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Reading the Religious Life of Margaret Paston

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

Abstract

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.

Keywords

Fifteenth Century Religious Life Spiritual Life Religious Expression Personal Revelation 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Notes

  1. 1.
    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
  2. The older edition by James Gairdner is used on occasion: James Gairdner, ed., The Paston Letters, 1422–1509 A.D. (3 vols., Westminster: Constable, 1895).Google Scholar
  3. There is now a third volume to round out Davis’s work: Richard Beadle and Colin Richmond, eds., The Paston Letters, III, EETS, s.s. 22 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005) (referred to as III, below, when cited). For a brief summary of Margaret’s life, see my pamphlet, Margaret Paston, Matriarch of the Paston Family (Dereham, Norfolk: Larks Press, 2009).Google Scholar
  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
  5. W. Mark Ormrod, “The Personal Religion of Edward III,” Speculum 64 (1989), pp. 849–77CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Rachel Gibbons, “The Piety of Isabeau of Bavaria, Queen of France, 1385–1422,” in Courts, Counties and the Capital in the Later Middle Ages, ed., Diana E. S. Dunn (Stroud: Sutton, 1996), pp. 205–24; and for a longer and more discursive treatmentGoogle Scholar
  7. Jonathan Hughes, The Religious Life of Richard III: Piety and Prayer in the North of England (Stroud: Sutton, 1997). On the limits of “know-ability” in such mattersGoogle Scholar
  8. Deborah Youngs, Humphrey Newton (1466–1539): An Early Tudor Gentleman (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2008): Despite the preservation of Newton’s commonplace book, we have the caveat: “It may not offer a window into his soul but it does shine a spotlight on several aspects of his spirituality and the influence the Church had upon his everyday actions. We can see what he knew of Christianity, what he was particularly devoted to; we can consider his contemplative and active piety and assess the relationship between is person devotion and communal practice.”Google Scholar
  9. 5.
    The interesting story ofthe preservation, publication, dispersal, and reunification of (most of) the letters is told by David Stoker, “‘Innumerable Letters of Good Consequence in History:’ The Discovery and First Publication of the Paston Letters,” The Library, sixth series, 17 (1995), pp. 107–55; Davis also covers this ground, I, xxiv–xxxv.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Charles L. Kingsford, English Historical Literature in the Fifteenth Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1913), p. 199, suggesting that it was John I, trained in law and apt to have an eye for any opportunity that might come along, who saw the wisdom of collecting and preserving the papers. I naturally lean toward the idea that it was Margaret’s idea and her initiative.Google Scholar
  11. 6.
    Gairdner, I, xxix; Colin Richmond, The Paston Family in the Fifteenth Century: Endings (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001), p. 88Google Scholar
  12. Roger Virgoe, Private Life in the Fifteenth Century (London: Macmillan, 1989), pp. 140, 158.Google Scholar
  13. Kingsford, Historical Literature, p. 206 for a positive assessment of Margaret as wife and mother. For another assessment, Joan W. Kirby, “Women in the Plumpton Correspondence: Fiction and Reality,” in Church and Chronicle in the Middle Ages: Essays Presented to John Taylor, ed. Ian Wood and Graham A. Loud (London: Hambledon Press, 1991), pp. 219–32; p. 220, “Margaret Paston, for example, emerges as loving wife, hard-headed manager, harsh parent and stout-hearted defend of the family’s ‘livelode’.”Google Scholar
  14. 7.
    Typicality, of course, is the presumed bedrock of social history. For some skepticism about Margaret’s typicality and the pitfalls of generalizing from her life, Helen Jewell, Women in Medieval England (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996), pp. 229–32, andGoogle Scholar
  15. Rowena E. Archer, “Piety in Question: Noblewomen and Religion in the Later Middle Ages,” in Women and Religion in Medieval England, ed. Diana Wood (Oxford: Oxbow, 2003), pp. 118–40. However, Colin Richmond argues for her typicality as one of her strengths or positive aspects, Endings, pp. 88–127.Google Scholar
  16. 8.
    Norman Davis, “The Language of the Pastons,” Proceedings of the British Academy 40 (1955), pp. 120–44. Davis had a particular interest in the letters and writing of the women (which primarily means Margaret and then Agnes) and he held that the language of their letters, despite their consistent use of scribes, was much like their spoken languageGoogle Scholar
