Cover image for Telling Tales: Sources and Narration in Late Medieval England By Joel T. Rosenthal

Telling Tales

Sources and Narration in Late Medieval England

Joel T. Rosenthal


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ISBN: 978-0-271-02304-5

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248 pages
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Telling Tales

Sources and Narration in Late Medieval England

Joel T. Rosenthal

“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.”


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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.

“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.”

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




Introduction: Telling Tales in a Social Context

These essays spring from two convictions. The first is that a close reading of familiar historical texts from late medieval England can illuminate aspects of a society that we take for granted. The second conviction, which grew from the first as this analysis took on a life of its own, is that a close reading of these sources raises questions about some basic presuppositions on which our efforts to explore late medieval society rest. The issues I take up here concern the nature of the sources, the concept of community, and the role and construction of collective or social memory, especially as we track it in its transition (or meandering peregrination) from orality to fixed written form.

A close reading of various kinds of testimony, memory, and narrative enables us to reconstruct, by way of eavesdropping, a synthetic tale of the relationships and interactions of daily life. The three bodies of sources that I dissect—Proofs of Age from the reigns of Richard II and Henry IV, the depositions on behalf of Sir Richard Scrope in the Scrope and Grosvenor controversy, and Margaret Paston’s letters as they stand amid the totality of the Paston family letters —are familiar sources, often used by historians, unlikely to contain many secrets or surprises. As sources go, they are jejune and, to a large extent, formulaic. The Proofs of Age are aggregations of short statements; even when jurors’ testimonies are combined, the entire record rarely takes up more than half of a printed page. The Scrope and Grosvenor depositions mostly run to a single paragraph, and even some of that was boilerplate, enunciating a deponent’s identity and age before moving on to his memory/testimony. And Margaret Paston’s letters, while mostly of greater length, were never intended as coherent overviews of her world. They were separate pieces, each created for the occasion—beads on the loop of ongoing and circular (or two-way) communication.

Given the nature and inherent problems of these sources, it is important to be explicit about the task I have set. It is, in effect, to impose narrativity—to synthesize the scraps of information, the scores or hundreds of throwaway vignettes about fourteenth- and fifteenth-century life—in order to illuminate the social context whence these snippets of memory and communication emanated. While working to turn these micro-tales into an overarching mosaic, I also keep in mind a subtext that addresses modes of cognition and types of memory—as well as what our speakers knew and said, how they came to know it, how they told of it, and how memory became a text.

The historian is usually on safe ground by opening with a discussion of the sources from which his or her tale is extracted and constructed. The three bodies of sources I use are obviously quite distinct. All three, however, can be considered documents created for or of an occasion. They mirror innumerable familiar twists and turns of lived experience, achieving credibility and inviting us to weave them together, to “enchronicle” them into a larger whole. That this synthesis had not been envisioned by those involved in their original telling and writing—those whose interests and needs they were created to serve—makes this, of course, an exercise of the historian’s license.

Written sources are to the historian what the periodic table is to the chemist, leather to the shoemaker. And yet, for all the great diversity of source materials on which we can draw in our effort to depict contemporary perceptions of lived experience, the ancient (or old-fashioned) paradigm of the synthetic narrative as the historical source par excellence still looms over us. It may seem perverse to offer these views of medieval society that I provide as a mosaic, constructed as it is of so many disparate tiles and fragments. We are worlds removed from the grand pageant of the prototypical chronicler, one whose tale revels in the luxury of a beginning, a middle, and an end. The view of behavior and causation found in Bede or Matthew Paris is going have an impact hard to rival in a presentation based on hundreds of memories and testimonies produced for the needs of the occasion (and no more than that).

The distinction, however, between narrative overview and the tale I offer—history as (re)constructed from a medley of recollections and reminiscences—may be more significant in theory than it often turned out to be in terms of reader reception. It is easy to laud a medieval chronicle for its literary breadth and synthetic overview. But when we actually survey the fate of many such chronicles and the saga of manuscript migration, acknowledging the power of the scissors and the whimsical, eclectic tastes of scribes and patrons, the gap between the world according to the synthetic chronicle and the world of orchestrated snippets of records and family papers can narrow a good bit. The intellectual and explanatory virtues of the chronicle as master narrative were often lost because the text available to a given reader might be but some fraction of the whole, some segment now copied into a codex as part of an odd miscellany. Gone, or well hidden, was the unity of composition and explanation that had been the author’s pride and joy and, to the modern reader, the compelling voice that speaks of cause and effect, of God’s ways and man’s world.

