Well I’m back after a long break and look forward to getting back into the swing of the blog, and as such I’m starting with a topic that can cause some confusion for non-members, and even some members. That is the terms used to refer to non-masons.
Some non-masons feel these terms to be derogatory and so naturally object to their use and some masons use the wrong terms for the wrong people, hopefully after reading this post both will be a little more comfortable about what the terms mean and when they should be used. The first one we’ll touch on is the Cowan, this is an odd term not found outside of masonry, at least not anymore. It’s a Scottish term, and first seen in the Schaw statues of 1598. A cowan was a dry stone wall maker, or a rough mason and seen as less skilled than a trained stonemason. It seems that this didn’t suit cowans and various laws were made to prevent them from being given work that required the skills of a trained stonemason to complete. In modern masonic terms a cowan is someone who gives himself the appearance of a mason or claims to be one, but has not been through the ceremonies, in essence a fake mason as mentioned in a previous post.
Then we have eavesdroppers, most people know what eavesdropping is in modern terms, someone listening in to private conversation, but this curious word comes from a literal activity. Buildings in the medieval time had overhanging eaves, when the roof went past the walls of the house so that rain would run straight off rather than down the walls, which were often wattle a daub, so rain would begin to wash them away. Sometimes there would be a gap between the top of the wall and the roof, but sheltered by the eaves from rain and most of the wind, helping to keep the house less smoky and with fresh air circulating. An eavesdropper would stand underneath the eaves of the house and listen in at that gap. Guild lodges would be constructed in a similar manner, so an eavesdropper hoping to lean the secrets of masonry without having to be a member of the guild was a concern. For this reason lodges had a Tyler, an individual with a sword who would guard the door and patrol the outside of the building to prevent this. The Tyler is still present in modern masonry, armed with a drawn sword at the door of the lodge to keep away eavesdroppers, although in reality mostly his job is to help the candidate prepare for his degrees. Therefore only those who are attempting to discover the secrets of masonry by stealth are referred to as eavesdroppers.
Finally we come to the Profane, that is anyone who is not a mason. At first glance I can see why people might feel a little insulted at being referred to as profane, after all it means something like heathen doesn’t it? Well, not exactly, as with so much when Freemasonry and language get together we have to go back to the origin of the word, in this case back to Latin. The Latin root words for profane are Pro (before) and Fanum (temple), which created the word profanus which meant outside the temple, or not sacred. This word, via French became profane and was used to refer to anything that wasn’t sacred, for example music which wasn’t specifically for church. As the lodge is an allegorical representation of King Solomon’s Temple anyone who isn’t a mason is therefore outside the temple, literally profanus. It’s not meant to be insulting but with modern understandings of the word it can come out that way, so tends not to be used. But hopefully now if it does come up you’ll be equipped to understand why it’s used.