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


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 edited 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...

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

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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 edited 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 in these formularies 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 letters and other 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.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"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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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780812244595
  • Publisher: University of Pennsylvania Press, Inc.
  • Publication date: 3/27/2013
  • Series: The Middle Ages Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 360
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.30 (d)

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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Read an Excerpt


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.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
List of Abbreviations
A Note on Money

—The Lost Letters
—Early Formularies
—British Library, Additional MS 8167
—Bodleian Library, Fairfax MS 27
—Other Related Formularies
—England, 1200−1250
—Oxford, c. 1200−1250
—Literacy in Early Thirteenth-Century England
—Language and Structure of the Letters
—Editorial Principles

Chapter 1. Money
Credit, Debt, and Commerce
1. Legal Agreement for Pledging a Rural Estate
2. An Earl Orders Wine from His Vintner
3. How the Vintner Should Respond if the Earl Has a Good Credit Rating
4. How the Vintner Should Respond if the Earl Does Not Repay His Debts
5. An Earl Orders Cloth from His Draper, to Whom He Owes Money
6. An Earl Orders Furs from His Skinner, to Whom He Owes Money
7. The Manner in Which One Should Write a Positive or Negative Response to a Request
8. Letter of Refusal from a Skinner Ruined by a Fire
9. A Friend Requests Five Marks to Buy Wool
10. A Friend Requests a Loan to Buy Wool and Cloth at the Fair
11. A Man Sends Pledges That His Neighbor Can Use to Secure a Loan
The Jews
12. A Friend Begs for Money to Repay a Loan
13. A Letter of Response: Buying a Horse for One's Lord
14. A Letter of Refusal: Rejecting a Subordinate's Request for a Second Loan
Household Provisioning and Hospitality
15. Instructions for Writing Orders or Prohibitions: An Earl Orders His Steward to Send Him a Supply of Wine and Ale
16. A Friend Warns Another to Buy Grain Against a Coming Dearth
17. An Archdeacon Sends Word to a Dean About an Impending Visitation by the Bishop
18. A Rural Dean Warns a Priest of an Imminent Visit from the Bishop and Advises Him to Obtain an Appropriate Variety of Foods
19. The King Orders a Sheriff to Commandeer Wine for His Use and Transport for It, and to Deal Sharply with Any Resistance
20. The Manner of Keeping Accounts
21. Model Manorial Account for a Six-Year Period [September 29, 1222-September 29, 1228]
22. Instructions for Keeping a Travel Account, Followed by a Daily Household Account
23. Further Instructions for Keeping Travel Accounts, Followed by Another Daily Household Account

Chapter 2. War and Politics
24. An Earl Summons His Knights to Military Service Overseas
25. A Knight Responds to a Summons for Military Service by Asking for a Cash Loan to Meet His Expenses
26. A Man Asks a Friend to Make His Excuses to the King for Being Unable to Respond to a Summons
27. A Man Cautions a Friend That He Should Provide for the Knights Committed to His Custody or His Fortune Might Suffer at Court
28. A Man Advises His Friend to Guard Well the Imprisoned Knights in His Charge
29. The Sheriff of Cambridge Orders the Serjeants of a Hundred to Summon Those Who Owe the King Military Service to Assemble at Portsmouth to Go Overseas
30. The King Writes to the Earl of Chester Requesting Aid Against the Welsh Under Prince Llywelyn
31. The King Summons an Army to the Defense of His Interests in Wales
32. The King's Liege Men Warn Him About Secret Confederacies Between Some of His Own Men and the Welsh, Which Threaten the Success of His Campaign
33. A Warning to a Friend to Get His Grain off the Road, Because the King Is About to Go to Wales and Will Seize All Provisions That He Finds Along the Way
34. King Henry III of England Requests an Aid for the Marriage of His Sister
35. A Magnate Replies to the King Acknowledging the King's Right but Reminding Him Not to Overburden His Subjects When He Has Income of His Own
36. The Bishops and Church Dignitaries Recommend to the Magnates and Knights of England that They Take Counsel over the King's Position on Taxation
37. A Knight Seeks Advice Concerning the King's Supposed Willingness to Marry Noble Young Women to Men Below Their Social Station
38. His Colleague Reassures the Knight that Disparagement Is Against the Articles of Magna Carta, and Assures Him of His Assistance

