THE PASTON LETTERS.*
Mn. GAIRDNEN has now conducted us to the end of the Poston Letters. Of his qualificatiOns for the task of unravelling the tangled web of English history during the fifteenth century it would be an impertinence for any but a specialist to speak, but we may, perhaps, be allowed to bear our testimony to the unfailing acuteness and laborious ingenuity with which he has seized the most trifling in- dications that could fix a date or explain an allusion, and to the skill with which, in the introduction to each volume, he has rendered the general history of the time and the private fortunes of the old Norfolk family mutually illustrative. From the historian's point of view, Mr. Gairdner's is an edition definitive. But students of English literature and its development, and of English dialects and philology generally, will regret the absence of an adequate glossary and of all etymological apparatus. The correspondence begins shortly after the death of Chaucer and of Gower, it covers a period during which English letters have no name of the first rank, and but few names of any rank at all, except Occleve, Lydgate, Pecock, and Mallory, and it extends a generation beyond the time when the language was stereo- typed by Caxton and his art. These letters, too, are especially valuable, because they are in no sense literary compositions, but merely the common-place records of every-day events, by persons living mostly at a distance from the capital, and members of the middle-class. They contain a number of words which are familiar, perhaps, to the professed antiquarian, but which are only intelli- gible to the ordinary reader after long and wearisome consultation of dictionaries. We cannot help wishing that Mr. Gairdner had deprived us of the power of finding a single fault with his excellent edition by adding a chapter on the dialectal and orthographical peculiarities, and on the literary and philological aspects of the letters, and a comprehensive glossary. The Poston Letters, it cannot be too often repeated, are of almost equal importance for students who are engaged in tracing the progress of our language from Chaucer to Shakespeare and our Authorised Version,-and for those who wish to realise how England came to be the play- thing of the factions of the White Rose and the Red, and how, after many troubles, a nobler and more enduring political fabric rose upon the ruins of the old.
The volume before us opens with the battle of Barnet, in which the Last of the Barons fell, and Edward IV. regained the throne which he had lost by his own vices. John Paston was slightly hurt with an arrow, but he seems to have suffered more from the exactions of the surgeon than from his wound. It is an indication, perhaps, of the decline of the nobility and of the rise of the middle-class in their stead, that we find the town-house of the King-maker here- after occupied by William Paston, and Agnes, his mother, and the grandmother of the generation of Pastons with whom the con- cluding letters are concerned. Shortly after Barnet and Tewkesbury, John Paston, always a warm Lancastrian, obtained his pardon from the Yorkist King, faring better than Thomas Fauconbridge, whose "hod was yesterdaye sett uppon London Brydge, lokyng into Bent warde." The family was received into a considerable degree of favour, but was by no means secure against the lawlessness and oppression of the great nobles, such as the Dukes of Norfolk and Suffolk, till Bosworth Field had finally settled the long qu.arrel. After that event, John Futon continued to increase in influence at Court and in his native county, and was concerned more or less immediately in all the chief events, foreign and domestic, of the reign of Henry VII. One of the last documents of the series is a letter from that Sovereign "to our trusty and well-beloved Knight," announcing that,—
" Our &treat cousins, the Kings and Qneene of Spaine, have signified * The Poston Letters. A New Edition, containing upwards of Four Hundred Letters, ac., hitherto unpubliehed. Edited by JaUtes Gairdner. VoL UI. London : Bowes.
unto us by their sundry letters that the right excellent Princesse, the Lady Katherine, ther daughter, shal be transported from the parties of Spates aforesaid to this our Realms, about the moneth of Maya next comeinge, for the solempnization [sic] of matrimony betweene our deerast Bonne the Prince and the said Princesse,"
and ordering him to take official part in the public reception of the ill-starred bride. So that with the end of the Fasten Letters we have reached the very threshold of the modern period.
In studying a mass of the raw material of history, it is instruc- tive to note what we miss, as well as what we find. We have been on the watch while reading this volume for any indications of that momentous revolution in religious affairs which was so speedily to follow. But we have found little trace of any weakness or of any general corruption in the Church, though a certain friar is accused of robbing Master Martyn, the priest, at Horningtoft, in Norfolk ; and once, Sir John Paston, who for. long years laboured to have his pre-contract with Anne Haulte annulled, complains that though in Rome "there is the well of grace and salve suffi- ciaunt for Bache a soore," yet his proctor demanded one thousand ducats for a dispensation from the Pope. On the other hand, there is every symptom that the Church, both in point of doctrine and of discipline, is firmly rooted in the affections of the people. The same Sir John just mentioned, being desirous of possessing the books (worth 20s. 6d.) of the late Sir James Gloys, his mother's chaplain, writes :—" Item, as for the bookes that weer Sir James, if it lyke yowe that I maye have them, I ame not able to by them ; but somwhat wolde I gyffe, and the remenaunt with a goods devowte Aerie, by my trowthe, I wyll prey for hys sowle." King and Queen, and all orders of men, go on pilgrimage, apparently with as " ful devout corage " as the im- mortal company that met at the Tabard, to Canterbury, Watling- ham, Bromholm, Compostella, and a multitude of lesser shrines. The phraseology of the Church is in use on all occasions. Events are dated by one of her many festivals ; a dead man is seldom named without the pious ejaculation, "whom God assoyle;" letters generally conclude with the prayer, "the Holy Trinity have you in His keeping;" and every will contains a long series of bequests for the repair of churches, for gifts of church furniture, for masses for the repose of the soul of the testator and his friends, and of all Christian souls. Such bishops as Reginald Pecock and William of Waynflete would do honour to any Church. There is just a dash of the Puritan spirit in the remark of Mar-. garet Paston, that she "will love [her son Walter] better to be a good secular man than a lewd priest" Yet when the last of these letters was written, the Reformation was less than a generation distant. Certainly the glimpse we here get of the strength, not only of the main fortress, but to all appearances, of every out- work and approach, gives the reader a heightened idea of the gigantic strength of will of the Sovereign who dared to storm that seemingly impregnable stronghold.
