Freemasonry is an initiation society, which has been active in the Netherlands since ca. 1720. For three centuries its intellectual heritage and symbolism have filtered down into society through the lives and works of individual members. Masonic concepts and iconography found their way into literature, the arts, social care and politics and thus became a part of modern western society.
Freemasonry in a historical perspective
Freemasonry became one of the largest non-clerical organisations societies during the 18th century. The Order was organized in local clubs (lodges) with a democratically chosen, national board (Grand Lodge). The membership was traditionally reserved for men, but women became members of so-called 'adoption' lodges during the 18th century, in which they could assume important administrative and ritual functions. By the end of the 19th century new 'mixed' masonic organizations appeared, which admitted men and women as equal members. Many different masonic Orders are active in the Netherlands today, counting several hundred lodges and thousands of members. The ritual practice of freemasons has changed relatively little since the 18th century.
Lodge archives as sources for historical research
By the end of the 18th century there was a lodge in nearly all large cities in the Netherlands. A lodge would often play an important part in local history, because many local decision makers and leading figures in the cultural scene would be found amongst the members. This allowed freemasonry to stand at the cradle of many charities, commercial enterprises, social reforms and academic organizations - the masonic roots of which have since long been forgotten.
Lodge archives can therefore be considered real treasure troves of historical information and statistical data. They provide information about an important segment of a large part of the population of the Netherlands and its former (overseas) territories during a time period of nearly 300 years. Lodge archives include minutes, correspondence, financial administration, membership lists, inventories, as well as personal archives of prominent members. Lodge archives therefore form an important source for research from various academic fields of study, but also for genealogy and local history.
Academic research into freemasonry
Freemasonry, fraternaties and related currents are the subject of academic study on an international level. Within the field of religious studies, they are often grouped under the term 'western esoterism'. Academic chairs and research centers for the study of freemasonry have been founded at universities in Brussels, Sheffield and Zaragosa at the end of the 20th century. This stimulated a growing number of students and scholars from diverse disciplines such as history, art history, literature, political and religious studies to focus their studies on the history of freemasonry and its influence on western society and culture.
In the Netherlands there are two chairs for the field of study. The Chair for 'Freemasonry as an Intellectual Current and Socio-cultural European Phenomenon' at the University of Leiden (founded in 2000) offers BA-courses and coordinates PhD research. The Sub Department for 'History of Hermetic Philosophy and Related Currents' at the University of Amsterdam (founded in 1999) offers a full BA- and MA-program on western esotericism and coordinates PhD and post-doctoral research projects.
Two unique study collections are also located in the Netherlands: the Cultural Masonic Center in The Hague and the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica in Amsterdam. Many smaller collection can be found in both public and private Dutch collections.