Brian Gastle

title.none: Watt, The Paston Women (Brian Gastle)

identifier.other: baj9928.0509.012 05.09.12

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Brian Gastle, Western Carolina University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2005

identifier.citation: Watt, Diane. The Paston Women: Selected Letters. Series: The Library of Medieval Women. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2004. Pp. x, 178. ISBN: $27.95 1-84384-024-3.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 05.09.12

Watt, Diane. The Paston Women: Selected Letters. Series: The Library of Medieval Women. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2004. Pp. x, 178. ISBN: $27.95 1-84384-024-3.

Reviewed by:

Brian Gastle
Western Carolina University

The Paston Women: Selected Letters, a recent title in Boydell and Brewer's Library of Medieval Women series, includes translations of 92 selected letters from three generations of Paston women (from 1440 to roughly 1495). At over 400 letters, the Paston correspondence comprise the largest extant body of private letters and documents from medieval England, and they are invaluable to the study of any aspect of late medieval culture. While the Middle English of the Pastons is not particularly difficult for beginning readers, Diane Watt's is the first edition of translations devoted exclusively to the correspondences of the Paston women.

The current standard edition of the complete letters, and the edition upon which Watt bases her text, is Norman Davis' two volume edition, published in 1971 and 1976. Davis' edition has been re-released by Oxford University Press in 2005 as part of the Early English Text Society Supplementary Series (along with a scheduled third volume of supplemental material edited by Richard Beadle and Colin Richmond), and Volume One of the Davis edition is available online via the Etext Center at the University of Virginia ( Davis' 1999 Oxford World Classics edition--which selects 142 letters and modernizes spelling but does not translate the selections--is also currently available. Watt's edition, which focuses exclusively on the Paston women's correspondences, addresses better than other editions the specific concerns of The Library of Medieval Women series, namely the gendered issues many teachers focus on in the classroom. Moreover, this edition is the first that is both affordable for and accessible to undergraduates and general readers, and it provides introductory material, interpretive sections, and contextual information appropriate for that audience.

The Paston Women: Selected Letters includes a preface and introductory chapter, an abbreviated family tree, a calendar of saints' days and feasts, the text of 92 letters from eight Paston women (presented in seven sections--one section includes the letters of both Cecily Daune and Constance Reynyforth), an interpretive essay, suggestions for further reading (with brief annotations), a glossary of technical terms, and a subject/name index. Watt's introduction focuses on the historical and literary contexts of the letters. It begins with biographical information about the eight women represented in the edition: Agnes Berry Paston; her daughter, Elizabeth Paston Poynings or Browne; Margaret Mautby Paston, wife of Agnes' eldest son, John I; Elizabeth Clere, cousin to the Pastons; Cecily Daune and Constance Reynyforth, about whom little is known other than that they were both mistresses of Margaret's eldest son John II, and Margery Brews Paston, wife of Margaret's second son, John III. The rest of the introduction discusses the historical and literary contexts and significance of these letters, especially as they relate to the epistolary genre in the Middle Ages, to women's participation in that genre, and to women's participation in vernacular medieval literature in general. This introduction situates the Pastons and their letters well within their familial, regional, and national contexts.

Watt's interpretive essay, "'In the Absence of a Good Secretary': The Letters, Lives, and Loves of the Paston Women Reconsidered," continues and more fully explores the issues discussed in the introduction. Addressing women's literacy issues, Watt's treatment of the letters supports other recent discussions of the authorial aspects of women's letters, even when those letters were mediated by other, usually male, scribal hands. She states, for example, that the Paston women hold as much of an authorial position relative to their texts as Margery Kempe, whose text was produced under similar scribal situations and about whose authorial position there has been much recent critical work. In part, the issue of literacy is tied, as Watt asserts, to the issue of education for women in the fifteenth century. And her discussion of women's position vis-a-vis men in education leads to complementary discussions of their differing roles in household and estate management, politics and governance, spirituality and religion, and familial relationships. In short, the essay provides an excellent springboard for a discussion of the roles of women in virtually any aspect of medieval society. With its solid reference to the primary documents included in the edition, Watt's interpretive essay would work well as a teaching aid, especially in an undergraduate class.