This is a deconstructive view of the chronicle as narrative. For a case study of such fragmentation, we can consider the magisterial edition of Henry of Huntington’s Historia Anglorum that Diana Greenway published in 1996. As Greenway indicates in her exhaustive introduction, Henry’s vast work was more likely to have been read in some fraction—one author among a jumble of works bound within a single cover—than as a complete and unified text. He might have among his codicological bedfellows Nicholas Trivet, or the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, or John of Worcester, or William of Jumiege, or Gerald of Wales, or Gildas. Greenway’s search for manuscripts took her (in person or via microfilm) to London, Oxford, Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Rouen, among other stops, and her search turned up no fewer than forty manuscripts, all with varying portions of “the real” Historia Anglorum. So while we may posit a unified text—one author, one work, one history—Henry’s authorial unity and worldview were likely victims of scribal practice and consumer demand. His grand narrative, the one to which we can now turn with little difficulty, was more apt to be accessible as an excerpt, copied into a miscellany such as John Paston’s Great Book, than as a total text.

This belabored discussion of sources, as written and read, is offered in defense of a methodology that will seek to impose social or sociological (if not literary) unity upon a world re-created by weaving together jurors’ testimonies, depositions from the Court of Chivalry, and a string of letters from a diligent wife and mother who wrote them over the better part of four decades. Each source, as a species within the genus “primary sources,” comes with its own tale, its own administrative and bureaucratic genealogy, its own diplomatic. The background story to each body of sources is not wildly engaging, to be sure. Proofs of Age, Scrope and Grosvenor depositions before the Court of Chivalry, and private family letters were legal and documentary instruments that were shaped to meet specific needs. Form facilitated function, though in reality, the action or process under scrutiny and the record created to preserve it had a reciprocal or symbiotic relationship.

Though these matters will be touched on at greater length below, for the sake of clarity we can turn to the emergence of the Proof of Age proceeding and record—a case study about form and function that will introduce one of our basic data sets. Whose proof of whose age? By the mid-thirteenth century, the process whereby an underage heir could claim his or her land (when it was held in feudal tenure or “in chief”) had become a peculiar and distinctive one. The recovery was launched when the heir, or a representative thereof, obtained a special writ—a writ de aetate probando—to trigger the proceeding. This writ instructed the sheriff to empower the escheator of the county to empanel a jury of twelve free men to determine whether the claimant was indeed of age: twenty-one years for a man, sixteen for an unmarried woman, fourteen for a married woman. Thus the findings of a Proof of Age rested upon the aggregation of jurors’ memories regarding the date of the heir’s birth (or baptism) and upon their sworn testimony that that event had taken place sufficiently long ago so that the jury’s collective memory would indeed be a convincing “proof of age.” Because almost all the fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Proof proceedings came to a successful conclusion, from the heir’s perspective, we can say that it had all become fairly routinized. Real doubts about age must have been dealt with off the record, before escheator and jurors went through their motions in public. But of that there is little record; the official version was that the jury’s work had sewn up the issue.

If this tale of the evolution of writs and hearings is a bit arcane, another aspect of the Proofs has attracted considerable attention: their branding as infectious carriers of misinformation. Some allege that they give us fabricated, prearranged, and even false tales! One scholar notes the Proofs’ reliance on “an element of common form” in jurors’ memories, bespeaking a degree of sameness suggesting that “the particulars sworn to were fictitious.” Another critic calls attention to the fact that in Proofs from 22 Henry VI, some witnesses were “a few years younger” in 1446 than they had been in 1444. Nor does the virtual replication of memories from noncontiguous counties do much to bolster the Proofs as solid bedrock on which to build our edifice of historical inquiry. Indeed, they were let off lightly when a critic as astringent as John Horace Round was content to call attention to “their amazing coincidences.”

