Tradition and innovation in the Paston women's "ego-documents"

Roberta Mullini - University of Urbino


Three generations of fifteenth-century women from the Paston family contributed more than one hundred letters to the family correspondence. These documents mostly refer to daily life and political affairs (the Pastons were involved in the War of the Roses and in long territorial and legal disputes), but among the general information one can also glean deeper aspects of the individual writers. The fields in which the Paston women seem more active are the care and administration of their household and properties, the education of their children, on one hand, but also - on the other - the definition of themselves as female subjects who, even if well within the patriarchal society, strive to attain visibility and recognition.

The oldest female representative of the family, Agnes, emerges as a pious woman, devoted to her duties, but even brutally violent, at least once, towards a daughter of hers, and ready to stress her legal rights to her own fields and crops once a widow (and, therefore, freer from the dependence on her husband). Margaret, the main and central voice of the collection, wife of one of Agnes's sons, highlights her role in the conduct of the warlike affairs of her family, acts as her husband's deputy and helps in the marital politics of her children. Margery, the wife of one of Margaret's sons, is the most 'romantic' of the three: her love letters to her prospective fiancé let one glimpse a deep change in the definition of the female self at the end of the century.

The Letters

The Paston collection, some hundreds of documents and letters exchanged between members of the Paston family (which had many properties near Norwich) or sent to them by other people, covers a long span of time from the beginning of the 15th century till the end of the family in the first half of the 18th century, but the most interesting group of epistles was written during the 15th century itself, when England strove to become a nation by coming out of the feudal system. The Pastons took sides during the War of the Roses, even if they did not belong to the aristocracy, inconsistently, so to say, once for the Yorks and once for the Lancasters, and were involved in legal disputes especially after Sir John Falstof's death in 1459, when John Paston I was named as one of the principal executors. Actually the Pastons were merchants, lawyers and landowners: this explains the many letters we have, since the men of the family were often far from home, either following their trade, or busy helping their faction, or studying in Cambridge or even, sometimes, in prison as a consequence of their political allegiance. The women, therefore, were left at home and had to look not only after their children but also after their many properties and retainers. Due to the men's absence, they were compelled to carry on many of their duties by mail, writing and receiving information and details on the family management. What we can get from reading the Paston correspondence concerns the whole range of family affairs, but also the characters of the writers, especially of the women, of whom more than one hundred letters stem from the 15th century.

A letter, according to Peter Burke's definition, is "perhaps the personal document par excellence, expressing the thoughts and emotions of the moment at the moment, rather than recollecting them in tranquillity in autobiographies and journals"1. It is clear that the status of letters greatly differ from other ego-documents since the former are written to be read, soon after being written or a short time afterwards, by an addressee to whom they are sent, and that they may have a specific purpose either practical or emotive, or simply phatic. In other words, we write letters in order to inform our addressee about facts and people both known or so far unknown to the addressee, to induce certain behaviours, to ask for information or objects, to reveal or share emotions, or only to let the receiver know that we still exist, that we are there thinking of him/her. In any case, letters are a means of communication which pre-selects its target with utter precision and, according to this, chooses the proper ways of address (determined by both the personal relationship existing between sender and receiver and by the cultural-historical codes of the time of writing), since letter writers usually think in advance of the effect they want to achieve through their messages. On the one hand letters are not public documents, but, on the other, they are not totally private, their readers being pre-selected and well identified. This is a necessary theoretical aspect which one must always keep in mind, especially so when dealing with a highly codified culture as that of the late Middle Ages (or Early Modern Period) and with social roles extremely fixed and static. Therefore even the slightest change in the formulaic ways of address or of final greetings may be significant.

The portraits of the Paston ladies' appear, therefore, as made up of small phrases, petty details interspersed here and there amid a lot of trivialities relevant, in any case, for a social history of everyday life in a late medieval English household. And this is the way, in fact, according to which these letters have been dealt with till recently, when they have also started to be regarded as documents for a history of women. Actually, although nothing extraordinary emerges from these letters, one can try to make the letters speak in order to show their writers' characters, their involvement in the family links, their contradictions, their attempts at being recognised as persons beyond their stereotypical roles.

