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Cover for the book Telling Tales

Telling Tales

Sources and Narration in Late Medieval England Joel T. Rosenthal
  • Copyright: 2003
  • Dimensions: 6 x 9
  • Page Count: 248 pages
  • Illustrations: 2 b&w illustrations
  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-0-271-02304-5
  • Paperback ISBN: 978-0-271-05848-1
“There has been a virtual cottage industry of studies based on the Paston letters, but no one approaches them quite the way Joel Rosenthal does in Telling Tales. With originality and erudition he examines the letters, alongside other key late medieval English texts, and in the process he offers fresh insight into the ‘small narratives’ of ordinary life in late medieval England.”
“Joel T. Rosenthal, a specialist if ever there was one, shows how meaning and interest can be squeezed out of the most unpromising sources.”
“In this insightful, closely argued, richly detailed, and very engaging book, Joel T. Rosenthal brings his full attention and considerable intellectual skills to bear on three types of ’so-called lesser sources.'”
Telling Tales is interesting and lively reading for specialist and general audiences alike. It certainly demonstrates that the documents generated by fairly restricted groups in medieval society (a single family, the landed elite) can be deposed so as to reveal the history of other, more broadly based social groups.”

One of the great challenges facing historians of any era is to make the strangeness of the past comprehensible in the present. This task is especially difficult for scholars of the Middle Ages, a period that can seem particularly alien to modern sensibilities. In Telling Tales, Joel Rosenthal takes us on a journey through some familiar sources from fourteenth- and fifteenth-century England to show how memories and recollections can be used to build a compelling portrait of daily life in the late Middle Ages. Rosenthal is a senior medievalist whose work over the years has spanned several related areas, including family history, women’s history, the life cycle, and memory and testimony. In Telling Tales, he brings all of these interests to bear on three seemingly disparate bodies of sources: the letters of Margaret Paston, depositions from a dispute between the Scropes and Grosvenors over a contested coat of arms, and Proof of Age proceedings, whereby the legal majority of an heir was established.

In Rosenthal’s hands these familiar sources all speak to questions of testimony, memory, and narrative at a time when written records were just becoming widespread. In Margaret Paston, we see a woman who helped hold family and family business together as she mastered the arduous and complex task of letter writing. In the knights whose tales were elicited for the Scrope and Grosvenor case, we witness the bonding of men-at-arms in the Hundred Years War. From the Proofs of Age, we have brief tales that are rich in the give-and-take of daily life in the village—memories of baptisms, burials, a trip to market, a fall from a roof, or marriage to another juror’s sister. From a historian at the top of his craft, Telling Tales shows how medievalists can turn scraps of recollection into a synthetic story, one that enables us to recapture the strange and lost country of the European Middle Ages.

Joel T. Rosenthal is Distinguished Professor of History at SUNY, Stony Brook. His previous books include Patriarchy and Families of Privilege in Late Medieval England (1990).


List of Figures and Tables


Introduction: Telling Tales in a Social Context

1. Proofs of Age: A Rich Fabric of Thin Threads

The World of Jurors and Testimony

The Mechanics of Recollection

Jurors’ Life Cycles and Life-Cycle Memories

Ecclesiastical Memories

Memories of the Secular World

Communities Large and Small

The Construction of Memory in the Proofs

2. Sir Richard Scrope and the Scrope and Grosvenor Depositions Recollection Re-creates Fellowship

Cognition and Recollection

Tales of the Scropes: Battles and Banners

3. Margaret Paston: The Lady and the Letters

Letters as Artifacts

Constructing the Letters: How to Tell It Like It Is

First Stuck at Home and Then Mostly Alone

Conclusion: Some Final Reflections




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