These flaws are certainly awkward ones to sweep under the rug, even the vast and floppy rug of social history. A reasonable surmise regarding duplications of memory, the limited repertoire of stock tales, and perhaps some outright errors (or fabrications) was offered by T. A. M. Bishop, who wrote that “correspondence between the recollection of different jurors suggests that jurors were furnished with a set of answers prepared in advance.” There is little doubt that somewhere along the line the formulaic nature of the proceeding, plus the unlikelihood of any serious challenge regarding the heir’s age, made it all surprisingly casual, given the seriousness of the issues at stake. The process of transcription (as Proofs bridged the gulf between oral and written) also worked in favor of their standardization as a form of record. The desire to reduce them to a terse written form perhaps served to make the final records more alike than they had been at the time of their origin as oral testimony. Or, conversely, the knowledge that they would ultimately be standardized may have served, from the start, to eliminate many eccentricities of individual recollections and narrations from the written record. Much of my brief on behalf of the Proofs, however, rests on the idea that a juror, speaking in concert with his peers, was recounting a probable memory—one not out of harmony with the aggregate pattern of recollection being established by the twelve combined voices.

The Proofs, along with Inquisitions Post Mortem, constitute our largest body of contemporary data to focus explicitly on age and demography. As such, they were examined in detail by Josiah Cox Russell, who applied a battery of statistical and demographic tests to their findings. He came down firmly in their favor, arguing that critics made much of slips and replicated memories while overlooking the riches at hand. Russell’s work on age and longevity, where he cross-referenced Proofs and IPMs, argued for a degree of accuracy well within a margin of error we are happy to accept for medieval data. Though his validation of the Proofs is more in reference to heirs’ ages (about which we have but a slight interest) than to the self-stated ages of the jurors, a general aura of numerical credibility supports them. More recently, Lawrence R. Poos has subjected the Proofs to more complex questions and statistical tests than those applied in the 1940s. He, too, working from a demographer’s agenda, has argued for their basic reliability. And approaching them from a legal rather than a demographic perspective, Sue Sheridan Walker has likewise argued that they can bear a good deal of weight. When she has been able to track cases regarding age and wardship by way of the Plea Rolls, where the material may be considerably expanded from the one-liners of the escheator’s inquisition, the evidence generally argues in favor of the Proofs’ reliability. Furthermore, as our historical interests move beyond the genealogical agenda of Round and students of his era, scholarly appreciation for the Proofs as windows upon the common exchanges of daily life has grown as well.

Occasionally, a false Proof was presented in an effort to claim property for an heir not yet of legal age. In such instances of serious and deliberate fraud, royal wrath could be unleashed, though it was directed against the claimant, not the jurors, whether they were actually complicitous or mere gulls. The turnover of real property was a serious matter—and for it to hinge on the public performance of a Proof proceeding, with its possible reliance on memories that might incorporate inconsistencies, argues that the “real” question about age was probably beyond dispute. Common and collective memory came fairly close to the heir’s probable age; assertions about his or her majority that were out of line were not likely to be offered, let alone accepted. The voice of the people may have been routinized, but it was articulating the collective consciousness of the marketplace and, as such, was taken seriously, at least as a social convention.

Moving from Proofs of Age to the Scrope and Grosvenor depositions is to go from a tale constructed by assembling hundreds of brief memories, similar in form and function, to one built by pooling separate testimonies intended, ab origine, to be read as a collective gloss on a core theme or text. The issue at stake, judged by the Court of Chivalry when the depositions had been assembled, had to do with two claims to the same coat of arms. Sir Richard Scrope of Yorkshire and Sir Robert Grosvenor of Cheshire each asserted that he, and he alone, had the right to display the arms in question (Azure, a bend or).

