The Paston Letters

Considered a goldmine of information about some pivotal times in British history (the aftereffects of the Black Death, the War of the Roses), this collection of letters is considered important because “The Paston family rose from the peasantry to the aristocracy within just two generations. This is the story of how they did it. They are also the first record of private correspondence to survive in Britain and so offer a unique glimpse into the concerns and fears of a very upwardly mobile family at a time of huge social upheaval.” (BBC, Paston Family Letters with biographical sketches on the main players over the generations). The British Library contains a large collection of these letters and has digitized five volumes from its manuscripts department; the documents themselves are in Middle English, rendering their content inaccessible for most readers. However, John Fenn compiled a five-volume collection of the letters – Original letters, written during the reigns of Henry VI., Edward IV., and Richard III, by various persons of rank or consequence…. – (1787-1823, with the fifth volume published posthumously) that presents the writings in their original Middle English and follows them up with a rendering into more comprehensible English. In 1859, a two-volume edition of Fenn’s work titled Paston letters. Original letters was issued; this edition contained edited and, in some cases, abridged versions of the letters, but they were presented in modern English. In 1904, a massive six-volume edition – The Paston Letters. A.D. 1422-1509 – appeared but its utility was hampered by its presentation in the original Middle English. So for those who do not read Middle English but still want to understand what life was like back in the day, recourse to Fenn, especially the 1859 edition will prove beneficial and insightful.

 

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