The oldest written records of the medieval operative masons that reached us date from the fourteenth century. These Old Charges are not identical with the Charges given to the Initiates, to the Fellowcrafts, and to the Master Masons in the speculative lodges of to day. Those modern Charges, together with “The Charges of a Freemason” printed as a preface to the General Laws and Regulations of the United Grand Lodge of England, are based on the Old Charges. Studying the Old Charges takes time and effort, and very few Brethren know them. There are about one hundred known versions of the Old Charges, the oldest being the Regius (in rhythmic verse) and the Cooke (in prose). Most of the Old Charges, if not all, are based on earlier writings and the differences between them are due to mistakes, errors, as well as changes made on purpose by the various editors and compilers.
The Old Charges are divided in six groups:
I. The Regius Poem from about 1389.
II. The Cooke family (3 copies); the MS is from the early fifteenth century.
III. The Plot family (5); the MS is dated 1686.
IV. The Grand Lodge (46) whose first MS is from 15/12/1583, Tew (7), and Sloane (20) families.
V. The Roberts family (6) from 1722.
VI. The Spencer family (6).
There is nothing much of esoteric nature in the Old Charges, but they are the link between operative and speculative Masonry. In addition, it is possible that there are earlier versions unknown to us, for instance as trade ordinances, or in some statements written by a learned monk. Accidental errors by the copyists, and deliberate ones by the editors, have produced the various versions, and many of them have been lost.
The English Mason Craft is more or less the only one to have a legendary history. This is assumed to be due to its association with the Church, but all medieval Crafts had such association, although less intimate. As a result, we can assume that monks, who knew the building trade well, have written the Old Charges. They were writing for the un-educated operative masons who had a great regard for religious observances. Most workers lacked education at that time, they were superstitious and of great credulity. For all these reasons they accepts as true the imaginative Craft history written by the learned monks to suit the interests of the Church. These religious historian scribes did not think twice about including legends, and even their own inventions, when they lacked facts. They also preserved many old traditions for which the speculative Freemasons of to day are very grateful.
One can wonder why these religious men wrote for masons who, in general, could not read. Obviously this was to allow those who could read, to inform their brothers by reading those manuscripts to the assembly of masons in their lodges. Those documents were written knowing that they would only be read by few masons but heard off by most people. The Regius Poem and the Cooke MS. could not have been written in England before 1390, as the English language did not reach the required perfection for abstract thought before that date. The Old Charges were first read in the operative lodges. They were still used by the early speculative Masons until they were replaced by the new versions compiled by Anderson, and included in the Constitutions of 1723. However copies of the Old Charges were still printed later on to be kept in the new lodges even if they were not read anymore. They were a kind of a link between the old operative masons and the new speculative ones. They were also used in Scotland