Sir Richard Scrope was a peer of the realm, an important administrative and military figure, a power in the North, and an old servant and companion of John of Gaunt as well as Edward III and Richard II. Sir Robert Grosvenor was the head of a knightly family from Cheshire, a much lesser figure in terms of wealth, political contacts, and reputation. When Grosvenor displayed his coat of arms on King Richard’s Scottish expedition of 1385, he provoked Scrope into challenging his right to their use; the two men, or their heralds or secretaries, had hit upon an identical design. We can judge how seriously such matters were taken by those atop the social pyramid by noting the length and gravity of the controversy—not to mention the amount of paper and parchment its records consumed. In 1385, when the affair erupted, disputes over coats of arms fell within the jurisdiction of the Court of Chivalry, under the command of the constable (Thomas of Woodstock, duke of Gloucester, Richard II’s uncle). The Court had emerged in the middle years of the fourteenth century to serve as a peripatetic and martially oriented tribunal that could adjudicate matters arising from disputes on or near the battlefield, such as coats of arms, prisoners, divisions and distributions of ransoms, and the chain of command. Though its proceedings were under the eye of the constable, a complex and celebrated case of this sort meant collecting depositions at a variety of sites, by a host of officials, over the course of several months. Just as the Proofs were the product and record of a specific legal and administrative procedure, with a special writ designated to launch and define their business, so the Court of Chivalry had its own procedures and course of action.

In the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, a number of celebrated and protracted cases came before the Court, and inquiries into lineages and inheritances, sometimes highlighted by an investigation of a coat of arms, were central to its workings. We are (in 1386) in an age and a social milieu where old men could offer memories running back to the creation of the Order of the Garter in the 1340s, one that continued to regard the formal challenge and the judicial duel as the ultimate tests in chivalric matters. Accordingly, the martial court’s prestige and authority was of considerable import, its findings adjudged to be definitive. In the Scrope and Grosvenor controversy Richard II himself presided over the formal decision, thereby putting his imprimatur on the proceedings and demonstrating the royal privilege of expounding on matters heraldic. Though the decision in this elaborate dispute was in favor of Scrope, as was always likely to have been the case, Richard II showed compassion for Grosvenor. A mere knight, Sir Robert was excused the punitive damages and costs that could befall the loser, and his new coat of arms was allowed to be very similar to the one he had hitherto borne.

As testimony and memory, the depositions taken on behalf of each claimant were formulaic. If the set questions that launched a Proof of Age focused on “how do you know the heir is now of age,” those put to these deponents were not so different. Each man was to address a simple agenda. How do you know the arms under dispute are those of Sir Richard Scrope (or of Sir Robert Grosvenor)? Do you know of any gaps in the Scrope (or Grosvenor) use and display of the arms? Did you know of Grosvenor’s claim to the arms before Scrope’s recent challenge (or vice versa)? Deponents’ testimonies fell back on fairly standard memories—the battlefield, the camp, and the chevauchée, with appropriate variations for the clerical and monastic deponents who came forward. The statements are variations on a common theme, and as such, my intention of melding them into a single narrative of memory and family history does not seem at great variance from nor a distortion of their original purpose.

In contrast to the sources developed by the king’s servants in response to new sociopolitical and administrative needs, letters and letter writing have a long and honorable history. But for our purposes, the critical moment comes at the turn of the fifteenth century, when letters begin to cut a new byway as family-cum-personal communication—a significant departure from an epistolary high road that ran from Cicero through such literary giants as Alcuin, Bernard of Clairvaux, and Peter the Venerable. Modern scholars have traced the course of medieval epistolography as practiced and inculcated by the literary lights and humanists (including some women) of the Church and the schools. We can follow the way in which “how to” advice became incorporated into the ars dictaminis and exemplars whereby masters instructed students and imitators. By the twelfth century, the semipublic or open letter had such a high profile as a literary, moral, and educational endeavor that men like Peter of Blois spent years refining their texts to achieve the form in which their letters were to circulate after their deaths. But this was a very different world from that of the Pastons, whose style of letters and letter writing really only appears among serious historical sources at the end of the fourteenth century. The new medium of private letters took root and quickly flowered, giving us the four sets of family letters—from the Pastons, the Celys, the Plumptons, and the Stonors—that have become part of the historian’s stock-in-trade. All four of these collections have received attention from recent editors, and to fill our cup even further we can now add the Armburgh correspondence, though it is a tad different in substance and style.