The major women letter writers in the Paston collection are the wives of the heads of the family:

- Agnes Berry married William Paston in 1420, was left a widow in 1444 with four sons and a daughter (Elizabeth), and died in 1479;

- Margaret Mautby married John I, son of William and Agnes, in c. 1440, was a widow in 1466 - with five sons and two daughters (Anne and Margery), and died in 1484;

- Margery Brews married John III, son of John I and Margaret, in 1477, and died in 1495 (her husband survived her).

There are other female voices in the correspondence (daughters and present or prospective relatives), but the century is dominated by the three ladies mentioned above, i.e. by the daughters-in-law in a patriarchal family, especially by the strong character of Margaret, who had to cope with the most difficult situations of the family. The three ladies cover more or less a whole century during which family and personal relationships appear to change, and the behaviour of women seem to undergo a subterranean process of transformation. As mentioned above, all this is not clearly stated in the letters, but it is there and is traceable through the detection of almost invisible clues.

It is impossible to know if the three women were literate in the modern sense of the word: perhaps two of them were able to read but not to write (the problem of women's literacy in the Middle Ages is still debatable2): what we can be sure about is that the vast majority of these letters were written by scribes, even if it is nearly certain that this happened under their senders' dictation. Therefore individual styles can be gleaned in the three groups of letters, in spite of their not having materially been written by the ladies themselves. In particular scholars have noticed the overflowing strength of Margaret's prose, where the fluidity of oral discourse is remarkable. A letter sent by Margaret to her son John II relating the assail by the Duke of Norfolk's troops to one of the Paston properties in 1469 has been commented upon with the following passage:

There survives the merest gesture towards epistolary formality in the opening of the letter - ‘I grete you wele’ - but this is replaced at once by the querulous, almost hysterically insistent rhythms of Margaret’s voice. These manifest themselves in the breathless piling up of one disastrous detail after another [...] in the almost unstoppable sequence of clauses which by turns convey information and berate her son, and the occasional infinite clauses [...] One is left, as John must have been, with an almost audible sense of Margaret’s voice.3

Sometimes even the address at the beginning of the letters, in spite of - or just because of - their formality, may reveal something of the writer's character, or of those "thoughts and emotions of the moment at the moment" (in Peter Burke's words) which underpin the writing on a specific occasion. This is the case of a letter by Elizabeth Paston sent to her mother Agnes, some years after a rebellious attempt at resisting a presumably forced marriage and when at last the young lady had accepted what her mother wanted from her. It begins with a clearly exaggerated accumulation of deferential phrases: "Right worshipful and my most entirely beloved mother, in the most lowly manner I recommend me unto your good motherhood...". Elizabeth had been beaten by her mother and segregated in her room because of her behaviour, but here we can see that the rebel has been tamed and her words are clear signs of the taming4.

In order to present some of the various aspects dealt with in the letters, I have chosen to collect the latter under the following wide thematic units that, far from excluding each other, often overlap, showing the vast range of interests in which women were involved. These units are: a) household affairs; b) matrimonial politics and economics; c) romantic love.5

Household affairs

As wives, the Paston women are always in charge of taking care of their domestic life, but since their husbands and sons are often far away, they must also look after other aspects of the family properties, superintend their servants and retainers, be the official representatives of the family during social encounters and meetings. This is evident both through the letters sent by the women themselves and through what the men in the family write to their respective wives and mothers.

