One of the first modern secret societies open to men and women alike, the Order of Woodcutters (Ordre des Fendeurs) was founded in Paris in 1747 by the Chevalier Beauchaine, an enthusiastic French Freemason who hoped to establish a society like his beloved Masonic lodge in which women could participate alongside men. He drew some of his inspiration from the earlier Order of the Happy, which seems to have been the first French “androgynous” lodge, but took from Masonry the idea of drawing symbolism from a working-class profession. Lodges of the Order were therefore called woodyards, symbolically surrounded by forest. The presiding officer had the title of Père-Maître (Father-Master), and members referred to one another as cousins. A single degree of initiation sufficed for the Order. See Freemasonry; Order of the Happy.

Beauchaine’s Masonic connections and his skill as a ritualist guaranteed the new Order a positive reception, and it quickly became popular among the highest aristocratic circles in Paris and elsewhere in France. More than a dozen societies built on similar lines emerged in the following decade, inspired by its success. The emergence of adoptive Masonry around 1760 capped this period of expansion, and launched a movement that remains active up to the present. See Adoptive Masonry.

Ironically, another offshoot of the Order of Woodcutters went in a direction neither Beauchaine nor his aristocratic fellow-Masons would have approved. In the 1780s, one of the most popular societies in southeastern France called itself la Charbonnerie (the Charcoal Burners), and used a number of the Woodcutters’ traditions, including the use of the term “cousin” for members. One of its initiates, Pierre Joseph Briot, drew heavily on la Charbonnerie’s traditions when he launched a political secret society in Italy to oppose Napoleon Bonaparte’s seizure of power there. That organization became the most widespread and feared of the radical secret societies of the early nineteenth century, the Carbonari. See Carbonari.


The Element Encyclopedia of Secret Societies : the ultimate a-z of ancient mysteries, lost civilizations and forgotten wisdom written by John Michael Greer – © John Michael Greer 2006