Because my interest is in the letters of Margaret Paston, I hope to separate her from the general context of Paston family business, as far as this can be done without losing the thread of her narrative or obscuring the setting within which she wrote. I will not make any effort to seek out the innumerable—and often striking and quote-worthy—parallels and analogues to what she says, or to how she says it, in other Paston letters or the other collections. Indeed, much of what I offer regarding Margaret could be matched by material from the letters of John I, John II, or John III. (We find additional rich pickings if we turn to the Stonors or the Plumptons for parallels and similarities; the Celys and the Armburghs add still more.) My focus on Margaret is not a claim for unique style or singularity of expression, perception, or emotional timbre. It simply recognizes that one focal point is enough, given the vast volume of available material. Margaret, with 104 extant letters to her credit, suffices in both quantitative and qualitative terms.

A major factor separating Margaret from most of the other family letter writers—Paston and non-Paston—is her sex, or, if we prefer, her gender. Not that female letter writers were a novelty. Many a medieval woman who left a powerful record of her ideas and influence is known to us, as to her contemporaries, from her epistolary output. Hildegard of Bingen and Catherine of Siena wrote letters with a zealous and ready hand on how to reform Christendom, how to heal the schism, and how to lead a good life, seeking advice from holy men who were (ostensibly) role models and teachers, and more. These women wrote to the high and mighty as well as to those of lesser station, and they wrote letters that, in number, compare well with those of many of their famous male counterparts.

But such letter writing is a mainstream literary activity and spiritual expression, in marked contrast—in learning, tone, and recipients—to the family letters of fifteenth-century England. And in those family collections women are second-class, at best, in terms of the number of letters written and received, their epistolary representation being perhaps a guide to their overall social and family standing. The letters they did write were generally as lengthy and as well phrased as those of the men, and sometimes it was a woman’s voice that conveyed news of great importance. In quantitative terms, though—insofar as that is a marker by which to judge importance and centrality—only Margaret Paston really stands out. Of 970 Paston letters, 170 were by women, 92 addressed to them. This level of activity (covering 27 percent of the collection) far surpasses the other collections. For the Stonors, women wrote 31 and received 15 letters out of 358 (for 13 percent of the total); for the Plumptons, the respective numbers are 16 and 17 of 504 (or 7 percent), and for the Celys it was but 2 written, 1 received, of 247 (or 1.2 percent).

We need not cover here the intriguing story of the survival, publication, and eventual canonization of the Paston letters, though some of the lessons of the historiographic survey do provide grist for our mills. What we can observe, going from the expansion of the original edition of the 1770s through modern studies, is the way in which the social and familial material in the letters more or less took over from the political—less Wars of the Roses and more husband-wife, mother-sons communication as the material became thoroughly assimilated among the sources for the fifteenth century. This interpretive approach, from John Fenn’s first volumes and almost ever since, was also marked by a serious appreciation of Margaret Paston. Among a rather unlovely crowd, she quickly and easily stepped forward as one of the more attractive and stalwart of the dramatis personae. Subsequent students of the letters have tended to endorse this positive assessment, though just for an evening of good conversation her eldest son (John II) might be our best bet.

No amount of persuasion here is going to convert the one-line memories of jurors, the depositions on behalf of Richard Scrope, or Margaret’s letters into narratives that hold their own against Henry of Huntington and his fellows. But I do hope to show how the gulf between kinds of sources can be narrowed, if not closed, depending on who is doing the synthesizing, and when—then or now, Henry or this author. The three bodies of sources are far from traditional narrative history and differ from one another. But they can be linked, or at least lined up in a row, in keeping with a certain self-explanatory logic; their degree of similarity and compatibility allows me to fold them into a meta-narrative. I deal with them in an order that moves us forward in time, though there are backward loops because of the circular power of recollection. The earliest Proofs we look at go back, in memory’s embrace, to the 1350s, and some Scrope and Grosvenor depositions rest on memories that antedate the accession of Edward III in 1327. At the other end, we conclude with Margaret’s letters of the 1470s.