  17. Davis, “The Text of Margaret Paston’s Letters,” Medium Aevum 18 (1949), pp. 13–28Google Scholar
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  19. Davis, “Margaret Paston’s Use of ‘Do’,” Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 73 (1972), pp. 55–62.Google Scholar
  20. 9.
    Defending Margaret as an author worthy of attention, in Davis’s edition of the Paston letters, 167 pages are devoted to her letters (with the usual editorial additions) and she offers us some 60,000 words. In pages, this compares with 96 pages devoted to John I, 126 for John II, and 112 for John III (and the men all have many more other-than-letters among their documents). In recent surveys of women as authors and of medieval authors in general, Margaret has finally begun to receive some notice: Janet Todd, British Women Writers: A Critical Reference Guide (New York: Continuum, 1989), pp. 529–30Google Scholar
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  23. Margaret Paston was omitted from Virginia Blain, Patricia Clements, and Isobel Grundy, The Feminist Companion to Literature in England (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1990), though Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich were both covered. The ODNB devotes space to Margaret but only as she is folded into the general entry on the family (written by Colin Richmond); John I and John II merit individual entries.Google Scholar
  24. 11.
    Ian Jack, “The Ecclesiastical Patronage Exercised by a Baronial Family in the Late Middle Ages,” Journal of Religious History 3 (1965), pp. 275–90CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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  27. and Hicks, “Four Studies in Conventional Piety,” Southern History 13 (1991), pp. 1–21.Google Scholar
  28. 12.
    H. S. Bennett, The Pastons and their England: Studies in an Age of Transition (first edition, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1922): chapter 14 for “Religion,” chapter 15 for “The Secular Clergy,” and chapter 16 for “The Regular Clergy.”Google Scholar
  29. 13.
    H. S. Bennett, The Pastons and their England; David Knowles, “The Religion of the Pastons,” Downside Review 42 (1924), pp. 143–63Google Scholar
  30. Gillian Pritchard, “Religion and the Pastons,” in Daily Life in the Late Middle Ages, ed. Richard Britnell (Stroud: Sutton, 1998), pp. 65–82. Colin Richmond comments on the various Pastons, in passing, Endings.Google Scholar
  31. 14.
    Colin Richmond, “Religion and the Fifteenth-Century English Gentleman,” in The Church, Politics and Patronage in the Fifteenth Century, ed. Barrie Dobson (Gloucester: Sutton, 1984), pp. 198–208Google Scholar
  32. Richmond, “The English Gentry and Religion, c. 1500,” in Religious Belief and Ecclesiastical Careers, ed. Christopher Harper-Bill (Woodbridge: Boydell, 1981), pp. 121–50.Google Scholar
  33. For a contrary view, Christine Carpenter, “The Religion of the Gentry in Fifteenth-Century England,” in England in the Fifteenth Century: Proceedings of the 1986 Harlaxon Symposium, ed. Daniel Williams (Woodbridge: Boydell, 1987), pp. 53–74Google Scholar
  34. and, more recently, Christine Carpenter, “Religion,” in Gentry Culture in Late Medieval England, ed. Raluca Radulescu and Alison Truelove (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005), pp. 134–50Google Scholar
  35. Eamon Duffy, “Religious Belief,” in A Social History of England, 1200–1500, ed. Rosemary Horrox and W. Mark Ormrod (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), pp. 293–339Google Scholar
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  37. Hilary M. Carey, “Devout Literate Laypeople and the Pursuit of the Mixed Life in Later Medieval England,” Journal of Religious History 14 (1987), pp. 361–81CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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  39. Nigel Saul, Knights and Squires: The Gloucestershire Gentry in the Fourteenth Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981).Google Scholar
  40. Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992), still at the head of the queue for the treatment of popular and lay religion and belief in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries.Google Scholar
  41. 16.
    A quick survey ofwomen in East Anglian religious life: Joel T. Rosenthal, “Local Girls Do It Better: Women and Religion in Late Medieval East Anglia,” in Tradition and Transformation in Late Medieval England, ed. Douglas Biggs, Sharon D. Michalove, and A. Compton Reeves (Leiden: Brill, 2002), pp. 1–20Google Scholar
