by Terry Melanson, April 24th, 2012 (Update/Introduction Aug 11, 2015)
The impetus for this compilation of numismatic Masonic symbolism during the French Revolution stems from a single paragraph (and accompanying end notes) in James H. Billington’s Fire in the Minds of Men: Origins of the Revolutionary Faith (pp. 93, 537-8):
In the early days of the revolution, Masonry provided much of the key symbolism and ritual—beginning with the Masonic welcome under a “vault of swords” of the king at the Hotel de Ville three days after the fall of the Bastille. To be sure, most French Masons prior to the revolution had been “not revolutionaries, not even reformers, nor even discontent”; and, even during the revolution, Masonry as such remained politically polymorphous: “Each social element and each political tendency could ‘go masonic’ as it wished.” But Masonry provided a rich and relatively nontraditional foraging ground for new national symbols (coins, songs, banners, seals), new forms of address (tu, frère, vivat!), and new models for civic organizations, particularly outside Paris.
36. On the use of the voûte d’acier on Jul 17, see J. Palou, La Franc-maçonnerie, 1972, 187.
37. D. Mornet, Les Origines intellectuelles de la révolution française (1715–1787), 1954, 375; discussion 357–87; bibliography, 523–5; and outside of France, Billington, Icon, 712–4. A. Mellor, Les Mythes maçonniques, (1974) also minimizes Masonic influence, though vaguely acknowledging the influence of the occultist revival on the revolutionary movement.
38. Ligou, “Source,” 46, also 49.
39. This subject has never been comprehensively studied. For the best discussions in general terms, see O. Karmin, “L’Influence du symbolisme maçonnique sur le symbolisme révolutionnaire,”Revue Historique de la Révolution Française, 1910, I, 183–8 (particularly on numismatics); J. Brengues, “La Franc-maçonnerie et la fête révolutionnaire,” Humanisme, 1974, Jul–Aug, 31– 7; Palou, 181–215; R. Cotte, “De la Musique des loges maçonniques à celles des fêtes révolutionnaires,” Les Fêtes de la révolution, 1977, 565–74; and the more qualified assessment of Ligou, “Structures et symbolisme maçonniques sous la révolution,” Annales Historiques, 1969, Jul Sep, 511–23.
For the heavy reliance on Masonic structures in provincial civic rituals, see, for instance, F. Vermale, “La Franc maçonnerie savoisienne au début de la révolution et les dames de Bellegarde,” Annales Révolutionnaires, III, 1910, 375–94; and especially the monumental work for la Sarthe which lifts the level of research far above anything done for Paris: A. Bouton, Les Franc-maçons manceaux et la révolution française, 1741–1815, Le Mans, 1958. See also his successor volume Les Luttes ordentes des francs-maçons manceaux pour l’établissement de la république 1815–1914, Le Mans, 1966.
The Karmin article is the main source for what follows.
His methodology is simple: he mined a standard numismatic reference work and highlighted the examples of Masonic influence—minus illustrations, hence the need for my own treatment. The evidence is clear and seems deliberate, although one isn’t quite sure whether the artists involved were actually Masons themselves.