rise to a public space of discussion on the nature of the Reich. This “Germanic corps” sought both a geopolitical reality and a corpus mysticum. In a way, the Strict Templar Observance presented itself as a contribution by “Germanic” Masons to a project of basing a dream of a Masonic Reich on real geopolitical foundations. One might venture to say that it was, in a way, a sort of Masonic holy universal empire with a German aristocratic base. In a religiously divided Europe, this project sought to reunite the continent around a “primitive” ecumenical Christianity, or around a (Catholic sensu stricto) universal religion. Consequently, it is no surprise that, in this geopolitical vision of a European world reunified via a chivalric Freemasonry, the Romanian Prince Alexander Murusi, hospodar of Wallachia, envisaged projects for military drafting in order to reconquer the earthly Jerusalem. However, as was often the case, conflict got in the way. Various Masons like Joseph de Maistre (1753–1821) or Jean-Baptiste Willermoz (1730–1824) wanted to use the Strict Templar Observance to bring back the lost sheep of Protestantism, or even of the Orthodoxy, into the bosom of the Holy Roman Church, contributing to the global failure.

The French conception. As soon as it liberated itself from London, the first Grande Loge de France (GDLF) (1736–1776) developed a relative geopolitical strategy. It attempted, in vain, first to control all the Masons and organizations in the kingdom. In 1765, it set up a commission in charge of organizing the Masonic corps on national lines. The treaty signed that year with the Grande Loge des Modernes was only a sort of ephemeral gentleman’s agreement. Paris would ask all Lodges in France, established by London, to be reconstituted by Paris. This was not without its problems, as shown for example by the reservations of the Anglaise, based in Bordeaux. However, London would have liked to treat the first GLDF like a simple provincial Grand Lodge. The successor to the GLDF, the Grand Orient de France (GODF), founded in 1773, attempted to impose a heliocentric Masonic geopolitical project: a series of national Obediences “orbiting” the GODF, the new sun of the Hiramic world. The 1775–1777 attempts to reach a new treaty with London failed, particularly because they took place in the context of the War of Independence with the future United States (1775–1783). After the decline of the Strict Templar Observance in German-speaking lands, the influence of the GODF became dominant in continental Europe, particularly in Denmark, the Rhino-Westphalian regions, the Austrian Netherlands, and various ports in Italy or Poland. As was the case for London, outside of the French frontiers, the resistance of certain national Obediences would break the Masonic heliocentrism of the GODF. In France, the GODF’s inability to unify French Freemasonry and create a single system of postmagistral degrees, particularly its rivalry with the Grand Orient dit de Clermont (1773–1799), as well as the resistance of various Mother Lodges like the Marseille Lodge Saint-Jean d’Ecosse, would impede the French Masonic geopolitics.

The Prussian–Swedish conception, or Freemasonry as an ideological tool of the state. In various states, Freemasonry was more or less integrated in an authoritarian way into the state system. This was the case for Prussia. King Friedrich II protected the Berlin Lodge Zu den Drei Weltkugen (Three Globes), which was founded in 1740 and became, on June 24, 1744, the Grosse Konïgliche-Mutterloge. In 1774, he gave “his very gracious protection, safeguard, and favor”[5]to the young Grosse Landesloge der Freimaurer von Deutschland in Berlin, founded in 1770 on the initiative of Johann Zinnendorf (1731–1782). A few weeks before his death, the monarch guaranteed, in a letter addressed to the Royal York zur Freundschaft,[6] that any virtuous Mason and good citizen could count on his protection. His nephew and successor, Friedrich Wilhelm II, king in 1786, protector of the Three Globes Mother Lodge (1770) and honorary member of the Berlin Lodge Three Golden Keys (1772), stopped frequenting Lodges, but on February 9, 1976, he confirmed his protection to the Order. In a letter of December 29, 1797, to the Grand Lodge Royal York, his son Friedrich Wilhelm III, King (though profane) of Prussia in 1797, cleared the Prussian Masons of suspicions of “subversive undertakings.”[7] A few days later, he gave this Obedience the rights already enjoyed by the two other Grand Lodges. In an edict of October 20, 1798, the king banned illicit meetings and secret societies, but Article III made an exception for the three Obediences given exclusive practice[8] of Freemasonry in Prussia. The three institutions became a sort of entrusted Masonic public service. In exchange for a protective state monopoly, they became state instruments. In Sweden, King Adolf I Frederick became protector and Obergrofmeister of Swedish Freemasonry in 1753. Upon his accession, his son, Gustav III, king from 1771 to 1792, was proclaimed protector of the Order, then Vicarius Salomonis. His brother Charles, Duke of Södermanland and future Charles XIII, became Orden Meister and Grand Master of Freemasonry. He unified Freemasonry and set up a new Masonic, esoteric-Christian regime called the Swedish System, organized into three classes and eight degrees. In order to fully integrate it into power, in 1811, Charles XIII established a state decoration, the Order of Charles XIII, limited to 30 members, who had to be Masons. It still exists today. The Swedish System became monopolistic in Sweden, but expanded with the geopolitical developments of the Kingdom of Sweden. Around the Baltic, between competition and cooperation, state Freemasonries of riparian states served to support their geopolitics, and acted as an ideological instrument within state boundaries.



