Andreas Önnerfors has an interesting essay about “The plans of the Strict Observance to establish a female branch”.
The Strict Observance? Aren’t they… very conservative?
In the archives of the Strict Observance in Denmark the author found a very well worked-out plan of 57 pages from 1773 for a female Strict Observance lodge that apparently escaped everyone until he discovered it. The documents contain regulations and even rituals. Önnerfors reprints all that he found, partly in three different languages (German, Swedish and English).
Now you may say: that’s probably an action of a few renegade members in the far North, but among the papers there is even a letter of Baron von Hund who was of the opinion that it was not yet a good idea to start a female lodge. In spite of the far developed plans, they never seem to have come to fruition.
Önnerfors opens with an interesting thought. What if the thinking about and development of forms of Freemasonry for (men and) women, triggered the development of chivalric (male) high grades?
In 1748 there appears to have been a Loge des Dames in Copenhagen. This was in fact a mixed lodge, since it had a male Warden and also its Grand Master was a man. This Grand Master was Wilhelm Matthias Neergaard who was also involved in the early development of high grades in Germany. The lodge initiated women over de course of several years.
The author found another document that connects women to high grades. A document from Germany that was brought to Sweden which speaks of “your lady knight”.
The the Strict Observance system then.
Contrary to the ‘normal’ Strict Observance, the dames system had five degrees instead of seven. The texts are very detailed and people who are better acquainted with the Strict Observance than myself may be able to judge how far the dames system differs from, or is similar to, the ‘normal’ system. Notable, for example, is the form of the temple, which is a square with an added triangle on one side. Within this triangle there is a ‘holy of holies’ part that is shielded from the rest of the temple.
The “deputy master” is a man, but he is the assistant of the ‘Maitresse en chaire’ and a lodge must consist of at least five persons, but besides the “deputy master” they should be female. The ‘Maitresse en chaire’ has contact with other SO lodges, all of them.
There is an interesting twitch to the five degrees. They correspond to Entered Apprentice, Fellowcraft and Master Mason, but contrary to normal SO, the fourth degree is reserved for the Wardens and the fifth for the ‘Maitresse en chaire’. The Wardens have a different name in each degree.
Other functions are secretary, treasurer, orator and ‘serving sister’ (a master of ceremonies).
Secretary is a very important function reserved for people in the highest degree (so she must have been ‘Maitresse en chaire’ before?). There are quite a few demands, one of which is that she must be fluid in both French and German, apparently with the international contacts in mind.
The author prints drawings that have been made for several jewels. The lodge, furniture and equipment are described. “[T]he initiation rituals vary from a rather complex one for the first to a mere instruction for the higher degrees.” They are described with quite some detail.
An interesting point about the oath: “It is also a part of the oath to pay honour to the order of male Freemasonry, to support its lodges and to protect it against accusations from outside”. Also amusing is that the initiate receives two pairs of gloves, one of which is for “the man she esteems most”.
There are quite elaborate tracing boards with elements from the Old Testament (which Davies thinks typical for French lodges of adoption). An interesting element is the “Frère terrible”, a man of posture, whose task -as the name suggests- is to frighten the candidate.
The author sees similarities with French rituals from lodges of adoption, such as the somewhat odd “I think so” answers in the catechism and the climbing of the Jacob’s ladder.
Closing off the author refers to other rituals of adoption lodges that are found in Scandinavia and concludes that in these early days, such lodges were fairly common all over Europe.
So common, even the Strict Observance had a project with it!