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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume II. The End of the Middle Ages.

XII. English Prose in the Fifteenth Century, I

§ 13. The Paston Letters

Still less to be considered as literature, yet even more interesting in themselves, are the private letters which prove that ordinary people were conversant with pen and ink without intervention of scribes: “Mastresse Annes, I am prowd that ye can reed inglyshe wherfor I prey yow aqweynt yow with thys my lewd hand.” Even the correspondence addressed to Henry IV and Henry V, the latter very considerable in quantity, was certainly not all done through secretaries; and it is of interest to notice that Henry IV appears to have preferred to be addressed in French. Chance has preserved a private letter from one of Henry V’s soldiers to his “felous and frendys,” describing how “alle the ambassadors that we dele wyth ben yncongrue, that is, in olde maner of speche in Englond, ‘they ben double and fals,’” and they had made the king a beau nient, or cypher. he is fain of peace and begs his friends to pray that he may soon come “oute of thys unlusty soundyour’s lyf yn to the lyf of Englond.”

Though the epistles of the learned are usually couched in Latin, provost Millington and bishops like Gray and Bekynton could be extremely forcible in English, and even the university of Oxford addressed English to the House of Commons, to great ladeis and even, sometimes, to noblemen. A kind of testimonial to the famous Sir John Talbot, then lord lieutenant of Ireland, was addressed to Henry V by all the principal inhabitants of the Pale in very careful English, urging his claims upon the king in respect of his energy aginst “your Irishe Enimies and English Rebels.” The corporate towns, too, were accustomed to send missives to one another or to the great nobles; but the compositions of the town clerks, e.g. of Caerleon or Youghal, are on a different plance from those of the universities.

The famous collection of letters and business papers preserved by the Pastons furnishes a detailed picture of three generations of a well-to-do Norfolk family, their friends and enemies, their dependents and noble patrons. At first John Paston and his devoted wife Margaret, afterwards their sons, are the leading correspondents, and the cares of property form the topic. John Paston inherited from his father, a worthy judge, considerable estates and was ambitious of acquiring more;but the cupidity of the nobles of the district kept him in continuakl difficulties. The old judge used to say that “whosoever should dwell at Paston should have need to know how to defend himself,” and had placed his sons to study at the inns of court, since the only help against violence lay in the intrincacies of the law, with which every age, class and sex was acquainted. The letters, accordingly, trace the endeavours of John Paston, and, after him, of his sons, to form such a combination of royal favour, local intrigue and bribery as to procure effective legal protection against those who seized their manors by armed force. This main thread of interest is interwoven with every sort of business. We should scarcely gather that the crown of England lay in the scales of civil war. Waht the correspondence reveals is a state of anarchy in which jurymen are terrorised, gentlemen of repute waylaid by ruffians after church or market, or even dragged from the Christmas dinner at home to be murdered by the wayside; when a sheriff professedly friendly dare not accept a bribe, because he cannot safely take more than £100 (i.e. over £1000 present value) and lord Moleynes (Paston’s foe) is a great lord who can do him more harm than that;when the duke of Suffolk’s retainers attack dame Margaret in her huband’s house with bows and handguns, pans of fire and scaling ladders, break in the gates, undermine the house-front, cut asunder the great timbers and carry the courageous woman forth to watch them destroy it.

In the midst of such turnoil, business is conducted regularly. We see the squires and their stewards incessantly riding to and fro, letting farms and holding manor courts, attending markets or elections at Norwich, trying to curry favour at the court of the duke of Norfolk, complimenting the duchess or giving her waiting-woman a jewel, above all visiting London, where lawyers may be found and, possibly, the appointment of sheriff or under-sheriff manipulated. Letters come by messengers, with plate and money concealed in parcels;sometimes tokens are mentioned, for a seal might be stolen—“by the token that my mother hath the key but it is broken.” Countless commissions are given for grocery or dress. treacle of “of Genoa” is sought whenever sickness is rife, cinnamon and sugar, dates and raisins, “of Coruns” must be priced to see if they be “better cheap” than in Norwich. If Paston once orders a doublet “all of worsted for the honour of Norfolk”—“which is almost like silk”—his wife parays that he will do his cost on her to get something for her neck, for she had to borrow her cousin’s device to visit the queen among such fresh gentlewomen, “I durst not for shame go with my beds.”

