To contrast with the prose texts of Caxton and Malory, both of which were at least in intention designed for widespread circulation, a late fifteenth-century letter concludes this Section. This letter dates from 1448, and is one of the Paston Letters, the largest surviving archive of private correspondence in English from the ME period. The Pastons were a Norfolk family of considerable importance and power. Although their origins were humble -- at one time they were charls (ie. churls, servile tenants) at Gimmingham in Norfolk -- they accrued considerable lands and wealth during the fifteenth century and, when the male line died out in 1732, the head of the family was the second Earl of Yarmouth. “Paston” is a settlement name, near the coast in the north-east corner of Norfolk.
In some ways the most energetic of the Pastons was John Paston I (so-called to distinguish him from John Paston II and III, both of whom - confusingly - were his sons). John I was born in 1421, and was educated at the local university of Cambridge and at the Inns of Court in London. At various times an MP and a JP, he was involved in various local controversies and died in 1466 while in dispute with various local dignitaries -- disputes so heated that he had been briefly in prison in 1465. In 1443, John I had married Margaret Mautby, a Norfolk heiress. Whenever John I was absent from home, Margaret managed their (considerable) property with some skill. John and Margaret seem to have been a formidable pair, tough in adversity and mutually supportive in asserting the Paston family’s position at every possible opportunity.
The following letter describes a dispute which took place in 1448. The letter is from Margaret to John. Margaret dictated the body of this letter to one amanuensis, James Graham, and a postscript to another not identified; she herself only rarely wrote letters in her own hand.
The references in the letter need a little explication. James Gloys is a Paston servant, being the family chaplain and clerk. “Wymondham” is John Wyndham or Wymondham, a family rival and sometime enemy; like the Pastons, his family was one recently risen, which makes the accusation that þe Pastons and alle her kyn were charls of Gymyngham especially cheeky. There was no doubt more of the same, which Margaret was plainly loath to dictate -- And he had meche large langage, as ye shall knowe herafter by mowthe. In Wymondham’s defence, it is worth remembering that, when John I was imprisoned in 1465, Wymondham was generous enough not only to offer Margaret hospitality but also to write John I a letter with the encouraging postscript And how euer ye do, hold vp your manship.
It will be observed that there is a marked difference in spelling between the body of the letter and the postscript. Whereas the body of the letter is written in a fairly colourless variety of late-fifteenth-century English, the postscript is written in markedly Norfolk dialect (cf. such forms as xuld SHOULD, qwhan WHEN, ryth RIGHT etc.).
The letter is no 129 in N.Davis ed., Paston Letters and Papers of the Fifteenth Century (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971), which is the standard edition. The text is also printed, with useful annotation, in Burnley (1992: 177-180). The main difference between the text as presented here and that in Davis and in Burnley is the reading charls of Gymyngham for [...] myngham for which, plus a fascinating discussion of the context of this letter, see C.Richmond, “What a difference a manuscript makes: John Wyndham of Felbrigg, Norfolk (d.1475)”, in F.Riddy ed., Regionalism in Late Medieval Manuscripts and Texts (Cambridge: Brewer, 1991).