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'Getting the Third Degree'

Today in Masonic History we discuss 'Getting the Third Degree'.

'Getting the Third Degree' is an expression associated with interrogation techniques.

Getting the Third Degree as an expression has been around since at least the early 1500's. One of the first known uses of it was in D. Rembert Dodoens book Niewe herball or historie of plantes. In 1602 it appears in the Shakespeare's the Twelfth Night. In both cases it refers to the level of moisture or dryness, as well as heat and cold.

Using degrees to describe things was commonplace in the middle ages. Although the original guild lodges were around at the time that Dodoens and Shakespeare were writing their respective works, there does not seem to be any direct correlation between the masonic guilds and the expression.

Flashing forward to the early 20th century the expression 'Getting the Third Degree' began to appear in crime novels. The meaning changed from the middle ages definition regarding hot and cold, moisture and dryness to a series of unrelenting questions trying to gain information from a witness or criminal.

The more modern definition is directly tied to Freemasonry and has, at times, been specifically cited as the origin of the phrase.

From the early guild lodges, Freemasonry has been a place where information was meant to be exchanged. In the guild lodges, it was a place where eduction took place. It was often the only educational opportunity that individual might have if they were not members of the clergy or royalty. To advance to the next degree was to get better wages and more responsibility. It also meant to be be able to travel and work in other cities and countries. This required the apprentice and the journeyman (Fellowcraft in Masonry) to be able to answer questions about mathematics and other skills in order to be advanced.

During the age of Enlightenment, when the Freemasonry that we know today took shape, it was a place for the free exchange of ideas and information. Often these were ideas and information that were outlawed or considered heresy. At masonic gatherings questions were asked and answers given regarding a wide range of topics. Some of the questions would be to ensure that those who were hearing those heretical ideas could be trusted to hear them. More especially they were to test the knowledge of new initiates into Freemasonry that they had a suitable understanding of the order. This was even more essential in the places where they were "mouth to ear" lodges and Grand Lodges or Jurisdictions.

"Mouth to Ear" means that there is no written ritual books. All of the lessons of Freemasonry are taught from a more knowledgeable member of the fraternity to a newer member.

The idea of this intensive question and answer situation was adopted by individuals writing crime fiction in the early 1900's and made it's way into popular slang.