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A world revealed in words: Helen Castor visits the History Today archive to find an analysis from 1959 of an important collection of family letters that offer an unparalleled insight into gentry life in 15th-century England.

When Maurice Keen introduced the Paston Letters to the readers of History Today in May 1959, the correspondence had already been in print for more than 150 years. The first edition, compiled by the antiquarian John Fenn, had been a surprise bestseller in 1787, a publishing sensation for which Fenn was awarded a knighthood.

But it was not until the end of the 19th century--after the letters themselves had been lost, then dismissed as forgeries, then found again in attics belonging to Fenn's relatives--that a scholarly edition of more than 1,000 Paston letters and papers was compiled by James Gairdner of the Public Record Office and their use as a key source for the history of 15th-century England began in earnest.

They were not the first English family letters ever written: late-medieval England was awash with correspondence, as the ability to read spread down the social hierarchy and as increasing (though smaller) numbers of people acquired the technical skill of writing with a quill on parchment or paper.

The Paston Letters are, however, as Maurice Keen points out, the first collection of private correspondence in English to have survived in significant numbers. Thanks to the meticulous care with which the Pastons kept their letters, the neglect of later generations who failed to clear their archive of documents that had no further practical use and the historical rigour of John Fenn, the Paston papers were preserved where others were destroyed or discarded. Together with a handful of smaller collections--the letters of the Stonors, the Plumptons, the Celys and the Armburghs (these last discovered in the 1990s, misfiled in Manchester's Chetham's Library)--they illuminate, in Fenn's words, 'not only public matters of state, but likewise the private manners of the age'.

In 1959 it seemed as though the greatest value of these letters lay in their generic nature, the fact that as a random survival from a much larger pool of documents they could, in Keen's words, 'give us a touchstone whereby to gauge the reaction of the ordinary, prosperous individual to contemporary events'. In that reaction, as he points out, are preserved extraordinary details of high politics that are found nowhere else in the public record, such as the moving account (in 'a little bill so washed with tears that hardly ye shall read it') of the Duke of Suffolk's murder in 1450 on his way into exile for his part in the disasters of Henry VI's reign: 'One of the lewdest of the ship bade him lay down his head, and he should be fair fared with and die on a sword; and he took a rusty sword and smote off his head with half-a-dozen strokes; and they took away his gown of russet and his doublet of velvet mailed, and laid his body on the sands of Dover.'

Yet the more we have learned about the Paston Letters, the more we see the pitfalls of assuming too readily that their evidence is representative of 'ordinary' 15th-century experience. In fact, recent research on the Pastons has shown just how untypical they were, or at least how typical of a much smaller sub-group of the gentry than was once thought. As an ambitious nouveau riche family striving to establish itself in landed society only a generation after their forebears had worked at the plough, the Pastons were unable to escape being drawn into politics at a national level: they became embroiled in the Wars of the Roses when they sought to gain noble support in their battle to inherit the rich estates of Sir John Fastolf. Meanwhile, older, established families such as the Stonors of Stonor in Oxfordshire were able to keep their heads safely down as civil war raged around them--a contrast which now seems less 'curious' than Keen suggests.

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We now also have a less generic sense of the individual protagonists in the Paston story. The 'John Paston' Keen mentions is not one person, but three: a father and two sons who shared his name. And the differences between them--stubborn, careworn John I; dashingly careless John II, lover of women and books; and charming, trustworthy John III--play a huge part in explaining the dramatic twists in the family's tale.

Yet none of this denies the truth of Keen's conclusion: the letters are, he says, 'in a sense in which the other sources are not, alive'. Five hundred years on, we can hear medieval voices talking with all the immediacy of an overheard conversation; and in that fact lies the letters' extraordinary value and their enduring appeal.

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The full text of the original article is available free at www.historytoday.com/fromthearchive

Helen Castor is a Fellow of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge and author of Blood and Roses: The Paston Family in the Wars of the Roses (Faber, 2004).
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Title Annotation:From the Archive; Paston Letters
Author:Castor, Helen
Publication:History Today
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jul 1, 2010
Words:804
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