Chapter 3. Lordship and Administration
Law and Order
39. A Constable Orders His Bailiffs to Discover Who Are the Robbers Plaguing Their Jurisdictions and to Stop Them
40. The King Orders a Sheriff to Find and Hang the Thieves Who Have Been Burgling Village Homes by Night
41. The Sheriff Informs the King of the Result of His Pursuit of the Robbers
42. A Landowner in the King's Service Complains to a Sheriff that His Men Are Being Harassed by the Sheriff's Officers for Suit of County and Hundred Despite His Exemption
43. A Man Asks a Sheriff to Release Goods Seized for an Unpaid Fine Owed to the King
44. A Man Asks a Friend to Come to London with Him to Act for Him in a Canon Law Suit
45. A Letter to a Friend Requesting Legal Assistance on Another's Behalf
46. A Man Asks a Friend for the Services of His Attorney to Appear in His Place at the Royal Court
Lordship and Manorial Administration
47. An Earl Asks an Agent to Get Him Money for a Replacement Mount
48. A Lord Responds with Threats to an Attack on His Dependents
49. A Villein Refuses a Request for the Loan of a Plow and Oxen Because He Needs Them Himself
50. A Tenant Informs on a Landowner's Corrupt Bailiff
51. The Same Bailiff Sends His Rebuttal to His Lord
52. A Knight Orders a Bailiff Accused of Fraud to Present His Accounts for Inspection
53. A Landowner Sends a List of Instructions to His Bailiff
Ecclesiastical Administration
54. Bishop H[ugh] of Lincoln Orders His Official to Prohibit Two Men from Leaving a Town Until a Major Lawsuit Between Them Has Been Settled by a Forthcoming Diocesan Assembly
55. An Archdeacon Writes to a Rural Dean to Charge Him with the Collection of a Clerical Tax, and to Order Him to Correct the Misbehavior of Chaplains in His Deanery
56. A Bishop's Official Writes to an Archdeacon's Official to Certify the Credentials of a Chaplain Who Wishes to Move to the Latter's District
57. A Chaplain Who Is Worried About Losing His Job Writes to a Fellow-Chaplain for Advice and Help
Forests and Hunting
58. The King Orders a Sheriff to Inquire into the Poaching of Game in a Royal Forest
59. The King Orders a Sheriff to Arrest the Corrupt Foresters Under His Command Who Have Been Selling Oak Trees from the Royal Forest
60. A Sheriff Tells the King that He Cannot Comply with a Command to Provide Venison, Because the Adjoining Forests Belong to the King of Scots, Whose Foresters Refuse to Allow Him to Take Game There
61. A Baron Asks Another Baron to Send Him Game and Fish to Stock His New Park and Fishpond, and in Return He Sends Hunting Dogs, Hawks, and Falcons
62. A Baron Asks a Baron to Have the Latter's Son Train His Goshawk, Which He Sends
63. An Earl Invites a Baron to Join His Tournament Retinue
64. A Knight Orders His Bailiff to Provide for His Arrival with Edmund de Lacy, Constable of Chester, and Twenty Knights, Who Are on Their Way to a Tournament at Blyth
65. The Earl of Warenne Beseeches the Count of Aumale to Come to a Tournament that He Has Sponsored, Because He and His Knights Are Rusty from Lack of Practice and Need His Help
66. An Earl Writes to Another Earl to Request a Brief Pause Between Tournaments, to Enable Everyone to Take a Little Break Before Resuming Combat
67. An Earl Asks a Baron to Send Him a Destrier Equipped for a Tournament
68. The Baron Agrees to Lend His Destrier to the Earl, Because His Legal Affairs Will Prevent Him from Attending the Tournament Himself

