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The Paston Letters: A Selection in Modern…

The Paston Letters: A Selection in Modern Spelling (Oxford World's… (original 1963; edition 1999)

by Norman Davis (Editor)

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194186,474 (3.48)9
Title:The Paston Letters: A Selection in Modern Spelling (Oxford World's Classics)
Authors:Norman Davis
Info:Oxford University Press, USA (1999), Edition: New Ed, Paperback, 320 pages
Collections:Your library
Tags:medieval history, english history, pastons, fifteenth century life

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The Paston Letters: A Selection in Modern Spelling by Norman Davis (Editor) (1963)



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Wow! This is the real deal. Reading these letters feels like walking in the footsteps of actual people in 15th Century England. The Paston family members and their associates come alive as we learn of their hopes and fears in one of the more turbulent periods of History. The 100 years war with France, the war of the Roses, the visitations of the Great Plague all had a tremendous impact on the family as they struggled to better themselves in a period when law and order was in danger of breaking down completely.

The Paston letters are a cache of letters and documents numbering over a 1000 pieces dating from the mid fifteenth century into the early sixteenth century and cover the eventful lives of three generations of the family. They are important because they are amongst the earliest collections of letters written in the fast developing English language and they are the richest in providing details of the society of the times. The World’s Classic Edition that I read contains 142 complete or extracts from the cache. Letters are perhaps the most personal of documents and are in many cases only intended to be read by the recipient. The Paston family were lawyers, by profession and so some of this correspondence is factual with an eye to the fact that it could become a public document. However most of the selections here are between members of the family expressing thoughts and emotions that are very private and immediate.

England had lost most of its territory previously gained in the 100 years war with France. Its military was on the back foot, only Calais remained firmly under English control and this was under threat. England was full of men trained for war from the aristocracy down to the common foot soldier. Henry VI came to power in 1422 on the death of Henry V the last of the great medieval warlord kings. Henry VI was in his minority and the Lords of the realm battled for control of the kingdom. The two great Houses of Lancaster and York rose to power and when Henry VI became temporarily insane in 1454 the two houses fought running battles across England: Ludford Bridge, Wakefield, St Albans and later Barnet . Henry VI regained his senses, but was usurped by Edward IV. Henry temporarily regained the throne in 1470, but was defeated by the Yorkists at Tewksbury and Barnet and Edward IV was king again. Leading members of the Paston family took an active part in theses events; chosing to be on the wrong side at the battle of Barnet and then being posted to Calais.

The Pastons were not aristocrats; they had worked their way up from being bondsmen. William Paston whose letters start this selection was a lawyer, working in London who had gone about buying land in Norfolk. He was an astute business man and he had purchased some of the best arable land in England with attendant houses and manors. On his death he passed his estate to his son John who made an excellent marriage with Margaret who was herself an heiress in the Norfolk region. They had five children and their two eldest sons John II and John III feature most prominently as correspondents. They had become an important family in Norfolk: Johns I, II, and III all became MPs with John III achieving a knighthood. They could best be described as provincial gentry.

They were therefore an upwardly mobile family, a family on the make as it were, but there is much evidence in the letters that they were basically good law abiding citizens. We warm to them as we read their letters; we see them develop as characters and share their fears and frustrations in trying to make good. John Paston I is the patriarch when we read Margaret’s first letter to him in 1441 which starts off “Right reverend and worshipful husband, I recommend me to you, desiring heartily to hear of your welfare…” John was working as a lawyer in London and Margaret was looking after family affairs in Norfolk and she gently chides him about not getting her a new girdle that she has asked for. It becomes apparent in the letter that she is pregnant and she would like her husband home with her she says:

“I may no longer live by my craft I am discovered by all men that see me…..I pray you that ye will wear the ring with the image of Saint Margaret that I sent you for a remembrance till ye come home. Ye have left me with such a remembrance that maketh me to think upon you both day and night when I would sleep”

.Much of the early correspondence is between John I and Margaret and his two elder sons. John spends more and more time in London and Margaret becomes the Manager of all affairs in Norfolk, repeatedly writing to her husband for decisions on urgent matters and increasingly taking the initiative. In 1448 she was forced to flee from her manor house at Gresham when Lord Moleyns men threatened to drag her out and lock her up in a castle. It was she who had to deal with the displaced tenants who came to her when they had been put out of their houses. On Johns death Margaret became very much a matriarchal figure directing her two elder sons as best she could and remaining a woman of property. We are able to follow Margaret’s development from a young mother to a woman of business and then finally to a de facto head of family.

