Our Masonic teachings remind us to observe the
approach of Cowans and Eavesdroppers; see that none pass or repass
except such as are duly qualified and have permission of the Worshipful
The definition of an Eavesdropper is widely known and
accepted but how do we define a Cowan? What instructions do we given our
Tylers to enable them to prevent a Cowan from gaining entry? Is it only
the Tyler who must endeavour to observe the Cowan's approach? Could it
be that a Cowan might enter through the door of the preparation room, a
door we do not tyle?
Just who the Cowans were, and are - if they exist -
are questions which I have contemplated thoughtfully for some time.
Perhaps many of us will agree that the idea of Cowans can be interpreted
as a symbolic representation of those things which can hinder our own
spiritual growth, the building of our own temple as well as those things
which might be detrimental to the well being of a lodge.
While endeavouring to find answers on this subject I
did not restrict my studies to Masonic writings but used available
history texts and recalled visits to rural Britain, the land of the
Cowans whose work convinced me that, at one time, the Cowan was as
professional in his work as the stone mason was in his.
Should you visit rural Britain you will soon notice
that in many places stone walls were, and are, used to divide fields or
to indicate property lines. These walls are from three and a half to
five feet in height and are built without mortar. Stones have been cut
or broken along their natural fissure lines and each piece is placed in
such a way as to interlock with its neighbour. Some of these stone walls
have existed for centuries.
The building of stone walls is an art going back to
long before the Roman conquest. It is the art of the Cowans. Most
English farmers know how to build stone walls or at least know how to
maintain them, but at one time these wall builders were recognized as
skilled tradesmen though they practised this work only as a side line to
their regular work.
The Cowans also built cottages. Cottage walls were
constructed in the same manner as the field walls by using interlocking
stone without mortar. Five foot walls would be surmounted by rough
wooden rafters to hold sod or thatching. No doubt many of the villagers
had at one time or another stood against the outside of a cottage at
night with their heads up in the eaves of thatching and there listened
or perhaps even watched as to what went on inside the cottage; hence the
term eavesdropping. For some reason the reputation or eavesdroppers
stuck to the Cowans themselves though they probably didn't eavesdrop any
more than anyone else.
These country stone workers, or Cowans, often had
their own stone quarries and built up reserves of stone pieces ready for
the next project and at the same time claiming this practice as their
right. Generally, the work was carried out as a service and in exchange
for services performed, bartered for goods, crops or livestock.
In the towns, however, there was a different kind of
stone worker. Here were the stone masons; men skilled in the art of
cutting stone into blocks and using mortar to secure the stones to each
other. At first they used limestone which was easier to cut and also the
limestone dust provided the first cement for their mortar.
As time went on these stone masons learned to cut
other stone and with the use of their mortar were able to build large
buildings. The skills learned were kept secret and passed on only to
their apprentices. They formed tight-knit guilds through which they were
able to maintain firm control over the members of their craft.
Conflict did not seem to exist between the Cowans and
the stone masons since they seldom came into contact with each other.
It was at this time that the Bubonic plague, commonly
known as the Black Death, was spreading rapidly across Europe. Its cause
and much less, methods of control were unknown to man. It was the church
hierarchy who first observed that those people in the country seemed to
have a better chance of avoiding the disease than the town and city
It was for this reason that the church decided to
build their new cathedrals and monasteries out in the country. This is
why some of the old churches which are now surrounded by towns and
cities have such names as St. Martin's in the Fields.
But all was not serene in the country. It was the
year 1066 and the Battle of Hastings and the victor, William the
Conqueror was causing much unrest amongst the English populace. With
bands of Saxons carrying out hit-and-run guerrilla warfare against the
conquering Normans as well as fear of further attack from France, the
Norman Barons ruled with an iron fist and fortified their castles
against attacks. Here is where most of the stone masons had come, and
under contract to the Normans, were held responsible for maintaining
The stone masons soon formed their guilds and built
lodges which became their homes-away-from home and which also served as
their union halls. They jealously guarded their trade secrets and only
recognized members of the craft were allowed into their lodges. During
meetings and meal hours the lodge was closely guarded by Tylers. The
Tylers were the lowest echelon of skilled labour recognized by the stone
masons. They worked only in the quarries where they cut rough stone into
tiles or building blocks. The more skills a stone mason acquired, the
further he moved away from the door of the lodge towards the East end of
the lodge where only the most skilled sat, presiding over the others.
These highly qualified men were actually the architects and designers.
Because of the strict rule of the Norman barons, the
stone masons were not allowed to leave their home guild to travel or to
follow another vocation. It was like the Selective Service during the
Second World War which designated certain civilian jobs as essential to
the war effort. If you were in such a position, you couldn't leave even
to join the Military without permission to do so.
