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The John Rylands Research Institute

Printing secrets: Exploring secrecy in the printed materials of British freemasonry

Andrew Balmer, Sociology

On 7 February 2018, the United Grand Lodge of the British Freemasons published an open letter in several national newspapers, contesting the conspiracies attached to them and claiming ‘discrimination’ against their members. To counter their image as a secretive sect, the letter concluded with a promise of future transparency, stating simply, “We’re open.”

Although there is a growing body of work, secrecy remains an under-studied phenomenon in sociology and other disciplines. Indeed, most historical work on the largest secret society in the UK, Freemasonry, was written by its members. This project explores the potential of an interdisciplinary approach to secrecy, using a case study of The Manchester Masonic Research Collection.

In the 200 years following its establishment, Freemasonry grew in status, membership and economic power, and then declined over the 1900s. The period of growth was marked by a significant expansion in printed materials. Today the masons have embarked on a digital campaign to publicise their order, change their image, and expand once again.

In recent decades, book history and bibliographical studies have made powerful connections between books and social context. This cross-disciplinary social turn is linked closely to Darnton’s theorisation of the book’s “communications circuit” (1982) and McKenzie’s (1985) proposal that bibliography should comprehend not only the technical but the social dimensions of a text’s production, including “the human motives and interactions” of those who transmitted and consumed them.

Bringing these sociological and literary themes together, this project considers how printers, publishers, and booksellers dealt with tensions of secrecy and transparency in the manufacture and distribution of Masonic handbooks, rituals, speeches, and so forth, during the society’s period of growth, to reflect on current efforts to rebrand Freemasonry as an ‘open’ group, and – in the longer-term – to use this work to develop sociological thinking on secrecy more broadly.

This project is funded by a JRRI pilot grant and runs from November 2018 – June 2019.