Monday, August 24, 2020

John Dickie's "The Craft"

John Dickie is Professor of Italian Studies at University College London. He is an internationally recognized specialist on many aspects of Italian history and his books have been translated into more than twenty languages.

Born in Dundee in 1963, Dickie was brought up in Leicestershire and educated at Loughborough Grammar School. He won a place at Pembroke College, Oxford, graduating in 1986 with a First in Modern Languages. He subsequently gained an MA and a DPhil at Sussex University. Since 1993 he has taught at UCL.

Dickie applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Craft: How the Freemasons Made the Modern World, and reported the following:
Page 99 of my book shows an eighteenth-century drawing of a woman. Or at least it looks like a woman. Yet she is sporting some distinctly masculine props: a staff, a sword and, above all, a Freemason’s apron. Those in the know will spot the busts of famous imposters on the wall behind her. As transpires from the text on page 99, the image is of the Chevalier d’Éon, a French lawyer, soldier, diplomat, spy, scandalist, Freemason and … (here comes the unanswerable question) transsexual? transvestite? Our modern labels are inevitably clumsy. The fact is that the Chevalière d’Éon, born male, adopted a female identity for much of her life, and was, in her later years, embraced as a Sister by the Freemasons of her home town in Burgundy.

The Freemasons emerged in Britain in the 17th and 18th centuries as a male-only fraternity. One of the many themes of my book is the curious forms of masculine identity cultivated and expressed by Freemasons, and the gender trouble that the Masons have often brought upon themselves. (The Chevalière’s case caused great embarrassment for the Masonic establishment in London, where she spent much of her diplomatic career.) In my final pages, I reflect that another subtitle for the book could have been ‘Four Centuries of Male Eccentricity’. In that sense, page 99 offers a representative snapshot.

The Chevalière crops up at the end of the book too. In 2010, after 250 years, French Freemasonry’s supreme authority, the Grand Orient, finally agreed to admit women on an absolutely equal footing with men. I had lunch with the woman who brought about the change, Olivia Chaumont, who is a great admirer of d’Éon. This is hardly surprising, since Olivia shares a similar narrative arc. Olivia was born male, and became a Freemason while she was still hiding her real identity. When she finally transitioned in 2007, she presented the Masonic authorities with a problem—one that they eventually and rather grudgingly solved by dissolving the barriers to full Sisterhood in the world’s most famous and influential secret society.
Visit John Dickie's website.

--Marshal Zeringue