Watt has selected well, including important (and famous--insofar as fame can be associated with the letters of a fifteenth century Norfolk family) letters such as Margery's Valentine letter to John, as well as seemingly mundane (but perhaps all the more representative for that) letters relating issues of marriage, death, relationships, and household accounts. Each letter is prefaced by the names of the sender and of the addressee, a brief summary of the letter, and the date of the letter. Watt's translations balance both readability and literalness. In a letter from Margaret to her husband (No. 26), Margaret asks John to purchase some weapons and household goods because she fears an attack. She also relates information she has heard about the attacks from the area. The passage may be difficult for the beginning reader of Middle English: "And qhan he com thedder the doris were fast sperid and there were non folkis wyth hem but Maryoth and Capron and his wyff and Querles wyf a[n]d another man in ablac yede sumqhate halting. I sopo[se] be his wurdis that was Norfolk of Gemyngham" (Davis No. 130). Watt's translation gracefully renders this passage as, "And when he arrived there the doors were fastened securely and there was nobody inside except Marriott and Capron and his wife and Querles' wife and another man in black who limped a little; I believe from what he said that it was Norfolk of Gimingham." Watt's "who limped a little" is perhaps not as literal as, say, "who went somewhat with a limp" or "went with a limp," but reads clearly in the context of the passage and makes the passage accessible to the novice reader of Middle English. It can be difficult, though, to cross-check or follow up these letters because there is no cross-reference, other than the dates and senders of the letters, between this edition and Davis (for example, this letter is No. 26 in this edition but No. 130 in Davis). Such lack of cross-referencing might make it difficult to track down other letters associated with those letters in this edition or to check a translation against the Middle English, a minor inconvenience to practiced scholars but perhaps a greater one for the beginning reader or undergraduate pursuing the letters further.

The lack of cross-referencing would be less of an issue if this edition were clearer about its editorial practices. The edition includes details such as the addressee of the letters, and it notes where it differs from Davis with respect to such issues as the scribal hand of a given letter. But it does not always clearly indicate omissions or explain why such omissions occur. The preface to the edition, which contains a discussion of the editorial practice, does not state that some letters are not complete. Such editorial excisions may be intended to focus and condense the content of the letters. For example, in one letter from Elizabeth Poynings to John Paston II (No. 19), two passages (referring to ancillary parties) from the original letter do not appear in the translation, and those passages are noted by ellipses. Specifically, Elizabeth writes to complain of Sir Robert Fiennes doing "great damage to the estates which belong to my husband and me," leading to an interruption in revenues. This edition omits references to Sir Edward Poynings, Elizabeth's brother-in-law, whom she herself "assigned that the seid Ser Edwarde for certeyn yereez shuld haue and take [th]e reuenuez" (Davis No. 122) of certain manors. Removal of references to Edward focuses the passage more directly upon Elizabeth's problems with Sir Robert Fiennes, but this focus comes at the expense of seeing how her familial relationships were tied to her manorial supervision.

In another example, a letter from Margaret Paston to her husband John, Margaret states, "And she has obtained an undertaking from my lady not to act against you in this matter, if you are willing to come to an agreement with her and to do as you ought between now and Trinity Sunday. . . . Kathryn Walsam is to be married on the Monday following Trinity Sunday, so I am told, to the young gallant with the big chin." (No. 24) The ellipses indicate an excision--some seven lines touching the sale of manor goods, the state of certain acquaintances, and associated politics. However, some three lines later, this edition leaves out a long passage without any indication that it has been excised editorially (i.e. without any editorial ellipses to indicate that the passage has been altered). That passage--352 words long--discusses mutual acquaintances such as Sym Schepherd, who "js styl wyth Wylly," as well as the financial and legal difficulties of John of Sparham, who "js so schyttyl-wyttyd that he wyl sett hys gode to morgage to Heydon" (Davis No. 128). If this edition were used in a classroom, such emendations might allow either for more focused discussions or for a greater number of assigned letters, but without clear notation of such editorial changes that discussion may be incomplete or faulty. And it is unclear why one omitted passage warrants ellipses while the other does not, although the passage with missing notation may merely be an unique oversight (cross checking ten random letters in this edition with Davis yielded only this one omission without accompanying ellipses). The excision is especially disappointing in this passage, given the passage's insight into Margaret's personality and wit as she accuses John of Sparham of being "schyttyl-wyttyd" (probably rash or hasty, but with scatological overtones) for mortgaging his goods.

The Paston Women: Selected Letters will certainly be a welcome tool in classroom discussions of women in late medieval England, and the accompanying critical apparatus (the introduction, the interpretive essay, and the tools such as the suggestions for further reading and the family tree) are perfectly situated to assist undergraduates and beginning readers of the Pastons, especially in undergraduate literature or history classes that focus entirely or in part on gender issues in late medieval England. While I would personally prefer each of the letters to be complete (which would probably necessitate fewer letters in the collection) or at least a clearer statement of the fact that they are not complete, these issues do not detract from the value of an accessible edition devoted to one of the most interesting set of extant documents written by late medieval English women.