Tuesday 24 February 2015

LOST LETTERS OF MEDIEVAL LIFE: Some thoughts from Elizabeth Chadwick

LOST LETTERS OF MEDIEVAL LIFE: English Society 1200-1250. Edited and translated by Martha Carlin and David Crouch: University of Pennysylvania Press ISBN 9 780812 223361

I love historical reference works that involve Martha Carlin* and David Crouch** and have several on my keeper shelves.  This is because their style, while academic is readable, and I know that I can trust the depth of their research and their attention to detail.  Which is the long way round of saying that whenever I am looking for reference works to add to my personal bookshelf,  theirs are names that I automatically type into my search engine.

A few months ago on one of my periodic searches, I came across Lost Letters of Medieval Life and ordered it.  However, even though I expected to receive a strong addition to my reference shelves, I hadn't been quite prepared for the full extent of the content and to put it colloquially, I was 'blown away.'  This is an absolutely fantastic work for anyone who wants to know about the material culture of the late 12th and early 13th century. 

So, what are these lost letters?  What's the story?
The first line of the introduction tells us that "This is a book about everyday life in thirteenth century England, as revealed in the correspondence of people from all classes of society, from peasants and shopkeepers to bishops and earls."

While letters of the great and good are known from the late 12th and early thirteenth century, regular and business correspondence from the average Joe has been generally thought not to survive, or not to have existed. However Martha Carlin and David Crouch have discovered all kinds of examples of such letters by trawling what are called formularies.  These are documents used to teach the art of letter writing and account keeping to scribes, and to act as sample correspondence.  While many examples concern the movers and shakers of the time,  hidden among them are letters concerned with the business of ordinary, daily lives.  Two of these formularies are still in existence - one at the Bodleian Library, and one at the British Library and it's these which Carlin and Crouch have used as illustrative examples in this marvellous book.

The selected letters, a hundred in all, are set out in the original Latin, followed by an English translation. and are divided into subject headings.  Following a detailed introduction to the texts to help guide the reader through the book and a handy map of the British Isles in the early thirteenth centure,  the subject headings begin with Money and a sub-text of Credit, Debt and Commerce. Among the letters in this sample section is one from an earl ordering wine from his vintner and then the vintner's reply. The vintner's reply is written in a couple of different forms which are to be used depending on the earl's credit rating. The first is warm and compliant, the second is compliant but a little less effusive and contains a polite demand for payment. "I shall accomodate you with the five tuns of wine you have requested, beseeching your earnestly that you pay me in full your old debt, which is in arrears, equally with this new debt, on the said day.  Farewell." 
Included in the earl's request letter, is information on the sort of wine he wants (Gascon and Angevin), how many tuns, and how much he is prepared to pay for it.

What adds an extra layer to this exchange of letters is that Carlin and Crouch then give detailed explanations and examples of the wine trade at the time, so the reader receives a concise but thorough grounding into the background details informing the letter. To add even more icing to the cake, there are highly detailed end notes to each section, giving references, sources, and further reading.

Other letters in the 'Credit, Debt and Commerce' section include orders similar to the above, but to a draper for cloth (which means plenty of excellent detail on the medieval textile industry)  and to a skinner for furs for the earl's Easter garments. (ditto information on the early 13th century fur trade. I was fascinated as to how the skins were rated and sold).

Further sub-texts in this chapter include The Jews, Household provisioning and Hospitality, and Accounts.  We move on then to chapter 2: War and Politics, Chapter 3:  Lordship and Administration:  One such sample letter from this section is "The King orders the shcriff to find and hang the thieves who have been burgling village homes by night." Which then leads on to an enlightening discussion on 13th century law enforcement.  There is a chapter on Family and Community and among the letters in that section are examples for students sending begging letters to their parents for cash (nothing changes!) and from a man who warns his friend he's seen his wife naked in bed with another man and sends her girdle as proof of adultery!  Chapter 5 is an exchange of correspondence concerning the building of a windmill - very new fangled for the early 13th century.

There is a detailed bibliography for further reading at the end of the book, and the endnotes to the chapters themselves as aforementioned are rich in bibliographical detail. There are a few useful maps and some enlivenment provided by black and white photographs, such as this one (in colour here) of Gilbert Marshal coming a cropper at a tournament (there are letters about tournaments) in 1241.
Gilbert Marshal, son of William Marshal, comes a cropper at a tournament.
Wikipedia.  Matthew Paris 13thc

I wrote to David Crouch with whom I occasionally correspond to say how much I'd enjoyed the book. He was delighted - it has been a labour of love for him and Martha Carlin. They had visualised it as seminar source for undergraduate medieval courses, and a book for the dedicated amateur of medieval studies.  It is certainly that - and more. Reference books like this restore my faith in historical scholarship.  Not only are they thoroughly researched and annotated with meticulous attention to detail, they are also highly readable to non scholars and fascinating.  This is going to be a frequent 'Go to' book on my shelf and will join my 'Desert Island' keeper section in my study library.

If you have an interest in the Middle Ages, if you are a teacher, student, re-enactor,  historical novelist or just plain want to know more, either rush out and buy this book or ask your library to buy a copy.

 *Martha Carlin is professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

**David Crouch is professor of Medieval History at the University of Hull.

Elizabeth Chadwick owns most of their books and with good reason!


Leslie Wilson said...

Reading this makes me want to write something set in the Middle Ages! What a find!

Unknown said...

A fantastic review. High praise indeed and as I trust your judgement this book will be my next purchase. Thank you.

Marilyn said...

I've just finished the book, and I thought it fabulous, and hated to come to the end. I second everything Elizabeth says about it!

Libby said...

Great review I've now moved it up to the top of my amazon wish list thanks to Elizabeth's review. Looks like a fascinating read

Bev Newman said...

Will be adding to my wishlist :-)