On 12th July 1461 John I writes to Margaret telling her to bring peace between the undersheriff and a relative of the Pastons': "I recommend me to you, letting you weet that the undesheriff doubteth him of John Berney; wherefore I pray you bring them together and set them in accord if you can" (n. 37, pp. 70-1). Four years afterwards, on 13th July 1465, Margaret is thanked by her husband for her courageous behaviour when dealing with some enemies of the family:

I recommend me to you, and thank you of your labour and business with the unruly fellowship that came before you on Monday last past, whereof I heard report by John Hobbes; and in good faith you acquit you right well and discreetly, and heartily to your worship and mine and to the shame of your adversaries. And I am well content that ye avowed that you kept possession at Drayton [an estate of the Pastons', north of Norwich]. (n. 62, p. 124)

At the end of the same letter, as sort of a P.S., he adds, when talking of some sheep taken away from the family, that "if ye may make men with force to take the cattle again by warrant of replevin [a legal order for the restitution of distrained goods], spare not rather than fail" (p. 126). It is evident that John I relied completely on his wife's power and strength of character and on the respectability which, for sure, she had attained in the neighbourhood and with the local authorities. Actually, from Margaret's letter (dated 7th August) we learn that she went straight to the judges and spoke to them, obtaining a favourable verdict:

And in good faith I found the judges right gentle and forbearable to me in my matters, notwithstanding the Duke's [Suffolk] council had made their complaint to them ere I came in their worst wise [...] and after I informed the judges [...] (p128)

From Margaret's voice we hear that she is able to pursue all types of family affairs in active and practical ways, including the use of skills which now might correspond to those of a trade agent: in fact she informs her husband about the prices of goods (she was a worthy and reliable accountant and was good at maths even if we cannot be certain whether she could write!), telling him that "the price of malt is fallen here sore, for it is worth but 2s. 8d. a quarter at Yarmouth. [...] as for your wool, I may sell a stone for 40d." (ibid). Margaret's portrait emerging from her own and her husband's words show her as a competent merchant, a strong lady able to carry on her family's multifaceted affairs.

But it is in a letter dated some months earlier (10th May 1465) that Margaret uses for herself an epithet which precisely defines her role in the family, showing an acute self-awareness. It is a very long epistle, in which orality flows freely into the written form, sent to her husband in order to inform him of the latest events at home, including Margaret's visit to the Bishop of Norwich to ask for his intervention as justice of the peace. We also learn that John I had left her at Caister (another manor of the Pastons') on the coast of the North Sea, but that, after an assault there she had gone to another place because, she writes, "I had liefer, an it pleased you, to be captainess here than at Caister" (p. 115). This is the first documented occurrence of the word in English (according to the OED), a very important one, I think, since it is not used by a man to sneer ironically at a woman's masculine behaviour, on the contrary it is a definition of a woman's self by her own, a self-recognition of the importance of her role in the family.

The Paston correspondence, however, does not contain only reports of legal affairs or of economic transactions. Sometimes it also allows us to see deeper into family relationships, even among details concerning various and sundry issues. This is visible in another 1465 letter (n. 66, 20th September) sent by John I to Margaret. The beginning is already the sign of a particular jocular and tender mood: instead of using only the well-known formula "I recommend me to you", the letter starts with "Mine own dear sovereign lady". As Norman Davis observes, "this mode of address, a commonplace of the terminology of courtly love, is found nowhere else in the letters of the usually prosaic John I."6 It is true that the great part of the letter is then taken up by the usual heap of information about events and instructions, but the different tone of the beginning - due perhaps to a moment of reunion of the couple: John thanks his wife "for the great cheer that ye made me here" (p. 132) - re-emerges at the end that takes the form of a funny doggerel:

Item, I shall tell you a tale:
Pamping and I have picked your mail
and taken out pieces five,
for upon trust of Calle's promise we may soon unthrive.
And look ye be merry and take no thought,
for this rhyme is cunningly wrought.
My Lord Percy and all this house
recommend them to you, dog, cat, and mouse,
and wish ye had be here still,
for they say ye are a good gill.
No more to you at this time,
but God him save that made this rhyme. (p. 138)

The light and lively rhythm, the affectionate terms and the playful atmosphere remind the intended reader of the occasion when wife and husband spent some time together (very probably after a long separation) with secret erotic nuances perhaps, and to us - unallowed eavesdroppers of this private correspondence - they say something novel about the wife/husband relationship which lets feelings break the apparent hard crust of merchant life and household care.

