Consensus Blindness, Blue Dental Tartar, and Early Women Freemasons

By Karen Kidd, PM
(I speak only for me)

American author Robert Temple writes about extraterrestrial aliens in world history.

Some folks have a problem with that.

I pay more attention to an observation he made in his article “Forbidden Technology,” that first was published in the summer 2001 edition of Freemasonry Today:

Technology is forbidden when it is not allowed to exist. It is easy to forbid technology to exist in the past because all you have to do is to deny it. Enforcing the ban then becomes a simple matter of remaining deaf, dumb and blind. And most of us have no trouble in doing that when necessary. . . I call it consensus blindness. People agree not to see what they are convinced cannot exist.

In this article, still available online at Temple’s website, Temple talked about optical technology long denied by “experts” in the field that nonetheless – and quite stubbornly – existed for millennia. Those experts long denied the evidence as observed by their own eyes.

The same principal of “consensus blindness” long also has been applied by most scholars of Masonry – including those scholars who are not Freemasons – about the existence of early women Freemasons: that they didn’t exist at all.

When they have been found to have existed, their existence is downplayed, marginalized and ignored.

And when folks like me insist that those early women Freemasons did exist, well, I also can be marginalized, downplayed, and ignored.

It’s OK 🙂

However, just as there have been optical lenses in Ancient Egyptian archaeological finds dating to the 4th and 5th dynasties at Abydos, so also have women Masons existed throughout all of the modern Freemasonic period.

Including 18th Century North America.

It hasn’t been only lenses in ancient digs and early women Freemasons who’ve been marginalized, downplayed and ignored by folks in their fields who should know better. Consensus blindness is rife in medicine, anthropology, and other fields. I can’t think of a field where consensus blindness hasn’t happened.

Decades passed before research in the early 1980s by physicians Robin Warren and Barry Marshall that revealed that ulcers are caused by bacteria, not by stress and diet, became generally accepted by the medical community. Untold thousands were made to suffer – even died – until that research was generally accepted.

In the field of Ornithology, observers long described most birds as being monogamous, mating for life and not straying outside that pair bond, until enough experts in that field were willing to say otherwise. Now birds are generally understood to be about as monogamous in practice as are humans.

Some of the more egregious examples of consensus blindness have occurred – and still occurs – in the study of history. One example based on gender in history is particularly germane to the history of early women Freemasons.

For generations, when a scholar observed a medieval manuscript image of a man teaching students, that’s all it would be: a man teaching students, such as in this image here:

Man teaching class

Though the text in the manuscript says nothing about him, historians generally would not question the evidence observed with their own eyes and would take for granted that the image was exactly what it looks like: a man teaching.

However, when historians spotted a medieval manuscript image of a woman teaching students, they generally agreed to doubt the evidence observed with their own eyes. They could not take for granted the image was exactly what it looks like: a woman teaching, in this case geometry.

Teaching geometry

The accompanying text in the manuscript says nothing about her but she has been explained away as the “personification” of geometry.

Men are the real thing, women personify the subject being taught by the real thing, and there is a consensus among those who should know better to be blind to anything that suggests otherwise.

In the same vein, historians also have generally agreed that medieval women were not artists in any great numbers. The consensus has been that the lives of medieval women were too restricted; they had too few opportunities or resources; therefore, women just were not artists during the medieval period. 

And where evidence of medieval women artists has been observed – if only in the last generation or so acknowledge – women such as Hildegard of Bingen, Herrad of Landsberg, and Artemisia Gentileschi have been portrayed as notable exceptions to an otherwise hard and fast rule.

However, it seems some light is beginning to shine through that particularly opaque retina in the form of blue dental tartar found in the skull of a medieval nun.

You can follow the link in the previous paragraph to the fuller story of the woman who died in middle age and was buried in a women’s monastery in Dalheim, Germany at around A.D. 1100. This past January, a paper was published in a prestigious science journal written by female University of York Archaeologist Anita Radini about the flecks of brilliant blue she found while examining the nun’s dental tartar.

The blue flecks turned out to be a very expensive lapis lazuli of a type used by manuscript illustrators, i.e. artists, during the medieval period. If this anonymous nun was an artist, particularly in a monastic setting, then other women like her were as well.

The discovery is challenging the consensus blindness about the lives of medieval women, particularly those who must have been scribes and artists.

Had those blue flecks been noticed a generation ago, they probably would have been ignored or in some way explained away because the consensus was that medieval women were not artists. The evidence isn’t being ignored now because fewer scholars are interested in explaining it away. That particular consensus blindness is slipping away.

I told you about all of that so I could tell you about a recent piece of near-miss evidence of early women Freemasons in North America.

Ten years ago, I mentioned in a not-especially-widely read book I wrote about early women Freemasons what little then was known about women Freemasons in 18th and 19th century North America.

I know in my bones that there were more women Freemasons during that period but their memory has been marginalized, downplayed, and ignored because the consensus is to be blind to evidence about them. I also believe that evidence remains to be found by those who have eyes to see.

I only have two eyes; they’re aging and failing, so there needs to be more eyes than mine paying attention to find that evidence. It would be nice if that could happen in my lifetime. I’m not convinced it will, but I live in hope.

So you can imagine I was very excited when a noted U.S.-based scholar of Masonry (I’m not naming names as I don’t want to embarrass anyone) emailed me with evidence that English translations of the French language “Recueil Precieux,” an early 19th Century publication used by many scholars of Masonry who study early ritual history, have habitually left out a section about Adoptive Masonry.

Adoptive Masonry is an early form of modern Freemasonry that tried to allow for the admission of women by creating a space for the female relatives of otherwise male-only Masons. Its existence in France – where women Freemasons long have been taken for granted – is well documented, but Adoptive Masonry is not especially well documented in North America.

The title page of “Recueil Precieux” says it was published in 1812 in Philadelphia.

That English translators have been leaving out a portion of “Recueil Precieux” about Adoptive Masonry (I haven’t entirely nailed down that they have) certainly looks like marginalizing, downplaying, and ignoring something that those in the field have agreed to not see. That much I think is true enough, despite what I’m about to share with you.

“Recueil Precieux” is a publication studied by Masonic ritual experts, not by the likes of me (though quite a few folks claim on my behalf that I am a ritual expert; which annoys me to no end because I’m not, but I’m expected to live up to it and, quite often, I fail). I knew I needed to speak with a scholar better versed in Masonic ritual study than I’ll ever be.

So I did.

That fellow had the sad duty to point out to me what genuine ritual experts have known for generations: that “Recueil Precieux,” despite its title page, was not published in Philadelphia; it was published in Paris. It seems that late 18th Century and early 19th Century French publishers got around censorship laws by claiming their books were published offshore.

And while a section on Adoptive Masonry may habitually have been left out of English translations or “Recueil Precieux,” any such passage likely documents Adoptive Masonry in France rather than in North America.

The evidence did not pass peer review.

And it’s OK 🙂

Yes, I’m disappointed. This isn’t the blue dental tartar I’m looking for in the history of early women Freemasons.

I am, however, heartened that a scholar greater than myself thought it might be. This probably is a sign that more scholars in Masonry now are looking for this evidence and are less interested in ignoring what they observe with their own eyes.

That’s a good thing 🙂