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The Pastons in the Classroom

For such a rich source, I didn’t immediately find the Paston letters easy to use in the classroom. This wasn’t because of the language but because I didn’t know the letters well enough – and it took me ages to work out what I wanted students to learn from them. What follows are suggestions about how the letters might contribute to students’ understanding of the Middle Ages, with some links to places where I have used the letters in the ways described.

The Related PowerPoint

Note: If you haven't already downloaded the PowerPoint, it's available HERE …

Most of the slides don’t need an explanation apart from:

• Slide 3 is a version of the family tree that omits major individuals. If you want students to get to know the family you could ask them to fill in this version, thus having to work out who was who. Creating a family tree using students as the individuals and explaining their links to each other will also help greatly.

• Slide 5 is a chart shows where the gentry fit into the broader pattern of society. The Pastons wanted to be secure within the gentry band, not hovering at the bottom, at risk of losing gentry status.

• Slides 11-13 provide a copy of an original letter from Agnes to William Paston in April 1440, followed by a transcript showing original spelling etc, followed by a modernised version.

Reading Aloud: Story-telling

There’s nothing as captivating as a well-told story and reading the letters aloud will help students of all ages; it will not just interest them but help them develop deeper insights into the period and people they are studying. Reading them in role as the letter-writer, you can help students appreciate the situation of that writer, prompt them to ask questions (what happened next, what might the reply say etc), think about the options facing an individual as well as what we as historians can learn from that letter. Reading a newsletter breathlessly recounting the latest news from 1455 is as worthwhile with A level students as reading to KS3 students John III’s instructions to his mother about where to pick up his black and red hose in London. So don’t just leave the letters on paper – bring them and their authors alive by reading them aloud.

KS3: HA Resources

Rachel Brown, one of the teachers on the HA Teacher Fellowship on the later middle ages, created resources based around three questions:

1. How did the Paston family rise from being farmers to knights?

2. What can we learn from the Paston family’s letters?

3. How much had life changed by the end of the fifteenth century?

You can find Rachel’s work on the HA website (link below), including the text of a number of letters. It’s open-access therefore free to all HERE …

KS3: Understanding Aspects of the Work That Historians Do

Much work on sources at KS3 is generic i.e. not specific to an individual period. As I’ve argued elsewhere on this website [ HERE … ] it’s important to give students a sense of the changing nature of sources over time and of the skills that historians need when using the sources from a particular period. The letters can contribute to both these areas. For example, show students a picture of one of the letters (such as slide 11 in the PowerPoint sequence) and challenge them:

How would you describe the handwriting in this letter? Neat? Scruffy? Better or worse than yours? Can you read it? Let’s have a closer look – who’s going to be the first to decipher a word?

Why is this writing difficult to understand? What skills does a historian need to use this source?

KS3: What can the Letters Tell us About 15th Century People?

Having introduced the letters, don’t immediately look at individual letters but ask students

a)  what they expect to learn from letters written by a fifteenth-century family?

b) What might historians want to know?

Students will ultimately learn more if you begin by asking them to predict what historians might learn from letters? This kind of predictive thinking about the possible value of a source (or type of source) is really helpful in focussing students’ ideas before they start to read the letters.

Note: For more on the value of this kind of work see HERE …

The letters provide much valuable evidence about everyday life, as Rachel Brown’s work (above) exemplifies. In addition, the letters open up aspects of the Middle Ages too often neglected at KS3, aspects I’ll summarise as ‘what was in people’s minds?’ This includes emotions and feelings and also attitudes, principles and what mattered to people – family, respect, religion, loyalty and many other things, most of which have mattered to people in every period of history. To my mind understanding these aspects of humanity, common across time, should be integral to any work on the Middle Ages.

