Medieval Writing
Paleography Exercises
List of English Books, 1475-79 (British Library, add. ms. 43491, f.26), by permission of the British Library.

This document is part of the famous collection of Paston letters, but it is not itself a letter, but a list of English books belonging to John Paston II. It has been suggested that it may have been drawn up after his death, but Davis, who has produced the definitive edition of the letters (Davis 1971) and studied the handwriting of the various family members, assures us that it is written in the hand of John II himself. This dates the document from between 1475 and 1479. One item on the list refers to Caxton's printed book on chess, published in 1475, and John II died in 1479. There are references to the value of certain books, but there are no amounts filled in. Perhaps John II was feeling a little mortal and making some preparations for his funerary inventory. These were lists of all the movable property of an individual, with a valuation on each item, prepared at their death and presented along with the will to ensure that all the provisions therein were properly carried out. It is in English, with odd words in French and Latin, but the English spelling has the usual eccentricities of the age. The list is on a long narrow sheet of paper which has been damaged by damp along one side, so that a small amount of the text on the right hand side is missing. The photograph that I have is chopped off before the bottom of the text, but I will include the missing bit in the transcript as part of the interesting story. The script is an ordinary informal kind of cursive; the personal handwriting of an educated member of the gentry.

The Paston letters are well known to any student of English late medieval history, but for those who have wandered in here from other interests, here is a tiny bit of background. The Pastons were a gentry family in East Anglia, whose main claim to historical fame is that they never threw away their correspondence. Their large collections of letters dating from the 15th century has been studied and mined for all those matters that were not dealt with by the courts or by chroniclers. They are a major source of social history. Times were interesting then; lots of bloodshed and sackings of castles; great social mobility with country gentry climbing the tree through commerce, but also crashing down through ill judged business affairs or political liasons. Relations between family members were robust and forthwright, and would have driven a modern family counseller to drink. The letters refer to family relations, education, business affairs and local affrays. This fragment shows that they could read, but Davis claims that only the men could write.

The list is interesting not only as a paleographical exercise, but as a peep into what kinds of books a social climbing member of the rural gentry with artistic tastes might have in his bookshelf, both to read and to impress his peers with. And did he only have English books, or was there another list of those more rarefied scholarly tomes in Latin which somehow got sent to the laundry in the pocket of his best robe or was used to light the study fire?

The transcription has been produced from that provided by Davis (1971), as this is the most complete and literally rendered version of the collection. There are many other editions of selections of the letters and commentary about them. I have also consulted Barber, R. (ed.) 1981 The Pastons Harmondsworth: Penguin and Jones, M.D. (ed.) 1922 The Paston Letters Cambridge University Press (foraged from The Internet Archive) as these have more interpreted versions of the book list with modern spelling, which allowed me to work out who Kyng Ric Cur delyon was. (Yes, it's bleedin' obvious. Say it aloud with your eyes closed!)

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