The “Comacine masters”, “magistri comacini” or “maestri comacini” are early builders that are often named as one of the predecessors of modern Freemasonry. I also ran into them in other contexts so I thought it was time to read a bit more about them. I did not want to get one of those ‘predecessors of Freemasonry’ type of books, just a book about the Comacines themselves. One of these fancy ones with many photos and the like. Well, there are none such books! Apparently there was a peak of interest in the subject in the early 20th century and little to nothing has been published since. Most books about the subject are from the 1920’ies I have not been able to find a more recent title in a language that I master. There is quite some information on the world wide web (usually going back to the old publications), so I did a little digging.
A little book from 1919 that I did buy is The Comacines: their predecessors and their successors by W. Ravencroft. It is a small (90 pages), large print book with some history. There are a few things to ponder on in it.
The author traces the Comacines back to lake Como which has a small island laying tactically just North of nowadays Milan. The little island has had different owners. The master builders Ravencroft has descended from the Druzes and they from the Hittites, the mysterious Indo-European people of the Middle East. He also makes a link with Etruscans which is interesting for two reasons. The most common theory of the origins of the Northern European runes is that that they find their origin in Etruscan writing. Southern Teutons in contact with their Southern neighbors would have adopted the writing of the Etruscans to runes and passed them on in a Northerly direction until the runes reached Scandinavia. If more was passed on besides writing, this could be a line along which proto-Freemasonry passed to modern Freemasonry though Teutonic symbolism.
The other reason why the Etruscans are interesting is that they are put in a line from ancient times to modern Freemasonry while neglecting the Teutons. That line usually runs from Italy to Frans to the UK. With proto-Freemasonry in Germany in the early 13th century, this could mean that there have been two lines leading from the Comacine Masters to modern Freemasonry. One with masonry and Freemasonry in nowadays England (or Scotland according to some) and another with early building societies in Germany.
Writing from Estruscians to Teutons
According to Omniglot.com the runic ‘alphabet’ was derived from Greek and the oldest known inscription are from the middle of the 6th century BCE. When I look at the image with the characters as shown in the article that I linked to, I do no see a whole lot of resemblance with runes. Sunnyway.com has a nice overview of rune-like alphabets to compare. The website TheRuneSite.com has an article with four theories on the origins of the runes, the Etruscan theory is mentioned as the most plausible one. That leads to a nice timeline which leads the runes from Etruscan times to the 17th century. This timeline also says a thing or two on how the runes would have travelled from Italy to Scandinavia. Just have a look at the linked articles for some background.
So if indeed the “Alpengermanen” and the Cimbri took the runes all the way to Northern Europe, what else could they have passed on? Could the passing of writing be done by groups that were also builders and the art of writing was accompanied by the art of architecture and construction? Certainly groups of builders can be found in Germany from an early period.
Early Masonry in Germany
Henning Klövekorn, an Australian Freemason, found Steinmetzen (‘stone layers’), Steinmaurer (‘stone builders’) and Zünfte (‘stonemason unions’) as early as the 11th century. “In 1250 the first grand lodge of Freemasons was formed in the city of Cologne (Köln)” and 25 years later there was the first “Masonic congress […] in the city of Straßburg”. “This was also the earliest recorded use of the symbol of Freemasons, the square and compasses.” All this is way before the proto-Masonry of the British isles.
In his book Klövekorn also follows other paths from early building organisations to modern Freemasonry. A very short summery of the author’s theories can be found below the article I just linked to.
In the Roman empire there were building ‘corporations’, so called “collegii”. The Comacines took over their organisational structure and perhaps also (parts of) their knowledge and system. The earliest mention of the Comacines is “in an edict of 643 of the Lombard king Rothari” (according to Wikipedia). The Lombards (or Langobards) were a Teutonic tribe living in Northern Italy. It seems that the Comacines were successfull and had many divisions and worked in a large area. Their master’s marks have been found as far North as Lund in Sweden. It looks like that the Comacines traveled along with the missionaries who set out to Christianize Northern Europe. As stated above, it also looks like that there are two major ‘routes’, one through Germany and one quickly reached Britain. For Britain the name of Athelstan (927-939) is often mentioned as being a receptor of Comacine knowledge.
There are two more articles that I want to refer to for further reading. They are from the same website as the Klövekorn article. One is about the link between Freemasonry and the “collegia“, the other about the link between Freemasonry and the Comacine masters.
The Etruscans are mentioned in early books on Masonic history, such as Albert Pike’s Morals and Dogma and Albert Mackey’s History of Freemasonry. As we saw earlier, in Pike’s book there are mostly just mentions. There is not really in depth information. The same I can say about him mentioning the Etruscans. Oddly enough it seems that the Comacines are mentioned more frequently in histories of Freemasonry, but not many authors seem to have looked at the origins of the Comacines and found the Etruscans. I think these Etruscans make good candidates to explain two sorts of influences in Masonic symbolism, influences that reached modern Freemasonry by two different ways.
It would be interesting to find out if, indeed, the Etruscans influenced Teutonic architecture and how. That is probably more of a task for somebody else. My initial thought would be something along the line: Teutonic tribes started to use, and adopted, Etruscan writing which became runes. They may have had some other influences as well (that does not sound illogical, why would you only copy somebody’s writing?), but in more Northerly Teutonic areas a society had already grown with its own ‘mysteries’ (the “Männerbünde” theory of people like Farwerck) which influenced the guilds of later times, probably also the Steinmetzen, etc. and that is how Teutonic influences came to modern Freemasonry. These guilds were probably also influenced by descendants of Etruscan building organisations such as the Maestri comacini.
Earlier in this article I linked to a ‘runic timeline’ that perhaps supports this theory to some degree. The theories of Farwerck lead from the 12th century to Freemasonry (with other influences that have nothing to do with building such as the “Männerbünde” elements and symbolism). The route of the Etruscans via the British isles into Freemasonry has been written about by other authors. This seems to make an alright case.
But I would still like to read more about the Comacine masters, their predecessors and successors.