For examples of this approach see chapters 2 and 3 of Medieval Lives HERE …

And the series of articles on teaching about the Middle Ages HERE …

A level: The Wars of the Roses

A level specifications are dominated by high politics and thus individual documents from the Paston collection, especially the newsletters sent from London, are often used to illustrate those political events. As teaching time is so limited, doing more with the Paston letters is difficult but the notes below offer possibilities.

a) Human starters: as you move into a new topic it’s often a good idea to start with an intriguing moment, not at the outset of events but from later on. What was happening? What lay behind this? How did x get into this situation? Two examples:

1. the letter written by John II to his mother Margaret on 18 April 1471 after the battle of Barnet, telling her that John and his brother John III had survived the battle but that John III had an arrow wound in his arm and then going onto give other news. This would make a good start to studying the sequence of events between 1469 and 1471 – who’s fighting whom at Barnet? Why is there more fighting? Was this the first battle since 1464? Go and read and find some answers!

2. the two lines written by Sir George Browne to John III, which says simply

Loyawlte Ayme. Hyt schal newyr cum howte for me.

Browne was the husband of John’s aunt, Elizabeth. These lines were presumably written in the late summer/early autumn of 1483 when Browne joined the rebellion against Richard III. The second part of his message suggests he knew that the rebellion was failing. Shortly afterwards he was captured and executed. Therefore start work on the rebellion with this - before you even mention the rebellion get students thinking about these lines:  how does Browne sound? Happy? Sad? Desperate? What can they hypothesise about why he wrote this letter? Then cover the rebellion in your normal way but keep going back to this letter – how might it be explained by what students are learning about the events?

b) Challenging students’ assumptions – students will come to a course on the Wars of the Roses with preconceived ideas, even if they struggle to articulate them or explain where exactly their ideas come from. These ideas are likely to include the following, which can be challenged by information from the letters:

• nobles and gentry were engaged in constant warfare (but members of the Paston family only fought at two battles – Barnet and Stoke)

• there was great eagerness to fight (but John III did not answer the Duke of Norfolk’s summons in August 1485)

• everyone was ambitious, eager to depose the king (but a letter from Edmund Clere in January 1455 shows joy at the recovery of Henry VI, poor king though he was)

• everyone was focussed on national politics (but in the summer and early autumn of 1469 when Warwick rebelled against Edward IV, the Pastons were involved in their own quite different struggle to defend Caister castle from the Duke of Norfolk AND were at least equally focussed on trying to stop Margery from marrying Richard Calle, a servant.)

You can see the story of Margery and Richard HERE …

c) creating a sense of humanity – this could have come under (b) but is worth separating. I think it’s important at the beginning of a course that students should get the chance to see the people they are studying as fellow human beings, not just as names in a book. Many examples can be found in the letters – Margaret’s oblique references to her pregnancies, Margery Brews’ valentine to John III, John III’s love of fashion and care over his hats and red hose, John II’s jousting and list of books, Margaret wanting to see more of her son, John II, when he was away from home so often. 

You can see more ideas and examples in KS3 material and an approach which could be adapted for A level see ‘Were medieval people very different from us?’ HERE …

And the accompanying chapter ‘What really mattered to people in the Middle Ages?’

d) Understanding aspects of the work that historians do.

It’s not in the specifications but give students the chance to look at the original letters and try their hand at reading and transcription – see notes in KS3 section above.

e) Use an outline story of the Pastons (based on p.3-8 of this document) with students at the beginning of their course:

What do students think really mattered to the Pastons?

Can students identify the pattern of kings? Who were the other important political figures?

What evidence is there of warfare and how frequent was it?

Were there lives dominated by warfare?

You can see another example of using an overview of an individual’s life to help students develop a sense of the pattern of events and of what mattered to people see this resource on Anne Herbert HERE …

That’s it for Now

But hopefully I’ll create the detailed resources to go with these ideas at some time in the future but if you beat me to it then I’d love to see them.

Paston Material

The Paston Letters

The Paston Family

Reading & On-line Resources

The Pastons in the Classroom

PowerPoint Support


More …

Other articles explaining the ideas and planning behind the classroom resources are available HERE …


Exploring & Teaching Medieval History

Download it from the HA website HERE …

And see the contents pages HERE …