Matrimonial politics and economics

It is true that the male members of a family had power over the female ones especially concerning marriage, but mothers too exerted their strong influence in this field. I have already mentioned the case of Elizabeth, Agnes's daughter, who was beaten and segregated by her mother: this happenend because, according to a relative of the Pastons', their respective views about a possible husband for the girl were at variance. Elizabeth Clere, who calls herself "your cousin", wrote to John I in 1449 about his sister's segregation and his mother's hardness (n. 12, pp. 23-5). What strikes most in the letter, apart from the details about Agnes's severity, is the information concerning the economics of this prospective marriage, something which is dealt with by both men and women in the family. Evidently mothers were part of the patriarchal chain of power. An example of Agnes's personality is to be found in one of her first letters to William Paston, her husband, in Spring 1440, when Margaret Mautby, who was going to marry Agnes's son John, first met her future husband: relating "the first acquaintance between John Paston and the said gentlewoman", she adds that "she made him gentle cheer in gentle wise [...]. And so I hope there shall need no great treaty betwixt them." (n. 2, p. 3). It is the word "treaty" which sounds peculiar in Agnes's report, since it should pertain rather to formal negotiations than to something connected to personal and sentimental relations: the word, and the whole semantic range it suggests, is a clear example of how marriage was considered, i.e. a contract not necessarily enriched with the contractors' feelings of affection.

After Elizabeth there was another rebellious girl in the Paston family: in 1469, when John I had already died, Margery, Margaret and John I's daughter, wanted to marry Richard Calle (one of the Pastons' employees) and, according to her, they had already exchanged a promise, or something which might resemble the so called marriage with "verba de futuro". Margaret's letter to her son John II - Margery's brother - is worth quoting, since it shows the authority exercised on Margery by the whole family (including Agnes and the executors of John I's will "for they had the rule of her as well as I"), and the process it took to try to avoid this marriage (in the end, however, Margery and Richard got married, in spite of the opposition they had encountered):

On Friday the Bishop [of Norwich] sent for her [...] and said to her right plainly, and put her in remembrance how she was born, what kin and friends that she had, and should have more if she were ruled and guided after them, and cause of forsaking of her for any good or help or comfort that she should have of them; and said that he had heard say that she loved such one that her friends were not pleased with that she should have, and therefore he bade her be right well advised how she did, and said that he would understand the words that she had said to him, whether it made matrimony or not. And she rehearsed what she had said, and said if tho words made it not sure she said boldly that she would make it surer ere than she went thence; for she said she thought in her conscience she was bound, whatsoever the words wern. These lewd words grieve me and her grandam as much as all the remnant. And the Bishop and the chancellor both said that there was neither I nor no friend of hers would receive her. [...]

I was with my mother [Agnes] at her place when she was examined, and when I heard say what her demeaning was I charged my servants that she should not be received in mine house. I had given her warning, she might a be ware afore if she had a be gracious. (n. 86, ca. 10th September 1469, pp. 182-3)

From the long passage some pieces of information emerge relevant to the whole business: first of all that Margery loves Richard and that the decision to marry him derives from their reciprocal sentiment and not from a family decision (or treaty, as Agnes, perhaps, might have called it). Then that the family authority is reinforced by the intervention of the Bishop himself, who, while trying to see deeper into what has really passed between Margery and Richard, uses all his power to make the girl accept "her friends''' rule. Last, but really not least, Margaret's harsh and ruthless order to her servant not to receive her daughter under her roof: in this case power shows its brutality, even when exerted by women.

Margaret's behaviour seems to be different when her sons want to get married: some months before the letter quoted above, Margaret sends John II her blessings for his prospective marriage (which never occurred, though), and limits herself to recommending to him "not to be too hasty to be married till ye were more sure of your livelode" (3rd April 1469, n. 83, pp. 174-5). What she seems more concerned about, is - once again - the economics of the future marriage, since she advises her son to "be in more surety of your land ere than ye be married", but does not question his choice. Of one thing, though, she charges him, i.e. to be true to his fiancé "as [if] she were married unto you in all degrees" (p. 174). Evidently she is still concerned about her son's moral and religious behaviour (a field of action of which she - as a mother - was in charge during her son's childhood), but dare not interfere where she has little or no authority.