The family acts together, like a firm, against the rest of the world;husband and wife are working partners, mother and brothers can be counted on to take trouble; the confidential servants are staunch, and not one seems to have betrayed his master, though gratitude is not a marked trait of the next generation. Nor does it seem surprising that the daughter, Margery, neglected as her upbringing had been—Paston had grudged outlay on his elder children—should have fallen in love with steward, Richard Calle, and, after two years of home persecution, insisted that she had betrthed herself to him and would marry him—“to sell kandyll and mustard in Framlyngham,” as her angry brother cried. Her mother immediately turned her out of the house and left her to the reluctant charity of a stranger. Every relationship of life, indeed, was of the commercial nature:marriages were bargains, oftern driven by the parents without intervention of the persons concerned, as had been the case with John and Margaret. The wardship of children was purchased, as a speculation. “There is a widow fallen,” writes one brother to another, or, “I heard where was a goodly young woman to marry … which shall have £200,” or, “whether her mother will deal with me.” Paston’s hard old mother, dame Agnes, sends to ask at the inns of court if her son Clement “hath do his dever in lernyng,” and, if not, to pray his tutor to “trewly belassch hym tyl he will amend, and so did the last maystr and the best that evir he had, att Caumbrege.” the tutor’s fee was to be ten marks. Several of the lads went to Cambridge, one Oxford and one to Eton, where he stayed till he was nineteen;the inns of court came later, for some at least;then, one was placed in the household of the duke of Norfolk for a time, and another remained long in the service of the earl of Oxford, the one courteous nobleman of this correspondence.

Daughters were merely encumbrances, difficult to marry with little dowry, expensive to bring up in the correct way by boarding with a gentle family. Keeping them at home was a disagreeable economy. Dame Agnes so maltreated her daughter Elizabeth, beating her several times a week, and even twice in a day, forbidding her to speak to anyone, and taunting her, that her sister-in-law besought Paston to find her a husband. “My moder … wold never so fayn to have be delyvered of her as she woll now.” Parental authority was so unquestioned that, years after Paston’s death, his sons, grown men, and one, at least, married, were boarding with their mother and treated like children. Dame Margaret leaned on her chaplain, one James Gloys, and quarrels were picked to get John and Edmud out of the house. “We go not to bed unchidden lightly.” “Sir James and I be tweyn. We fyll owt be for my modyr with ‘thow proud prest’s and ‘thow proud sqwyer.’” The priest was always “chopping” at him provokingly, but “when he hathe most unfyttynge wordys to me I smylle a lytyll and tell hym it is good heryng of thes old talys.” Thus (1472) writes John, a husband and father, to his elder brother, also named John, a young knight about court in London.

With this younger generation a rather lighter tome becomes apparent in the letters. Sir John was of a somewhat shallow and unpractical character, his brother a man of high spirits and good temper;and it would seem as if after Towton field, the dead weight of terrorism had begun to lighten. The decade after 1461 was less anarchical than that which preceded it, and the young men sometimes have leisure for slighter concerns than sales and debts, lawsuits and marriage bargains. Sir John took an interest in books, his brother in hawking, and he merrily threatens his elder “to call upon yow owyrly, nyghtly, dayly, dyner, soper, for thys hawk,” which he suggests might be purchased of a certain grocer “dwelling right over against the well with 2 buckets” near St. Helen’. When Sir John at length sends a poor bird, it is with admirable temper that the disappointed brother thanks him for his “dylygence and cost … well I wot your labore and trowbyll was as myche as thow she had ben the best of the world, but … she shall never serve but to lay eggys.” Sir John had a better taste in the points, laces and hats about which his brothers and he were so particular. Their friendliness is the most amiable thing in the letters. The one sign of parental affection in them comes from the younger John, who was sent in the princess Margaret’s train (1468) to the court of Charles the Bold. (“I hert never of non lyek to it save Kyng Artourys cort.”) He is anxious about his “lytell Jak” and writes home “modyr I beseche yow that ye wolbe good mastras to my lytell man and to se that he go to the scole.” Humour was, apparently, invented in London, for the brothers and their town friends have many a jest, crude as these often are. Sometimes we have a touch of slang—“He wolde bear the cup evyn, as What-calle-ye-hym seyde to Aslake” (i.e. be fair). “Put in hope of the moon schone in the water.” If the tailor will not furnish a certain gown, “be cryst, calkestowe over hys hed (?a double caul) that is schoryle (churl) in Englysche, yt is a terme newe browthe up with my marschandis of Norwych,” says John the younger, who addresses his knightly brother as “lansmann” and “mynher,” and jests on having nearly “drownke to myn oysters,” i.e. been murdered. Many a good colloquizl expression never found its way into literature; “to bear him on hand” is common for “to accuse”; “cup-shotten,” “shuttle-witted” are good terms.