This current, from older to more recent, also carries us from a trilingual England that used French, Latin, and English to one in which, by the late fifteenth century, the literate laity mostly used English. English had “triumphed” in speech and in most private or family record-keepings. Nor is this linguistic narrowing the only cognitive and communicative transition (or revolution). We will also deal with the tortuous movement from the oral to the written, though here too the transition happened by way of loops and simultaneous reliance on multiple modes of communication rather than by an evolutionary development. The Proofs rest upon and are a record of oral testimony offered in English and transcribed into terse and formulaic Latin, with an occasional touch of English preserved or quoted for its memorable bite. The Scrope and Grosvenor depositions are preserved in French. They catch the essence of oral testimony that was probably in English, for the most part (perhaps with some French), but the written account, at least, was recorded in French, still the proper language of chivalric discourse. And when we come to Margaret Paston’s letters, we find almost nothing other than English. (None of the Latin documents found among the Paston Papers were hers.) We can say that in 1350 England’s trilingual upper-class culture reflected an ambivalence about identity: English essentialism, still at odds with political-administrative and chivalric cosmopolitanism, was expressed in both Latin and French. By the days of the Paston letters, the laity generally wrote and spoke English, regardless of what chancery clerks and scribes were doing.

Furthermore, as we move through the sources we also move in the direction of narrativity in terms of prose and loquacity, even if our journey ends well short of a promised land of full-fledged, freestanding discourse. We approach the three bodies of sources in an order of ascending effusiveness. The memories in the Proofs are virtually a string of one-liners. The depositions run, in published form, to a paragraph or two. Given their common style and rhetoric (whether pro-Scrope or pro-Grosvenor), they were offered with little need for individualized formatting. And when we come to Margaret Paston’s letters we find many of considerable length, with a multifaceted agenda and space for personal and domestic matters. There was room for the apt phrase, or for a complaint about one of the sons (or brother-in-law William), or for a shopping request, or for a sharp comment on the interval since the last letter. If she never gave us all the gossip or news, neither was she wholly confined by a pre-scripted agenda or questionnaire. All of our records are those of recollection (and retelling), though the business covered might range from a Paston letter about yesterday’s events to an old soldier’s reminiscences about seeing Edward II in arms.

Finally, we must look at the idea of community and the nature of memory as we consider how the historian converts records of memory and pragmatic discourse into a reconstruction of the society that gave them birth. Community, as a term or concept, has recently come under scholarly fire. Some critics doubt the value or accuracy of using “community” as the centerpiece of sociopolitical analysis. Into this debate I have little wish to enter; it largely centers on county and gentry studies and is often expressed in a language and with a zeal beyond my scope and comprehension. Scholars debate whether the county—the community of the shire—offers a realistic, accurate, or useful way of approaching political configurations, the networks of gentry and aristocracy, parliamentary selection, bastard feudalism, the ebb and flow of clientage and cooperation, family ties and marital patterns, and so forth.

Given its terse and formulaic nature, the testimony found in each body of sources discussed below makes sense precisely because it can be heard, and read, as a representative voice of the community whence the speaker comes and about which she or he proceeds to speak, with little need to elaborate on the recollections. My concern is not with the political community, whether imposed by the boundaries and dictates of royal government or created and nourished from below by an organic social and economic affinity of those working around common goals and with common means. It is rather an exploration of the shared world—and shared modes of recalling and talking about that world—represented by men and women who could communicate so fluently and so briefly because of their common socialization and long-term familiarity with the public culture, if not with each other in a face-to-face relationship. (Such social bonding or networking also operated in the political community, but that is only a minor concern in these discussions. )

Social bonding is found and expressed in multitudinous ways. It can exist, potentially, between those who have not hitherto met, provided they share sufficient commonality of background and experience, outlook, and expression. Bonding among those in frequent contact does exist in practice and can be quantified. Nor do we doubt its power among those who may now be in infrequent but empathetic contact as time and distance move them beyond the reach of daily intercourse; such ties may be in shared memory as well as (or rather than) in clasped hands. A Proof only came into existence, so to speak, when and because twelve men acted harmoniously as socio-legal midwives, cooperating through collective discourse to deliver a babe born of consensual memory. The Scrope and Grosvenor depositions reflect community at a distance, one now re-created by the recitation of memories of long-ago shared activity and values. Margaret Paston’s letters were neither from, nor to, nor about strangers. Rather, as we have suggested, each letter is a bead on a necklace of sustained in-group interaction; it carries meaning within the context of continued communication and familiarity.

