The Paston Letters

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I was going to write about the Paston letters even before I saw that the remains of Richard III are to be reinterred today at Leicester Cathedral. I promise it’s a coincidence.

I hadn’t heard of the Paston letters (the Historian’s cry of It’s not my period) until I listened to a BBC Radio 4 In Our Time podcast earlier this month on the Wars of the Roses. It’s a half-hour scamper through a highly complex period, but the contributors referred to the Paston letters and one of them – Dr Helen Castor – has drawn on the letters in her book about the Paston family in the fifteenth century. I’m only halfway through it, but I can vouch that the first half of Blood & Roses is fascinating.

How this archive of more than a thousand documents covering a 70 year period survived is only one of a number of extraordinary features of this cache of gold. Through the documents, we’re given an account of the daily life and concerns of the Paston family and their neighbours navigating their way through a turbulent period.

We see the personal – births, (arranged) marriages and deaths; family relationships and squabbles; shopping lists, asking for sugar, cinnamon and cloth – and the political. Land ownership isn’t determined only by methods such as purchase and direct inheritance we would recognise today. Claims by those who’ve needed to make a forced sale or who are descended from those who owned land decades earlier can also be considered. Land might also be taken by force and having the right political connections is crucial in determining who keeps an estate and who’s evicted without compensation.

But what’s struck me as I’ve got further into Blood & Roses and as my ear has become more attuned to the cadences of fifteenth century communication is how many similarities there are with the present. At the personal level, individuals can be seen from the letters as astute or stubborn. Wives are trying to give their husbands advice – which they might or might not take. Individuals are ambitious for power and guard it jealously. And people at all levels need to be managed and feel that, as we might say now, they’re listened to and that they have a stake in the outcome of a particular chain of events.

The political backdrop is one that I never want to see in this country, but I’m starting to think that the Paston letters are at least as extraordinary for showing how little human nature has changed over the last 550 years.