Interestingly much of the family’s troubles stemmed from the very qualities that made them successful in the first place. John I’s ambition and acquisitiveness led him to a position where he became an executor to the will of Sir John Fastolf. Sir John had made himself rich in land and money through his conquests in France and two days before he died made a new will leaving nearly everything to John Paston, effectively cutting out 11 other executors to the will. When John I took possession of these lands and buildings all hell broke loose with powerful interests issuing legal challenges and martial force to get what they thought was due to them. This led to one of the most exciting events described in the letters; the siege of Caister Castle. John III has been left to defend the castle as John II has by this time taken over his fathers business in London. John III urgently asks John II to send men, crossbows and gunpowder. Margaret writes to Jon II saying help is urgently required as she would rather loose their livelihood than any of the lives of the men helping John III to defend the castle. Its all frantic stuff. Margaret is able to reflect years after the events to her son John III who is still in danger from retribution over the Fastolf inheritance.

“Wherefore in any wise beware of yourself, for I can think they give no force what to do to be venged and to put you fro your intent, that they might have their will in Sir John Fastolf’s land. I had liefer ye had never know the land. Remember it was the destruction of your father.”

Marriage and love is another key theme in these letters. At this time marriages were arranged with the important factor being what both parties could bring to the table, either in money, position and in the case of young women reputation (lack of it). Times were however starting to change and there is much made of two marriages that were certainly love matches and in one, Margaret ostracised her daughter Margery who was bent on marrying their estates manager Richard Calle. Margaret thought the marriage was beneath their station and got a bishop to tell her daughter just that. Margaret writing to John II says:

“I charged my servants that she should not be received in mine house. I had given her warning, she might be ware afore if she had a be gracious. And I sent to one or two more that they should not receive her if she came. She was brought again to my place for to be received, and Sir James (the chaplain) told them that brought her that I had charged them all, andshe should not be received; and so my lord of Norwich hath set her at Roger Best’s to be there till the day beforesaid, God knoweth full evilagain his will and his wife’s if they durst do otherwise.”

John III received perhaps the most famous letter in this collection; the so called Valentine letter from Margery Brews. There were protracted negotiations over the amount of the dowry and Margery wrote to John telling him how much she loved him and included a charming love poem.

Other issues covered by these letters are the difficulties for a young courtier in gaining access to people of importance. John II is castigated by his father for his lack of success. We hear of John III attached to Lord Norfolk’s entourage, shivering away (he only owns one gown) in wet cold Wales where his Lordship is gathering his forces. Both John II and John III fought at the battle of Barnet on the Lancastrian side and had to then seek pardons from the Yorkist king. John III was wounded; his brother wrote to their mother to say that “he is alive and fareth well and in no peril of death. Nevertheless he is hurt with an arrow on his right arm beneath the elbow” The Black Death reappears at intervals and John II dies of it in London after insisting on staying there to further the family’s interest. Family members are warned not to go to Norwich after another outbreak. The church plays a less significant part in the family affairs than one may think. We hear of other people making pilgrimages and of instructions for prayers in various wills, but Margaret is the only family member who regularly invokes the power if God. Towards the end of her life she becomes more and more under the influence of Sir James a powerful fighting man of the cloth and it is with undisguised glee that his death is celebrated by her sons.

The Getting of land the getting of money at a time when the population of the country was suffering from both internal warfare and the plague, is the major theme of these letters. Times were hard indeed but the Pastons managed to more than keep their heads above water through diligence and graft and they did this without losing their humanity. These are letters and so there is no connecting narrative, also there are references to people and places that are not obvious to readers today. Some of the jokes and some of the inferences are lost to us, but there is more than enough here to hold our interest and it is fun to read between the lines. The world Classics Edition contains a useful introduction a brief biography of family members and a timeline of the major historical events, as well as some notes following each letter; just enough to keep the reader grounded in the contents of the letters. And the letters themselves? Well they are not great literature, but they are well enough written, the spelling and some of the language has been modernised to make them intelligible and there is also an index of words. There really is so much of interest in the content of these letters, that for anybody attracted to the history of this period then I would recommend that you give these letters a try. They are essential and a five star read..

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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Davis, NormanEditorprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Paston Familymain authorall editionsconfirmed
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The archive of letters and papers written by and associated with the Paston Family of Norfolk, England in the 15th and early 16th century have been presented in various formats -- complete sets of varying numbers of volumes; selections on different principles; even illustrated editions -- by half a dozen or more different editors. Because many of these books are just entitled "The Paston Letters" or some variant thereof it is not safe to combine them merely because they seem to have the same title. These have been separated, more or less, by editor and edition. The editors have been given status as primary or main author so that they appear on the appropriate editor's page, and most have "The Paston Family" entered as a main author, so they also appear on that page.
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