In This Article Family Letters in 15th Century England

  • Introduction
  • Reference
  • Bibliography and Journals

Medieval Studies Family Letters in 15th Century England
by
Joel Rosenthal
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 March 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0263

Introduction

In the 15th century a number of English families began to write (and preserve) letters about family business and even some personal matters. This was very much a new departure in terms of family communication and lay literacy, and all these family letters are in English. For various reasons, the letters were collected and preserved, often for their use in legal matters and litigation. While we do not know if the collections we have are only the tip of the iceberg, there are no other references to comparable family collections that might have once existed. Many of the letters show considerable sophistication and it seems unlikely they came out of nowhere in terms of vocabulary, style, and organization. But in one swoop, in terms of lay literacy and as a window into family life and affairs, we go from a society with almost no intrafamily communications to one that offers some large collections of such items. There are almost one thousand letters written by or received by the Pastons, and though the other family collections are smaller, they too are impressive in their scope: in their scholarly editions, there are 247 letters and miscellaneous documents in the Cely collection, 333 for the Stonors, and 349 for the Plumptons. Moreover, except for the Celys, all the letter collections reflect multigenerational letter-writing. The Paston Letters mostly run from 1425 to 1492; the Plumptons, 1433–1552, and the Stonors, 1290–1483 (though mostly from the 15th century). Also of interest, a fair number of the letters were by women, though these were usually dictated rather than actually penned by the nominal writer. As both writers and recipients the women may figure as active agents in family business; more frequently they play the role of stay-at-home coordinator, the center point for communication while the men traveled. In some cases, especially for several of the Paston women, they emerge from the shadows and are “real” people whom we can follow over the years. The many editions of the letters—especially those of the Pastons—and the impressive body of writing about them indicates that the light they shed on late medieval family life continues to be of interest. All of the letter collections are now available in editions that meet current scholarly standards.

Reference

There is no single source that can serve as a reference guide to the collections. For many of the individuals of prominence the entries in major biographical reference works can serve as a useful introduction. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB) offers a concise and recent introduction, with entries for “family” for the Pastons, Stonors, Plumptons, and Celys, as well as individual entries for three Pastons and two Plumptons. The Dictionary of the Middle Ages has entries on some topics that are relevant to this entry, and there is biographical information in History of Parliament: The House of Commons, 1386–1421, for Sir Robert Plumpton, and the Oxford Encyclopedia of British Literature for the Paston Family.

  • Dictionary of the Middle Ages. 13 vols. Edited by Joseph R. Strayer. New York: Scribner, 1982–1989.

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    Has entries on the Pastons, Vol. 9 (pp. 448–452) by Norman Davis; “Letters and Letter Writing (Dictamen) by E J. Polack, Vol. 4 (pp. 173–177) which is useful for spelling out the medieval “rules” for a letter and for letter-writing; and Diane Bornstein, “The Western Family,” Vol. 4 (pp. 599–605), which helps establish the norms for relationships as defined by blood and marriage.

  • History of Parliament: The House of Commons, 1386–1421. Edited by J. S. Roskell, Linda Clark, and Carole Rawcliffe. Stroud, UK: History of Parliament Trust, 1992, 4 volumes.

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    An entry on Sir Robert Plumpton by Colin Richmond, Vol. 4 (pp. 90–92). Biography of one of the family’s leading members.

  • Oxford Encyclopedia of British Literature. Edited by David Kasten. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

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    Has an entry on the Paston Family by Joel Rosenthal, Vol. 4 (pp. 184–187), which is a summary of the family’s rise and fortunes through the 15th century.

  • Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB). 60 vols. Edited by H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison. Oxford, UK: Oxford, 2004–.

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    This massive work is now the most authoritative source for biography. The entries offer concise and up-to-date biographical information and, for members of the families covered here but not individually, there are general entries. For the Pastons, Vol. 42 (pp. 982–984), by Colin Richmond; John I (1421–1466), Vol. 42 (pp. 986–988), by Helen Castor; Sir John II (1442–1479), Vol. 42 (pp. 988–989), by Helen Castor; William I (1378–1444), Vol. 42 (pp. 991–992), by Colin Richmond and Roger Virgoe. For the Plumptons, the Plumpton Family, Vol. 44 (pp. 615–616), by Keith Dockray; and then (also by Dockray) entries on Sir William Plumpton (1404–1480) (pp. 615–617), and Sir Robert (1453–1525) (pp. 617–618). For the Stonor Family, Vol. 52 (pp. 924–926), by Christine Carpenter, with a good summary of the value of the letters (p. 925, column 2). The Cely family is covered, Vol. 10 (pp. 808–809), by George Holmes.

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