Sunday, March 12, 2017

Cowans and Eavesdroppers

Masonry uses a lot of language that is archaic unusual to modern ears. As the language outside the lodge has continued to evolve over hundreds of years, much of the language inside has not. Take the honorific "worshipful" as applied to the master of a lodge, for instance. This, to American ears, has a ring of irreverence that is completely unwarranted. Within a lodge it's used in the very same sense that it continues to be used in Great Britain today when addressing a mayor or magistrate as "Your Worship". It is merely a sign of deference. It is the language outside the lodge that has changed, leaving many people ignorant of its original meaning.

Another phrase in common use is "cowans and eavesdroppers". Eavesdroppers is fairly easy, as it's a word still in common use. It means to attempt to secretly listen in. Some sources might tell you that an eavesdropper hid in the eaves to accomplish this, but that's not exactly right. Rather, the eaves of a house is where the roof overhangs the wall. The eavesdrop is where the rain falls to the ground, directly beneath the edge of the roof. An eavesdropper is one who stands in the eavesdrop, close to a wall or window, so as to hear the voices within.

But what of cowan? This is a word that doesn't have much of a meaning outside of a Masonic lodge. It's so unfamiliar that many Masons don't recognize it themselves, mispronouncing it "coward" instead.

Let's first quickly dispense with what it isn't. It isn't related to the English surname "Cowan". That came to us as an Anglicisation of the Gaelic surname MacEoin (son of Eoin). The "mac" was dropped except for the consonant, and a coincidentally similar name was thus formed. One theory, recorded by Albert Mackey in the Encyclopedia of Freemasonry, holds that cowan is simply a form of the word "common". He cites as a reference An Historical Account of the Worshipful Company of Carpenters by Edward Basil Jupp. I looked it up and sure enough, there it was, spelled "coen" as well as "comon". (here's a bit more on that society) In Britain the word "common" still refers to that which lacks distinction or nobility, and this is also applied to people. Thus Parliament is composed of a House of Lords and a House of Commons.

Dry-stone wall as built by a cowan
(image by TR001 via Wikimedia)

St. Brides in Douglas, Scotland
a product of 14th century masons
Click these images to enlarge.
In the ancient operative masonic sense a cowan or cowaner was a stoneworker who was untrained in the craft of operative masonry; who built without using mortar or first dressing the stone. You can find such stonework throughout the British isles, as the soil was strewn with rubble and something had to be done with it. In the operative sense, cowan wasn't a particularly pejorative term... it was just a fact describing the man's skills and occupation.

The first we hear about it in relation to masonry is from the Schaw Statutes, two manuscripts dated 1598 and 1599. You can read them, along with some commentary, in the linked PDF. In particular, item #15 reads, "That no Master or Fellow of Craft receive any cowans to work in his society or company, nor send none of his servants to work with cowans under pain of twenty pounds so often as any person offends thereunto."  Even to this day, as a matter of tradition, the Tiler of a lodge denies entry to all cowans.

In operative lodges, that tradition was not unbroken. It was possible for rare exceptions to be made for cowans to work with masons, but such work was strictly limited.

Over time, speculative masonry split away from the operative craft (which, perhaps surprisingly, still survives!) and aspects of the speculative lodge that were originally wholly practical became symbolic. As the work of a cowan is objectively inferior to that of an operative master mason, the word took on the pejorative sense that this implies. Thus, the term cowan in modern speculative use has completely lost its sense of utility and has become a label of contempt. Today it simply means a poser; someone who tries to pass himself off as a Freemason. Rather than simply attempting to overhear Masonic secrets, a cowan is one who attempts to gain fraudulent access to a lodge or masonic secrets.

Available on
The Schaw statutes are fascinating, and I encourage you to read them and other ancient manuscripts.

Find more information on the history of the term cowan at

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