In this soft but ubiquitous sense, community is presented as the composite of those with sufficient links of culture, regional identity, and interaction. It is a strong thread, yoking memories and communications that constitute the written record of past life, a life whose very records are but the talk-into-writing aspect of old speech and current recollection. Community towers over our sources and enables us to interpret the social and personal context of what was said and why it was expressed in a form that ultimately found safe haven in the fixed annals of written record. The details and case studies of interaction at a distance, as well as of interaction in concert, are explored below. But commonality of culture and cognition bridged a gap between humble jurors and the king’s escheator. Social and experiential esprit de corps opened their mouths and assured our jurors that their homey and prosaic memories were indeed just what the royal official wanted to hear. We may think of the Proofs as dubious and minor records, and they are if we stack them up against the statutes of the realm or the proceedings of the privy council. But it was a very different matter for those asserting legal majority and those testifying in the proceeding.

In comparable fashion, a summons to depose before the Court of Chivalry regarding a contested coat of arms served to re-create an old community in arms—in both its heraldic and its martial sense. Old soldiers were only too eager to talk of the days when they had been young soldiers. Though they were now scattered across the kingdom, necessitating hearings in many venues, this community—the veterans of foreign wars—was reconstituted through speech acts.

Memory, recollection, and the process whereby such speech acts become written records constitute the last general topics to touch. Memory and cognition—in all their many manifestations—are now, rightly, of considerable interest to historians. The Proofs and the depositions are the written end products of oral testimony. As such, they rest on “knowledge” that was drawn from memory, and if we accept my argument for the primacy of community, then these recollections in the aggregate qualify as social or collective memories. They are individualized variations on the common narrative: how the village knew and remembered the birth of the heir, or how old soldiers knew about Scrope’s coat of arms. In her letters it was also how Margaret Paston learned what she was now passing along to John Paston.

Compared to the complex mental process that created and drew upon memory as explicated in serious intellectual pursuits—in the building of memory palaces, in debates about whether recollection was inherent to humanity, and the expositions of Augustine or Thomas Aquinas about how the mind worked—the kinds and styles of memories we deal with here are fairly lowbrow. This is true for those who remembered and for us as we analyze their recollections. And yet these seemingly superficial recollections of things done, seen, and heard, rather than reflections on how ideas were implanted and linked, are the stuff of daily discourse if not of deep cerebration. The bald circularity of memory offered in the Proofs—“I know it was twenty-one years ago because that was the year in which I was married and that was twenty-one years ago,” and hundreds of comparable accounts—are the pragmatic memories of daily life, expressed in a familiar idiom and meant for closure rather than for further reflection. If the memories of jurors and deponents (and of various Pastons and their informants) were not wholly shared, we can assume a good deal of overlap in recall and expression. We have husbands and wives, brothers, fellows in trade, companions in village life, men in a common enterprise, men linked by marriage, those gathered in a church on a given Sunday, and so forth. Pastons of the same household and facing the common foe, or soldiers who had stood beside the Black Prince in a massed rank, had comparable bonding—first at the time of the shared experience and then in their overlapping memories of the experience. They likely relished the opportunity to dredge up the memories and thereby freshen (and no doubt embellish) them.

We know that being told to focus on a specific point in past time, being asked “where were you on this day twenty-one years ago,” resurrects and clarifies much that may have seemed lost and forgotten. Memory is recaptured and sharpened by concentration and repetition, and it is likewise affected by the very act of retrieval. We say something akin to what we have heard others say, and there is a momentum toward convergence when the memories are expressed through a form of public performance, the questions and their answers being much the same for all. Moreover, in the setting of administrative and legal routines, public recollection and public recitation become a form of drama, enacted from a partially determined script and choreographed to emphasize the harmony of the words and actions of the cast. As readers of the records, we are fortunate to be situated so that we can watch this process unfold as hundreds of men and one woman tell their stories.

How much does our interest in recovering and analyzing memory and testimony alter the essence of the recollections? Certainly, the need to compress memory into channels of scribal usage—whether in a Proof or a deposition or a letter—did militate in favor of a common way of telling the why, the how, and perhaps even the what of what one remembered. We are sensitive to the role played by selective memory in the shaping of our written sources. We are social animals, as The Philosopher reminds us, and speech and recollection are both inescapable and desirable elements in the structure and function, the meaning and operation, of social relations. Let us now turn to the threads that memory spun on the great social and cognitive wheel of recollection and recitation.

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