Reading the Religious Life of Margaret Paston

  • Joel T. Rosenthal
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


This inquiry into lay or popular religion in the fifteenth century is a brief on behalf of Margaret Mautby Paston. If we wish to reconstruct the religious life of the late medieval English laity, whether female or male, it is hard to do much better than to follow in her footsteps, foot-steps she has left by way of her 100-plus extant letters and her long and elaborate will of 1482.1 These documents, set and read in the context of the Paston family letters and papers, provide an epistolary or literary pathway into a territory of religious expression and conviction that stretches in time from Margaret’s earliest letters, written as a newlywed and newcomer to the Paston family enterprise in the early 1440s, through her final missives of the late 1470s and her will, written two years before her death in November 1484. In adopting this approach we are in effect signing on for the long march; case studies are not easily constructed for medieval women and men.2 Accordingly, I recognize from the start that the journey is going to be one that lacks those high points of spiritual drama and personal revelation that others of Margaret’s day and world sometimes provide. If the choice I am making in this study is between siding with the tortoise or with the hare, there is no question but that I come down, quite firmly, on behalf of the former.


Fifteenth Century Religious Life Spiritual Life Religious Expression Personal Revelation 
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    Norman Davis, ed., The Paston Letters and Papers (2 vols., Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971–1976). This is the basic edition I use and the letters are cited throughout these essays by volume and number, not by pages.Google Scholar
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  4. 2.
    Though the data rarely lend themselves to an individualized case study, there are some useful papers: Michael Hicks, “The Piety of Margaret, Lady Hungerford (d. 1478),” Journal of Ecclesiastical History 38 (1987), pp. 19–38CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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  51. 18.
    For an alternative lifestyle and choice, Kim M. Phillips, “Desiring Virgins: Martyrs and Femininity in Late Medieval England,” in Youth in the Middle Ages, ed. P. J. P. Goldberg and Felicity Riddy (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2004), pp. 45–59Google Scholar
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© Joel T. Rosenthal 2010

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