The First Books of Masonry

A part of Victor Hugo’s famous chapter, “This Will Destroy That,” from his Notre Dame de Paris, in which he elaborates upon the part that architecture had in recording the knowledge of the ancients and moderns down to the 15th century.

From the very beginning of things down to the 15th century, architecture is the great book of the human race, man’s chief means of expressing the various stages of his development, whether physical or mental.

When the memory of the primitive races began to be surcharged, when the load of tradition carried about by the human family grew so heavy and disordered that the Word, naked and fleeting, ran danger of being lost by the way, they transcribed it on the ground by the most visible, the most lasting, and at the same time most natural means. They enclosed each tradition in a monument.

The first monuments were simply squares of rock “which had not been touched by iron,” as says Moses. Architecture began like all writing. It was first an alphabet. A stone was planted upright, and it was a letter, and each letter was a hieroglyph, and on every hieroglyph rested a group of ideas, like the capital on the column. Thus did the primitive races act at the same moment over the entire face of the globe. One finds the “upright stone” of the Celts in Asiatic Siberia and on the pampas of America.

Presently they constructed words. Stone was laid upon stone, these granite syllables were coupled together, the Word essayed some combinations. The Celtic dolmen and cromlech, the Etruscan tumulus, the Hebrew gligal, are words; some of them, the tumulus in particular, are proper names. Occasionally, when there were many stones and, a vast expanse of ground, they wrote a sentence. The immense mass of stones at Karnae is already a complete formula.

Last of all they made books. Traditions had ended by bringing forth symbols, under which they disappeared like the trunk of a tree under its foliage. These symbols, in which all humanity believed, continued to grow and multiply, becoming more and more complex.

Of necessity the symbol must expand into the edifice.

Architecture followed the development of human thought: it became a giant with a thousand heads, a thousand arms, and caught and concentrated in one eternal, visible, tangible form all this floating symbolism.

The parent idea, the Word, was contained not only in the foundation of these edifices, but in their structure. Solomon’s Temple, for example, was not simply the cover of the sacred book: it was the sacred book itself. On each of its concentric enclosures the priest might read the Word translated and made manifest to the eye, might follow its transformation from sanctuary to sanctuary, till at last he could lay hold upon it in its final tabernacle, under its most concrete form, which yet was architecture,- the Ark . Thus the Word was enclosed in the edifice; but its image was visible on its outer covering, like the human figure depicted on the coffin of a mummy.

Thus during the first 6,000 years of the world-from the most immemorial temple of Hindustan to the Cathedral at Cologne – architecture has been the great manuscript of the human race. And this is true to such a degree that not only every religious symbol, but every human thought, has its page and its memorial in that vast book.

The reign of many masters succeeding the reign of one, is written in architecture. For-and this point we must emphasize-it must not be supposed that it is capable only of building temples, of expressing only the sacerdotal myth and symbolism, of transcribing in hieroglyphics on its stone pages the mysterious Tables of the Law . Were this the case, then seeing that in every human society there comes a moment when the sacred symbol is worn out, and is obliterated by the free thought, when the man breaks away from the priest, when the growth of philosophies and systems eats away the face of religion-architecture would be unable to reproduce this new phase of the human mind: its leaves, written upon the right side, would be blank on the reverse; its work would be cut short; its book incomplete. But that is not the case.

This was the only form, however, in which free thought was possible, and therefore it found full expression only in those books called edifices. Under that form it might have looked on at its own burning at the hands of the common hangman had it been so imprudent as to venture into manuscript; the thought embodied in the church door would have assisted at the death agony of the thought expressed in the book. Therefore, having but this one outlet, it rushed toward it from all parts; and hence the countless mass of cathedrals spread over all Europe, a number so prodigious that it seems incredible, even after verifying it with one’s own eyes. All the material, all the intellectual forces of society, converged to that one point,–architecture In this way, under the pretext of building churches to the glory of God, the art developed to magnificent proportions.

Thus, till Gutenberg’s time, architecture is the chief, the universal, form of writing; in this stone book, began by the East, continued by Ancient Greece and Rome, the Middle Ages have written the last page . For the rest, this phenomenon of an architecture belonging to the people, succeeding an architecture belonging to a caste, which we have observed in the Middle Ages, occurs in precisely analogous stages in human intelligence at other great epochs of history. Thus-to sum up here in a few lines a law which would call for volumes to do it justice in the Far East, the cradle of primitive history, after Hindu architecture comes the Phoenician, that fruitful mother of Arabian architecture ; in antiquity, Egyptian architecture . of which the Etruscan style and the Cyclopean monuments are but a variety, is succeeded by the Greek, of which the Roman is merely a prolongation burdened with the Carthaginian dome ; in modern times, after Romanesque architecture comes the Gothic. And if we separate each of these three divisions, we shall find that the three elder sisters, Hindu, Egyptian, and Roman architecture, stand for the same idea: namely, theocracy, caste, unity, dogma, God, and that the three younger sisters, Phoenician, Greek, Gothic, whatever the diversity of expression inherent in their nature, have also the same significance, liberty, the people, humanity.

Call him Brahman, Magi, or Pope, according as you speak of Hindu, Egyptian, or Roman buildings, it is always the priest, and nothing but the priest. Very different are the architectures of the people: they are more opulent and less saintly. In the Phoenician you see the merchant, in the Greek the republican, in the Gothic the Burgess.

The general characteristics of all theocratic architectures are immutability, horror of progress, strict adherence to traditional lines, the consecration of primitive types, and the adaptation of every aspect of man and nature to the incomprehensible whims of symbolism. Dark and mysterious book, which only the initiated can decipher! Furthermore, every form, every deformity even, in them has a meaning which renders it inviolable.

On the other hand, the main characteristics of the popular architectures are diversity, progress, originality, richness of design, perpetual change. They are already sufficiently detached from religion to take thought for their beauty, to tend it, to alter and improve without ceasing their garniture of statues and arabesques. They go with their times. They have something human in them which they continue to express themselves. Here you get edifices accessible to every spirit, every intelligence, and every imagination; symbolic still, but as easily understood as the signs of Nature. Between this style of architecture and the theocratic there is the same difference as between the sacred and the vulgar tongue, between hieroglyphics and art, between Solomon and Phidias.

In fact, if we sum up what we have just roughly pointed out, disregarding a thousand details of proof and also exceptions to the rule, it comes briefly to this : that down to the 15th century architecture was the chief recorder of the human race ; that during that space no single thought that went beyond the absolutely fundamental but was embodied in some edifice ; that every popular idea, like every religions law, has had its monuments ; finally, that the human race has never conceived an important thought that it has not written down in stone. And why? Because every thought, whether religious or philosophic, is anxious to be perpetuated; because the idea that has stirred one generation longs to stir others, and to leave some lasting trace.

But how precarious is the immortality of the manuscript! How far more solid, enduring, and resisting a book is the edifice! To destroy the written word there is need only of a torch and a Turk. To destroy the constructed word there is need of a social revolution, a terrestrial upheaval. The barbarians swept over the Coliseum; the deluge, perhaps, over the Pyramids.

In the 15th century all is changed. Human thought discovers a means of perpetuating itself, not only more durable and more resisting than architecture, but also simpler and easier of achievement Architecture is dethroned, the stone letters of Orpheus must give way to Gutenberg’s letters of lead.


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