18.05.04, Carlin, Lost Letters of Medieval Life

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Martin Camargo

The Medieval Review University of Illinois

Carlin, Martha, and David Crouch, eds. Lost Letters of Medieval Life: English Society, 1200-1250. Philadephia PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014. pp. xxvi, 334. ISBN: 978-0-8122-2336-1 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Martin Camargo

The Latin letters that are edited, translated into English, and explicated in this book come from two formularies or collections of models that were compiled during the first half of the thirteenth century, most likely in Oxford. Although scholars interested in topics such as writing instruction and student life in the early history of the University of Oxford have long been aware of both formularies, the letters they contain can be characterized as "lost" in two senses. On the one hand, because they were composed and collected by and for anonymous teachers and students of letter writing to serve practical, pedagogical ends, they have been neglected by most historians in favor of authentic letters written by known persons. In this respect, Martha Carlin and David Crouch can legitimately claim to have discovered in these letters a previously ignored source of information about social, economic, and political life in England between 1200 and 1250.

The senders and recipients of these model letters represent all ranks of medieval society, from the king of England to simple peasants, and most of their letters treat everyday matters that would not normally have justified permanent records. If one assumes that these pedagogical models had direct relevance to real-life communication needs and practices, there once must have existed many authentic letters like them that were not preserved once they had served their purpose and so have been lost in a literal sense. Analogous to and perhaps in some instances derived from authentic letters by ordinary people, many of the letters from the two Oxford formularies are as close as we can get to a body of medieval English correspondence that has otherwise disappeared without a trace. This is the sense in which Carlin and Crouch refer to the texts as "lost letters of medieval life."

The larger of the two Oxford formularies, from which 76 letters, two sets of precepts (items 7 and 20), and three models for keeping accounts (items 21-23) are taken, is preserved in London, British Library, MS Additional 8167, and contains 249 model letters and other texts. It was compiled between 1248 and 1250 but includes reworked versions of letters referring to persons and events that span the entire first half of the thirteenth century. The smaller formulary, in Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Fairfax 27, contains 61 model letters that date from the 1220s and 1230s, when the manuscript itself was produced. Carlin and Crouch chose nineteen letters from MS Fairfax 27 to complement the 81 documents taken from MS Additional 8167. Their selection is intended "to represent as many facets as possible of daily life among all levels of society" (2). Each of these 100 brief Latin texts is carefully edited, translated into English, and supplied with a commentary that casts light on various aspects of its historical context.

"This is a book about everyday life in early thirteenth-century England" (1), its authors declare, and the book's structure and proportions reflect the interests and expertise of these distinguished social historians. Without the extensive, wide-ranging, and illuminating commentary they provide, the evidentiary value of the actual letters would be far from obvious. Brevity is the rule in model letters of this sort, and a fair amount of their limited space is taken up by the formulaic expressions that are required by epistolary decorum. The context that is needed to bring a letter to life could be as simple as explanation of unfamiliar terms for varieties of cloth (item 5) and animals (item 61), social categories and professions, or business practices, or it could take the form of an excursus on a significant cultural institution, such as the canon law court (item 44) or the tournament (item 63). Still other commentary essays are impressive examples of detective work, in which a few sketchy circumstantial details are combined to support a plausible hypothesis for a letter's date and occasion, as in the commentary on item 75, which tracks the author of a letter to his wife to a specific military campaign in Gascony (235-236).

In keeping with the focus on diverse aspects of thirteenth-century English society, most of the letters are grouped into four thematic categories, each of which is further subdivided: Money (items 1-23), War and Politics (items 24-38), Lordship and Administration (items 39-68), and Family and Community (items 69-93). A fifth section contains seven interrelated letters from MS Fairfax 27: A Knight's Correspondence: Building a Barn and a Windmill (items 94-100). While many letters are paired with a response or even contrasting possible responses and others share context and theme, most letters with their commentaries can be read in isolation, as befits an anthology. This autonomy occasionally results in duplication of contents, such as three separate iterations of the relative wages earned by skilled craftsmen, male laborers, and women in southern England in the 1220s (45, 58, 64); but more often cross-referencing averts such duplication. An excellent index also helps in negotiating the varied contents. The one addition I would have welcomed is a complete listing of the contents of both formularies, which would help to identify any gaps in the selection of items as well as to reveal any differences between the organization of the present anthology and those of the collections from which it draws. Typically, such formularies are organized hierarchically, beginning with letters sent and received by the highest-ranking members of society and proceeding by grades to letters by those of the lowest social status.

A full table of the formularies' contents also could include information about which items the formulary in MS Additional 8167 shares with the related thirteenth-century English formularies in Baltimore, Walters Art Museum, MS W. 15; Cambridge, Gonville and Caius College, MS 205/111; and Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 297 (8-9). The shared materials are put to good use in correcting errors in a few of the letters edited by Carlin and Crouch (items 1, 4, 6, 70, 79), but most of ones they have selected seem to exist in unique copies. As they point out, the language of these copies is frequently defective (xvi), requiring emendation and/or annotation to assist comprehension. As an editor of similar texts, I know all too well the challenges this type of work presents, especially when no other witness exists to help guide one's efforts. Although I found most of the editorial conjectures plausible, in some instances the evidence seems to favor a different solution. So, for example, the second sentence of item 77 employs the rhetorical figure traductio (deficiant ...deficere...deficit), which suggests that the word the editors read as defidi and correct to desid[erio?] almost certainly was something like defecti. A few clear errors slip through: the first word of item 3 must be Dilecto rather than Dileccio; the note indicating manuscript and folio is missing from item 33; and in item 58, tuam is marked as having been corrected in the manuscript from tuuam, but the corrected reading should be tuum. In a few cases a correction is made where none is needed: in item 59, quot quot is just as acceptable as quot; in item 69, the manuscript reading de facili fidem adibetis ("you readily lend credence") is preferable to the emended reading de facili[tate] fidem adibetis (translated: "you rest your faith in good nature" [219]); the same is true of set, corrected to si, in item 84; and medieval spellings as common as He for Hae (item 9) and adpresens for ad praesens (item 10) hardly need to be marked "[sic]."

Editorial quibbles about the Latin texts will concern only a small subset of the book's readers, however. Typically written in language that is more conventional than elegant, the chief attraction of these letters is not their Latin style, even if rhetorical display occasionally is the goal (for example, in items 37 and 63). Rather, thanks to the masterful scholarship and engaging prose of Carlin and Crouch, professional medievalists, university students, and members of the educated public will find in these collected letters "a virtual encyclopedia of English life in the first half of the thirteenth century" (2) that can be read with pleasure as well as profit.

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