Academic journal article Medium Aevum

'I Shalle Send Word in Writing':1 Lexical Choices and Legal Acumen in the Letters of Margaret Paston

Academic journal article Medium Aevum

'I Shalle Send Word in Writing':1 Lexical Choices and Legal Acumen in the Letters of Margaret Paston

Article excerpt

Margaret Paston's letters have been said to contain 'many obvious echoes of legal phraseology',2 and both their tone and their content have led historians to surmise that she had a certain familiarity with the law, but the extent of her legal knowledge has hitherto been largely ignored or taken for granted. Focusing specifically on an important subgroup of Margaret's vocabulary, however - her use of legal words - affords new insight into the level of her understanding of the law.3 Furthermore, by assessing any correlation between these specialist terms and the scribal hands in which they appear it is possible for the first time to gauge the degree to which the words Margaret used in her letters represent her own lexical choices, and thus shed new light on her involvement with the letter-writing process generally. Such a survey also gives additional insight into the increasing availability of the vernacular legal expressions which enabled Margaret Paston (and by implication other women like her) to function efficiently in an administrative capacity,4 provides the opportunity to examine the intersection between a fifteenth-century woman's understanding of the law and her literate practice, and invites us to reassess contemporary attitudes to the relationship between education and literacy.5

Regarding, first, the broader issue of authenticity, although Margaret's letters are without exception the product of a secretary's pen it is the general contention that they represent her own thoughts and syntax and constitute a faithful transcription of her words.6 Even at first glance they are immediate in style and often give the impression of having been taken down verbatim from somewhat headlong dictation in an unselfconscious tone that has been described as having 'many of the features of oral narrative';7 and the mode of expression used for personal or domestic concerns is not appreciably different from that used for business topics. Indeed, Margaret could slip from culinary requirements to estate matters with hardly a pause for breath. Yet in order for a study of Margaret Paston's knowledge of the law as revealed by the legal linguistic competence of her letters to have any validity it is necessary to consider how much help she might have received not only in understanding the legal concepts her correspondence contains but also in expressing those concepts correctly in letter form.

As far as business and administration are concerned, Margaret's correspondence indicates that she was personally aware of every aspect of her family's activities, that she had a comprehensive understanding of the legal formalities necessary, and that her own involvement in the management of the Paston holdings went beyond the superficial awareness of one who delegated such functions to others. She was well able to 'kepe a corte', extract 'reparación' for late rent, or issue a 'qwetans' when a payment had been made,8 and seems similarly at home with the more complicated legalities entailed in retaliating against the depredations of land-hungry local magnates whose acquisitive ambitions often went relatively unchecked during the political instability of the mid-fifteenth century. Inevitably, such crises often occurred during her husband's frequent absences, and Margaret's letters make it clear that when necessary support and guidance were available to her from friends and associates. One such adviser was William Skypwyth, who amongst other duties had been MP for Norwich from 1463 to 1465 and a JP for Norfolk from 1469 to 1470, and had considerable legal experience. In a letter to her husband in 1465 it emerges that Margaret had asked Skypwyth 'what hym thought . . . were best to doo . . . and most wyrschypfull' pertaining to some distrained goods, and had been advised by him on the relative advantages of a writ over a replevin. She also mentions that he supported her when she went to see the Bishop of Norwich about 'the riotous and evyll dysposicyon' of a local priest, and asks John to 'thank . …

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