Romantic love

In the last quarter of the 15th century, in 1477, Margery Brews made her entrance into the Paston family. The other two great ladies - Agnes and Margaret - were still alive and superintended to the general management of their own lands (as widows they had personal properties), and the latter, especially, did not restrain from performing her controlling role. This was apparent when her son John III decided to marry Margery Brews after the official negotiations which resulted in alternating issues due to the difficulty of an agreement about the dowry. On this topic there exist also letters exchanged between the two brothers (John II and John III), when they disagreed about what Sir Thomas Brews wanted to give his daughter and also about Margaret's resolution on how to divide the family property between these two sons of hers (especially since John II was still unmarried).

But what is of interest here, well beyond the economic negotiations which were a normal routine of marriage procedures of the gentry and of the aristocracy, is a group of letters written by the young couple apparently forestalling their respective parents' interference. On reading these letters one can follow both the steps taken by the prospective husband in order to have access to the young lady, independently of any economic transaction, and the latter's bold subjectivity in speaking of love to him. Love, that word which seemed to surface in Margaret's letter about her daughter Margery's affair as a lewd term, now - in Margery Brews's letters - acquires the right to be pronounced and written. One can deduce that the idea of marriage is starting to change and that the feelings of the two people involved in a marriage contract begin to be considered a valid and necessary basis on which a man and a woman build a future life together.

In 1476 John Paston III wrote to Margery what appears to be the first letter, a real proposal in very deferential terms and loving tones:

Mistress, though so be that I, unacquainted with you as yet, take upon me to be thus bold as to write unto you without your knowledge and leave, yet, mistress, for such poor service as I now in my mind owe to you, purposing, ye not displeased, during my life to continue the same, I beseech you to pardon my boldness, and not to disdain, but to accept this simple bill to recommend me to you in such wise as I best can or may imagine to your most pleasure. [...] Here I send you this bill written with my lewd hand and sealed with my signet to remain with you for a witness against me, and to my shame and dishonour if I contrary it. And, mistress, I beseech you, in easing of the poor heart that sometime was at my rule, which now is at yours, that in as short time as can be that I may have knowledge of your intent and how you will have me demeaned in this matter; and I will be at all seasons ready to perform in this matter and all others your pleasure, as far forth as lieth in my poor power to do or in all that aught will do for me, with God's grace, whom I beseech to send you the accomplishment of your most worshipful desires, mine own fair lady.7

What surprises most is the Petrarchian discourse of the love letter: the writer's humbleness stressed by such adjectives as "poor" and "lewd" (in this case used with the meaning of "plain" and "simple"), his service offered to the lady, the power over the lover's heart attributed to the lady. It is true that perhaps John III might rely on model letters, but it is also true that this is the only instance we have in the collection of a man's courtship (whether written in his own words, or in stereotyped phrases). In both cases, however, we can see that the young man addresses the lady directly and that he does not restrain himself from using the language of courtly love.

At the beginning of February of the following year, when things had gone ahead apparently at a higher level, i.e. between John and Margery's parents, he was invited to visit the Brewses because, as Dame Elizabeth Brews writes to him, "upon Friday is Saint Valentine's Day, and every bird chooses him a make." (n. 120, p. 233). But about at the same time, there happened to be a secret correspondence between the two young people, according to what Margery writes to John, calling him "my right well-beloved Valentine". In the same letter Margery inserts some lines, presumably composed by herself:

And if ye command me to keep me true wherever I go,
Iwis I will do all my might you to love and never no mo.
And if my friends say that I do amiss, they shall not me let so for to do,
Mine heart me bids evermore to love you
Truly over all earthly thing,
And if they be never so wroth, I trust it shall be better in time coming. (p. 234)

It is easily seen how simple all this is, but we do not have to judge the literary value of Margery's lines. On the contrary, I think that we cannot but acknowledge how boldly she addresses John, even at a time when family negotiations had not succeeded completely, and how fearless her words are in declaring her love to him. She is also ready to withstand her friends in case they advise her to let him go. The situation is parallel to the other Margery's about twenty years before, when what is here only hypothesised actually happened and Margery Paston was rejected by her family when she insisted on marrying Richard Calle.

