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Lost Letters of Medieval Life: English Society, 1200-1250

Lost Letters of Medieval Life: English Society, 1200-1250

by Martha Carlin

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Everyday life in early thirteenth-century England is revealed in vivid detail in this riveting collection of correspondence of people from all classes, from peasants and shopkeepers to bishops and earls. The documents presented here include letters between masters and servants, husbands and wives, neighbors and enemies, and cover a wide range of topics: politics


Everyday life in early thirteenth-century England is revealed in vivid detail in this riveting collection of correspondence of people from all classes, from peasants and shopkeepers to bishops and earls. The documents presented here include letters between masters and servants, husbands and wives, neighbors and enemies, and cover a wide range of topics: politics and war, going to fairs and going to law, attending tournaments and stocking a game park, borrowing cash and doing favors for friends, investigating adultery and building a windmill.

While letters by celebrated people have long been known, the correspondence of ordinary people has not survived and has generally been assumed never to have existed in the first place. Martha Carlin and David Crouch, however, have discovered numerous examples of such correspondence hiding in plain sight. The letters can be found in manuscripts called formularies—the collections of form letters and other model documents that for centuries were used to teach the arts of letter-writing and keeping accounts.

The writing-masters and their students who produced these books compiled examples of all the kinds of correspondence that people of means, members of the clergy, and those who handled their affairs might expect to encounter in their business and personal lives. Tucked among the sample letters from popes to bishops and from kings to sheriffs are examples of a much more casual, ephemeral kind of correspondence. These are the low-level letters that evidently were widely exchanged, but were often discarded because they were not considered to be of lasting importance. Two manuscripts, one in the British Library and the other in the Bodleian Library, are especially rich in such documents, and it is from these collections that Carlin and Crouch have drawn the documents in this volume. They are presented here in their first printed edition, both in the original Latin and in English translation, each document splendidly contextualized in an accompanying essay.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"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."—Elizabeth Chadwhick, in The History Girls

"A fascinating and important collection. It will add significant new source material to the known corpus of surviving thirteenth-century letters and will shed light on a host of central issues in the history of thirteenth-century England."—Robert Stacey, University of Washington

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University of Pennsylvania Press, Inc.
Publication date:
Middle Ages Series
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In 1847 the English antiquary Thomas Hudson Turner published a brief note about a manuscript that recently had come to his notice, and which contained a collection of model business correspondence. Turner included tantalizing transcriptions of three letters, all in Latin, between an earl and the merchants who supplied him with wine, cloth, and furs. However, other than saying that the collection dated from the reign of Henry III (1216−72), he provided no detailed description of its contents and no means of identifying the manuscript itself. But such as it was, this was the first printed notice of the work that provides the bulk of the documents in this collection.

Intrigued by Turner's extracts from the business correspondence, of which few examples survive from thirteenth-century England, Martha Carlin searched for the manuscript and located it at last in the British Library, where it formed one section (Article 5, folios 88−133) of a larger volume, Additional MS 8167 (hereafter Add. 8167). Turner's letters proved to be drawn from a formulary, a collection of model correspondence designed for the instruction of business students.

Although Turner's article of 1847 seems to have escaped later scholarly notice, a number of scholars since his day have also noted the existence of the formulary material in Add. 8167. In 1879 Georg Waitz printed a description of urban trades and crafts that occurs on folios 88r−90v but did not discuss the other contents of Article 5 or of the manuscript more generally. Waitz also mistakenly identified the manuscript as dating from the fourteenth century. Charles Homer Haskins printed one of the student letters in the collection in 1898. In 1935 Noël Denholm-Young discussed the model manorial account in Add. 8167, and shortly afterward H. G. Richardson described Article 5 in some detail and identified it as containing the earliest English formulary. In 1947 and again in 1971, Dorothea Oschinsky briefly discussed the formulary's material on estate accounting. More recently, Martin Camargo examined the significance of Add. 8167 in the history of dictamen (the art of letter-writing) in England, and Christopher Woolgar mentioned the model diet account in Add. 8167 in his study of medieval household accounts. Each of these scholars, however, focused on individual elements of the formulary; none of them remarked on the extraordinary range of the documents themselves or their significance as a collection.

As our study of the documents expanded we discovered that, despite Richardson's belief that Add. 8167 was the oldest English formulary, several other collections (discussed below) were even earlier. A particularly rich and important one is in the Bodleian Library, where it forms part of Fairfax MS 27 (hereafter Fairfax 27). As we planned out the project that has become this book, it was clear that the letters in Fairfax 27 form a significant complement to the material in Add. 8167. This book therefore is a selection of letters and other documents drawn from these two early thirteenth-century formularies. They allow us to rediscover a lost medieval world through the model documents they preserve, which represent whole classes of genuine letters and other material that have not survived to the present day because they were discarded as of no lasting importance. Luckily, we can infer their existence and character from these surviving exemplars. It has to be said that the selection of material was the easy part. One reason why this is the first serious study of these documents is they are by no means easy to read. Many of them were ineptly drafted, and clumsily transcribed and altered by the medieval copyists, a not unusual feature in what were classroom products. Recovering their sense was frequently a frustrating task, but the importance of the material meant that it was a worthwhile and necessary endeavor.

Meet the Author

Martha Carlin is Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and author of Medieval Southwark and London and Southwark Inventories, 1316-1650: A Handlist of Extents for Debts. David Crouch is Professor of Medieval History at the University of Hull and author of The English Aristocracy, 1070-1272: A Social Transformation and The Birth of Nobility: Constructing Aristocracy in England and France, 950-1300.

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