Chapter 4. Family and Community
News, Gossip, and Family
69. A Serjeant Writes to His Master, a Knight, to Justify His Refusal to Obey the Orders of the Knight's Wife
70. A Man Warns His Friend that He Has Seen the Latter's Wife Naked in Bed with Another Man, and Sends Her Girdle as Evidence
71. Bishop H[ugh] of C[arlisle] Orders His Archdeacon to Inquire About Adulterers in His Archdeaconry
72. An Archdeacon Orders a Dean to Investigate the Alleged Bribing of a Chaplain by an Adulterer to Conceal His Affair
73. A Rural Dean Offers to Cover Up an Allegation Against a Chaplain of Adultery with the Wife of One of His Parishioners
74. A Steward Writes to His Lord About a Gravely Ill Knight Whose Wife and Daughter Have Gone Elsewhere
75. A Man of Property Writes Home to His Wife, Niece, and Servants
76. A Wife Writes to Her Absent Husband
77. A Knight in the Queen's Service Asks His Wife to Send Him Linen Cloth and Sheets
78. A Man Asks a Friend to Take His Son into His Service
Student Life
79. A Student Tells His Friends that He Is Going to Become a Monk
80. A Student at Paris Writes to His Father for Money
81. A Student at Oxford Writes to His Father for Money
82. A Student at Oxford Writes to His Mother for Money
83. A Son Responds to a Letter from His Father
84. A Master Tells His Student to Stop Wasting Time
Neighborliness and Community
85. An Angry Letter of Refusal
86. A Friend Requests Assistance for a Kinsman
87. A Man Who Assisted His Friend's Kinsman Requests Reimbursement for His Expenses
88. A Man Refuses to Aid His Friend's Shiftless Kinsman and Warns Against Lending Him Further Funds
89. A Man Thanks His Friend for a Loan and Promises to Repay It with Grain After the Harvest
90. A Neighbor Requests the Loan of a Plow and Plowshare Until He Can Get Some Iron to Have a Plowshare Made for His Own Plow
91. A Neighbor Requests Financial Assistance Following a Burglary
92. The Burglary Victim's Neighbor Agrees to Assist Him
93. A Peasant Writes to Another About His Adversities

Chapter 5. A Knight's Correspondence: Building a Barn and a Windmill
94. A Knight Informs His Friend, a Royal Forester, that the King Has Granted Him Four Oak Trees with Which to Build a Windmill
95. The Royal Forester Responds with an Offer of Assistance
96. The Royal Forester Orders His Serjeants to Assist the Knight
97. The Knight Hires a Carpenter to Finish the Windmill and Build a Barn
98. The Knight Orders the Bailiff of His Manor to Attend to Various Tasks, to Organize the Delivery of the Timber for the New Windmill and Barn, and to Prepare Provisions for the Forthcoming Visit of the Knight and His Household
99. The Bailiff Reports to the Knight that He Has Taken Care of Everything, and that He Has Borrowed Money on the Knight's Behalf to Cover the Expenses
100 The Knight Asks His Wife to Join Him at the Manor Where the Mill and Barn Are Under Construction, and to Stay on After His Return to Court


• * *


Frontispiece. Bodleian Library, Oxford, Fairfax MS 27, fol. 4v.. . . ii
Map 1 England and Wales in the early thirteenth century.
Map 2 France in the early thirteenth century.
Figure 1. Short cross penny of John or Henry III.
Figure 2. Weighing coin to ensure that it is of full weight.
Figure 3. A draper's assistant measures out cloth.
Figure 4. A rich man's fur-lined cloaks.
Figure 5. A skinner and his assistant display fur linings to customers .
Figure 6. Caricature of devils mocking a Jewish coin-clipper and moneylenders.
Figure 7. Count Thibaut VI of Blois on his warhorse.
Figure 8. A forester is shot by poachers .
Figure 9. Seal of Aubreye de Harcourt.
Figure 10. Death in a tournament of Gilbert Marshal, earl of Pembroke.
Figure 11. Potiphar's wife uses Joseph's cloak as evidence of attempted rape .
Figure 12. A girdler's shop or stall.
Figure 13. King David commits adultery with Bathsheba.
Figure 14. The Prodigal Son loses his clothing at dice.
Figure 15. Threshing and winnowing grain.
Figure 16. A windmill with its tail pole.

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