The letter finishes with a final recommendation: "And I beseech you that this bill be not seen of none earthly creature save only yourself". This reveals that things between John and Margery had gone farther than the families knew and that, another novelty of this letter, the lady very presumably was able to write (it is actually difficult to imagine her dictating this sort of letter to a clerk).

This love story ended happily, so to speak: the young couple got married in the same year 1477 and ... lived happily hereafter (Margery died in 1495).

There is also another aspect in Margery's character, which surfaces in a letter dated about November 1st 1481, i.e. four years after the wedding. After signing it in a very formal way (no more "Your Valentine", cf. n. 122, p. 235), she added a P.S. which betrays the erotic side of her love: "Sir, I pray you if ye tarry long at London that it will please you to send for me, for I think long sin I lay in your arms" (n. 135, p. 253).

Throughout nearly a century, from Agnes to Margery, the Paston women show us the permanence of certain features of the female role in the family, but also what changes were in the air at the end of the 15th century: Agnes would never have used Margery's words to write to William Paston; Margaret, on her side, used the mask of indirectness when she mentioned her pregnancy to John I, telling him that it was difficult for her not to remember him, even if he was far from home, since "ye have left me such a remembrance that maketh me think upon you both day and night when I would sleep" (probably 1441, n. 3, p. 5). Margery explicitly tells her husband that she desires him, revealing that her girl-like dreams of love have turned into reality. Especially so since, as I mentioned, she was probably able to write her own letters: not having to depend on a scribe, she is not afraid of speaking of love in a straight way.

Margaret acts as a brave woman and calls herself a "captainess" showing her skills in taking charge of the economic and warlike affairs of her family, while Margery seems to discover new spaces where literacy helps her to bring out her most personal discourse.


1. P. Burke, "Representations of the Self from Petrarch to Descartes", in R. Porter (ed.), Rewriting the Self. Histories from the Renaissance to the Present, London, Routledge, 1997, pp. 17-28, p. 23.

2. About this aspect cf L.A. Finke, Women's Writing in English: Medieval England, London, Longman, 1999, pp. 56-83 and J. Boffey, "Women's Authors and Women's Literacy in Fourteenth- and Fifteenth-century England", in C.M. Meale (ed.), Women and Literature in Britain 1150-1500, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1996 (1993), pp. 159-82.

3. T. P. Dolan & V.J. Scattergood, "Middle English Prose", in B. Ford (ed.), The New Pelican Guide to English Literature: 1. Medieval Literature, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1982, pp. 103-20, pp. 107-8. On Margaret's style see also Diana Watt, "'No Writing for Writing's Sake': The Language of Service and Household Rhetoric in the Letters of the Paston Women", in Karen Cherewatuk and Ulrike Wiethaus (eds), Dear Sister: Medieval Women and the Epistolary Genre, Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993, pp. 122-38; L.A. Finke, op.cit., pp. 196-7.

4. Quotations, unless specified otherwise, will be taken from The Paston Letters, A Selection in Modern Spelling, ed. by Norman Davis, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1983; the quoted letter is dated 3 January 1459 (n. 27, p. 47. Afterwards, pages will be indicated in the text). All the Paston documents are printed in Paston Letters and Papers of the Fifteenth Century, ed. by Norman Davis, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2 vols, 1971 and 1976.

5. I have dealt with some points presented in this paper in "Voci di donne nel Medio Evo inglese", Merope, forthcoming.

6. Norman Davis, in The Paston Letters, cit., note 5, p. 132.

7. This letter is quoted from The Paston Letters, ed. by John Warrington, 2 vols, London, Dent, 1956; vol. 2, pp. 180-1.