The Paston Letters:
An Introduction for Teachers
It was as a teacher, not a student or historian, that I first came to the Paston letters and so my mind was full of teacherly questions – what can the students learn from these letters, do I need to cut/modernise them, is there time to fit them in to an already crowded course? And that functional approach stayed with me through the first time or two I tried using them. But then something else started happening – I began hearing the people who wrote those letters. I knew their names but, as I listened to them talking to each other, they became more than names. They became people.
That was sometime in the early 1980s. Back then I just had Gairdner’s 4 volume edition from 1910 on my shelf and HS Bennett’s The Pastons and their England, published in 1922. Nowadays there’s not just an extensive literature but you can find the work of the Heritage Lottery-funded Paston600 project on-line from the late summer of 2019 HERE …
At the core of the 1000-plus documents known collectively as the Paston letters are the letters written between members of the Paston family of Norfolk between c.1420 and c.1500, the majority between 1440 and 1480 when the family was enmeshed in disputes over their ownership of their estates. However the documents also include family wills, miscellaneous documents such as John II’s list of the books he owned and numerous letters that were sent to family members by friends, servants, lawyers, ecclesiastics and noblemen conveying gossipy chatter, business communications and the political news of the moment.
Historians have used this treasure-trove to explore every kind of question – about national politics, how rapidly political news spread and how much people knew about it, about local politics and justice, about transport, communications, medical treatments, clothes, marriage, about people’s emotions, friendships, loves and sorrows. The writer whose letters survive in greatest number (over 100) was Margaret, giving us an unusually detailed view of the life and thoughts of a fifteenth century woman. Margaret’s eldest sons, John II and John III also wrote a good deal to each other, enabling us to hear their relationship as they joked, worried, planned and brought each other up to date on their experiences. No other source allows us to eavesdrop on late medieval people in such intimate depth. A handful of other letter collections have survived but even the largest contains only a quarter of the documents the Pastons have left us.
This introduction is therefore for all those teachers who have heard of the Pastons but never had the time to get started on reading – and for all the other teachers who have never heard of the Pastons until now! As you can see from the headings below, I have set out an outline history of the family, a guide to resources and reading, some initial thoughts about the use of the letters in the classroom (and a link to teaching resources on the HA website) and provided a short set of PowerPoint slides which I hope will be useful.
I also intended to put together a package of teaching resources but this is best left until the bulk of the Paston600 website is up and running and I can link to the material on that site.
In the meantime,
‘Gode spede yow in alle youre werkes’
The Paston Family (c1420-c1500)
This outline of the Pastonsí story is built around the family members who figure most prominently in the letters. Iíve tried to give a sense of each individual by starting with a set of adjectives beneath his or her name but, of course, theyíre only my views and the letters canít reveal everything about each person, everyone changes over time and historians do differ on how they view each individual.
For more about the family, their rise to gentry status, their struggle, the second generation and their final success see HERE …
Reading and On-line Resources
A range of resources – websites, a ‘starter pack’ of reading, books on the letters themselves and more HERE …
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 HERE …
Constructive feedback is always welcome, particularly anything that will help other teachers.