Paston Letters, The

Paston Letters, The
(ca. 1422–1504)
   The Paston Letters are a collection of more than 1,000 items of personal and business correspondence documenting three generations or about 90 years (ca. 1422–1504) of the wealthy Paston family of Norfolk. The letters, many of which were written during the War of the Roses (1455–85), have long been valued as a source for the political history of that turbulent period. The fact that most of the letters deal with everyday lives of the household also makes them an important source for the domestic lives of people of the Pastons’ class. Furthermore, the letters are of great linguistic value, providing important illustrations of written English immediately before and after the development of the printing press.
   The documents begin with the career of the judge William Paston, who makes the family fortune through marrying Sir Edmund Berry’s daughter, Agnes. Their son, John, marries the lady Margaret Mauteby, and becomes a gentleman with significant political connections. Some 60 percent of the documents in the Paston Letters date from 1440 to 1466, the year of John’s death.While there are letters dealing with Yorkist lords trying to recruit John to their faction in 1454, and letters dealing with the long mental illness of the Lancastrian king Henry VI, the most notable letters concern Sir John Fastolf, famous soldier, Knight of the Garter, and reputed LOLLARD, who was cousin to John’s wife, Margaret.When Fastolf died in 1459, he left vast estates in Norfolk to John Paston. Litigation concerning the estates carried over into the time of John’s son, John II, when two of Fastolf ’s executors sold the manor of Caister, where the Pastons lived, to the duke of Norfolk, who besieged the estate in 1469.
   But aside from these political events, domestic affairs take up a good portion of the letters. Often these involve marriages, which for an upwardly mobile middle-class family like the Pastons were allimportant in consolidating land, money, and influence. We learn, for instance, of John II’s engagement to Anne Haute, cousin to the queen, and the subsequent annulment of the engagement in 1477.We also learn of the marriage of Margery Paston to the family’s head bailiff, Richard Calle—a match never condoned or recognized by the family. The letters also demonstrate the effective management of the great estate by women, such as Margaret Paston, who are consistently left in charge when their husbands are away from home for long periods of time. Margaret deals with terms for tenants on the Pastons’ land and arranges marriage as well, though it has been pointed out that her own letters are in many different handwritings—the women of the Paston estate seem to have dictated their letters, which some scholars have suggested shows an inability to write, or at least to write well. However, these women most certainly could read, as evidenced by mention of books in their possession. In fact, the variety of people who wrote the letters contained in the Paston documents indicates a high literacy rate among the nonlaboring classes of England in the 15th century.
   The Paston Letters stayed in the family until the 18th century, when they ultimately came into the possession of James Fenn, who published them in 1787 and 1789. A third volume of the letters came out in 1823. However, the originals of the letters were lost until 1865, when many of them resurfaced. Four separate parts of the collection were acquired by the British Museum between 1875 and 1933, and that is where the bulk of the original documents are held today.
   ■ Colin, Richmond. The Paston Family in the Fifteenth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
   ■ Davis, Norman. “The Language of the Pastons.” In Middle English Literature, edited by J. A. Burrow, 45–70. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.
   ■ Paston Letters and Papers of the Fifteenth Century. 2 vols. Edited by Norman Davis. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971–1976.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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