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

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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. …