Overall, Masonic geopolitics overlapped with the political interests and economic interests of states. In the course of the century, the Order became diluted, despite the vain attempts of international convents to define Masonic “science.” These included Altenberg (1745), Kolho (1772), Brunswick (1775), Lyon (1778), Wolfenbüttel (1778), Wilhelmsbad (1782), and those of the Philalethes (1784/5 and 1787). Ultimately, the Order wanted to construct the new Temple of Jerusalem, there and then. It is also important to consider Masonic geopolitical utopias such as the project of Baron von Hund (mentioned above), who wanted to make Labrador a model colony populated with nobles and sheltered from the passions and vices of the profane world, or the “nesomanic” projects for ideal Hiramic cities in Australia or Lampedusa. Alas, the Brothers, Lodges, and Obediences often wallowed in a profane new Babel. No transnational Masonic system succeeded in imposing itself. Despite the dream of ecumenism, universalist discourses, and ambient cosmopolitanism, the increasingly polymorphous Freemasonry of the eighteenth century gradually became nationalized.




Selected Bibliography:


Beaurepaire, Pierre-Yves. La République Universelle des francs-maçons. De Newton à Metternich. Rennes: Ouest-France, 1999.

Beaurepaire, Pierre-Yves. L’Europe des francs-maçons. Paris: Belin, 2002.

Beaurepaire, Pierre-Yves. L’Espace des francs-maçons. Une sociabilité européenne au XVIIIe. Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2003.

Giarrizzo, Giuseppe. Massoneria e Illuminismo nell’Europa del Settecento. Venice, Italy: Marsiglio, 1992.

Hivert-Messeca Yves, L’Europe sous l’acacia, Vol. 1. Le XVIIIe siècle.Paris: Dervy, 2012.

Jacob, Margaret. Living Enlightenment: Freemasonry and Politics in Eighteenth Century Europe. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Reinalter, Helmut. Die Rolle der Freimaurerei und Geheimgesellschaften im 18. Jahrhundert. Innsbruck, Austria: Scientia 39, 1995.


[1]           Alexandre Defay, La Géopolitique (Paris: PUF, 2004), 4.

[2] Daniel Roche, Le Siècle des Lumières en province. Académies et académiciens provinciaux 1680–1789 (Paris: Mouton, 1978), 1:300.

[3] See below.

[4]           Pierre-Yves Beaurepaire, L’Espace des francs-maçons. Une sociabilité européenne au XVIIIe siècle (Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2003), 99-102.

[5] Translator’s note: Quotation back-translated from the French-language version of this article.

[6] Coming out of a Berlin Lodge of the Three Globes Mother Lodge, the Three Doves Lodge, created by Frenchmen in May 1760, became the Friendship of the Three Doves in 1761, and then the Royal York of Friendship after Prince Edward, duke of York and brother of King George III was admitted. In June 1789, the Lodge split off and proclaimed itself the Grosse Loge von Prussen (Grand Lodge of Prussia), then in 1845 it added Gennant Royal York zur Freunschaft (Called Royal York of Friendship) to its distinctive name.

[7] Translator’s note: Quotation back-translated from the French-language version of this article.

[8]The monopoly was only ended in 1893 by a ruling from the High Administrative Court of Berlin.


in Ritual, Secrecy and Civil Society/Policy Studies Organisation, volume 2, Issue 1, Spring 2014.


Laisser un commentaire

Entrez vos coordonnées ci-dessous ou cliquez sur une icône pour vous connecter:


Vous commentez à l'aide de votre compte Déconnexion / Changer )

Image Twitter

Vous commentez à l'aide de votre compte Twitter. Déconnexion / Changer )

Photo Facebook

Vous commentez à l'aide de votre compte Facebook. Déconnexion / Changer )

Photo Google+

Vous commentez à l'aide de votre compte Google+. Déconnexion / Changer )

Connexion à %s