In order for the church to obtain working rights of
the stone masons they had to pay off the Normans or grant special
religious dispensations in return for the freedom of the required number
of stone masons to build cathedrals who then became "free masons".
Likewise, it was forbidden to hire or to accept a stone mason outside
the jurisdiction of his home guild unless that stone mason could show
evidence that he had his freedom. Thus a stone mason employed in the
construction of a cathedral had to be "free and accepted".
Now for the first time we had qualified stone masons
and cowans working in the same area.
The Cowans saw these stone masons come to their
country side and take all the work associated with the construction of
cathedrals, using rock from their quarries and earning wages they had
never dreamed of. They wanted their share of the work and a trade war
started. the Cowans could never have built a great cathedral as they
were without the necessary training and skills.
Eventually they were granted menial tasks in the
quarries or as helpers but they were not allowed to enter the guild
lodges. This was a real sore point because the Cowan's art was older
than the stone mason's and they really wanted recognition as workers in
stone with full privileges in the stone masons' lodges.
The cathedrals each took three or four hundred years
to build with many generations of masons playing their part. The stone
mason trade was kept within family lines and so the local Cowan was
never allowed to become an apprentice. However, as the cathedrals neared
completion fewer masons were needed and many returned to the more
lucrative business in the cities and towns.
As the guild lodges at the cathedral sites gradually
depleted, some lodges gave in to the pleas of the Cowans to be granted
membership and eventually even allowed them to take office. Where this
happened and the Cowans became the majority, the lodges collapsed
because the Cowans were not steeped in the stone masons'traditions and,
having obtained recognition only when it was too late, the Cowans felt
no real loyalty to the lodge.
Some stone mason lodges took a different stand and
never accepted the Cowans for membership but instead, admitted the
landed gentry as associate members. It became quite stylish even for the
aristocracy to patronize these lodges. It was these non-operatives who
started using tools and terms of stone masons in symbolic ways,
particularly when many of these noble men were knights who had returned
from the Crusades. Their influence can still be seen in Freemasonry
With the reformation of the church, it was inevitable
and quite natural that purely speculative masonic lodges should be
established in the cities by men who had been associated with the
earlier craft lodges - lodges which had remained steadfast in their
determination to never admit Cowans.
Now, you may think that this historical review of the
beginnings of the Order is a roundabout way of getting to the question -
Are there Cowans in our Midst? - but I feel that an understanding of the
past is necessary if we are able to recognize the Cowans of today.
Like the Cowans of long ago, modern day Cowans are
not necessarily evil or violent, nor do they wish to destroy
Freemasonry, or are they even interested in stealing our secrets.
As the Cowans of long ago wanted to be admitted into
the stone masons' lodges, the Cowans of today want to join an Order.
They want recognition and prestige by being members of an organization
of men whom they envy. They believe the old stories about fraternal
preference; they think that membership in the Order will somehow secure
But what makes the Cowans of today? It is their lack
of faith and spiritual values. It has been said that just as the Cowan
of long ago could never build a cathedral because he built without
mortar, the man of today cannot build the spiritual temple of his life
if he does not have faith and spiritual values, and therefore should not
be admitted to Freemasonry. Unfortunately, a man's ability to appreciate
things of a spiritual nature is not easily seen and examined other than
saying to an applicant that he must have a belief in God. When we ask
the question — In whom you put your trust? the candidate knows the
answer we want to hear, often through prompting, and is going to answer
accordingly whether he believes or not.
Remember, this is one of the Landmarks of Freemasonry
we are speaking of. If we admit a non-believer, a candidate without
faith or spiritual values, we are admitting a Cowan. It has nothing to
do with having, or not having, masonic knowledge, or acquiring masonic
knowledge later as he progresses through the degrees. A Cowan initiated,
passed and raised, is still a Cowan, just as admitting the Cowan of old
into the stone masons' lodges didn't make him a skilled stone mason.
Freemasonry, through its lessons may lead a man to think more deeply
abut his own place in the scheme of things and so enhance his faith but
if he is without faith when he joins, can Freemasonry provide it for
him? Sadly enough, as the membership in our order depletes, we tend to
panic and we are reluctant to reject an applicant. Consequently, we
accept the simple "yes" to a most important question, even though it may
permit a Cowan to join our ranks.
The Cowans in our lodges have never posed any real
threat to the Order up until now because they have always been in the
minority. Usually they will drop out entirely or just stop attending
meetings when they finally realize that the material benefits they
expected are not there after all.
Quite frequently, they will go through the chairs of
their lodges, and they may fulfil the duties of their offices quite
faithfully, even through their year as Worshipful Master because the
prestige and recognition is a reward in itself. But after the term as
Master, you seldom see them in lodge. Cowans show themselves in many
ways but as the fundamental principles of Masonry are kept alive, so
long as our landmarks and traditions are maintained, Freemasonry will
continue to live, untouched by the presence of the Cowans in our midst.