  42. Norman Tanner, The Church in Late Medieval Norwich, 1390–1532 (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 1984).Google Scholar
  43. For the neighboring county, Judith Middleton-Stewart, Inward Purity and Outward Splendour: Death and Remembrance in the Deanery of Dunwich, Suffolk, 1370–1547 (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2001).Google Scholar
  44. 17.
    Edmund College and James Walsh, eds., A Book of Showings to the Anchoress Julian of Norwich (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 1978)Google Scholar
  45. Nicholas Watson and Jacquiline Jenkins, eds., The Writings of Julian of Norwich (University Park, IL: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006), to scratch the surface of recent work; for guid-ance to recent workGoogle Scholar
  46. Liz McAvoy, ed., A Companion to Julian of Norwich (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2008).Google Scholar
  47. For the historian, for help amidst the deluge of Kempiana, Anthony Goodman, Margery Kempe and her World (London: Longman, 2002)Google Scholar
  48. John H. Arnold and Katherine Lewis, eds., A Companion to “The Book of Margery Kempe” (Woodbridge: D. S. Brewer, 2004)Google Scholar
  49. Rayn Possell, “Margery Kempe: An Exemplar of Late Medieval Piety,” Catholic Historical Review 89 (2003), pp. 1–29, with thanks to Maryanne Kowaleski for this reference.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Much still of interest in the introduction to the Penguin edition: Barry A. B. A. Windeatt, trans., The Boke of Margery Kempe (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, London, 1985).Google Scholar
  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
  52. Sarah Salih, Visions of Virginity in Late Medieval England (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2001).Google Scholar
  53. Helen Castor, Blood and Roses (London: Faber & Faber, 2004), p. 95, on Margaret’s unhappy condition during her fifth pregnancy.Google Scholar
  54. 19.
    Samuel Moore, “Patrons of Letters in Norfolk and Suffolk, c. 1450,” Publications of the Modern Language Association 27 (1912), pp. 188–207, and 28 (1913), pp. 79–105CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. K. K. Jambek, “Patterns of Women’s Literary Patronage: England, 1200-ca. 1475,” in The Cultural Patronage of Late Medieval Women, ed. June Hall McCash (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1996), pp. 228–65Google Scholar
  56. Mary Serjeantson, ed., Osbern Bokenham: Legendys of Hooly Wummen, EETS, o.s. 208 (1938)Google Scholar
  57. Simon Horobin, “Politics, Patronage, and Piety in the Work of Osbern Bokenham,” Speculum 82 (2008), pp. 932–49.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. For Capgrave, Karen A. Winsted, John Capgrave’s Fifteenth Century (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007).Google Scholar
  59. 20.
    Mary Erler, Women, Reading, and Piety in Late Medieval England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003)Google Scholar
  60. Jennifer Bryan, Looking Inward: Devotional Reading and Private Self in Late Medieval England (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. 22.
    For an example of other issues that can be pursued and of other questions we can address, when the extant material permit, Elizabeth Noble, The World of the Stonors: A Gentry Society (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2009). Both social networks and domestic arrangements are explicated at some length in this study.Google Scholar
  62. 23.
    For the other collections of family letters: Christine Carpenter, ed., Kingsford’s Stonor Letters and Papers, 1290–1483 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996) (cited hereafter as “Stonor”)Google Scholar
  63. Joan Kirby, ed., The Plumpton Letters and Papers, Camden Society, fifth series, 8 (1990) (“Plumpton”)Google Scholar
  64. Alison Hanham, ed., The Cely Letters, 1472–1488, EETS, o.s. 273 (1975) (“Cely”); and all references below are to the letters as numbered by the respective editors, not to pages.Google Scholar
  65. Also, Christine Carpenter, ed., The Armburgh Papers: The Brokholes Inheritance in Warwickshire, Herefordshire, and Essex, c. 1417-c. 1453 (Woodbridge: Boydell, 1998). For some general reflections that extend to the various collections of fifteenth-century family lettersGoogle Scholar
  66. Joel T. Rosenthal, “The Paston Letters,” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Medieval Literature, ed. David S. Kasten (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 5 vols, IV, pp. 184–87.Google Scholar

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© Joel T. Rosenthal 2010

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