Not to mention works of imagination, this period has been illustrated by the genius of Bacon and Sir Thomas More, besides a host of minor talents. But the Paston Leiters are more valuable than all these put together. They give us a vivid picture— all the more precious because unconsciously painted—of the extreme complexity of English law, and of the feebleness of the executive ; of the semi-divinity that hedged a noble, fallen though the nobles were from their ancient pride ; of the uncertainty of human life, while sanitary principles were outraged as of set pur- pose; and of the social life of that period of transition, with its strange mixture of squalour and of splendour almost beyond im- agination—the masses of gold and silver plate in the hall, and the lamentable scarcity of ready-money in the purse. We note, too, how completely England has changed front, so to speak, since the fifteenth century. Then the East was the manufacturing and commercial centre, toward which all gravitated. In 148g, William Paston wrote that,—
"My lorde bath sante on to the most parte of the gentyl men of Essex to wayte upon hym at Chelmnysford, where as he entendythe to mete with the Synge, and that they be well apoynted, that the Lankeschere men may see that there be gentyl men of as grete sobe- staunce that thei be able to bye all Lankeschere."
The following extract from letter of John Paston to his brother - in 1472 speaks volumes as to the state of constitutional law and practice at the time :—
" If ye mysse to be burgeys of Malden, and my Lord Chamberleyn wyll, ye may be in a nether plase; ther be a doseyn townys in Inglond that chesse no bergeys, whyche ought to do, and ye may be set in for one of those townys, and ye be frendyd."
But the reader will find all questions of home and foreign politics exhaustively treated in Mr. Gairdner's introduction. In domestic incident these last letters are rich. There is a dramatic completeness in the principal figures, which form a group such as the sixteenth and early seventeenth-century painters loved to transfer to canvas. We distinctly realise Margaret Paston, the mother, somewhat grave and stern and stately, but courteous and just, and true-hearted and generous withal, skilled in the details. of. affairs, and eager, at all costs, " diaworship " only excepted, to leave to her descendants as many a broad acre as she can. She is continually scheming for the welfare of her children, while complaining of the little comfort she has with them ; with her daughters, after the manner of fifteenth-century mothers, she especially strict an.d unbending. Was she like in face, we wonder, to that portrait of "An Old Lady," by Rembrandt, in our National Gallery ? Of her sons, Sir John the elder is a frank and fearless soldier, with some sense of humour, by no means exemplary in
private life,—a sad ne'er-do-well, always out-at-elbows, and in want of an angel in ready-money, muddling away his father's. estate, and goading his mother to threaten to disinherit him by
his thriftlessness and extravagance. It is amusing to read Margaret's grave rebuke on his omitting to ask her blessing is due form at the beginning of a letter. The second son, likewise called John, has no very marked characteristics, either good or evil, except his love of hawking, and his fondness for inducing his elder brother to enter ardently into hopeless matrimonial negotiations on his behalf. Then there are younger sons, Walter at Oxford, and William at Eton, where he "lakes no thynge but wersyfyynge," which, to judge from the specimen of versification sent home to his brother, he was likely to "lake" to all eternity. He had, however, faith- fully followed the traditions of his family by falling in love with a " yong jentylwoman " while still a school-boy. But our prime favourite is Margery Brews, afterwards the wife of John Pastore the younger, whose previouesuits—and they were legion—had been so uniformly unsuccessful. Margery is a merry-hearted English girl, a little free in her expressions, according to our nine- teenth-century standards, who dares to be in love before her parents have arranged preliminaries, and who after her marriage can scarcely write on badness to her husband without letting her affection for him and her keen sense of the ludicrous break through the conventional formalism which is the note of the letter-writing of the day. We must find room for one extract, from a letter written during the courtship to her "right worshipful and well- beloved Valentine," in which, beneath the clumsy expression and queer orthography, there is a maidenly grace and a depth of feel- ing that appeal to us through four centuries :—
" Wherfore, yf that ye cowde be content with that good, and my per persona, I wold he the meryest mayden on grounds; and yf ye thynke- not yowr selffe so satysfyed, or that ye myght hale mach mor good, as I hafe undyrstonde be yowe afor ; good, trewe, and lovyng volentyne, that ye take no such labor uppon yowe, as to come more for that mater, but let it passe, and never more to be spokyn of, as' may be yowr trewe lover and bedewomau duryng my lyfe."
We should owe Mr. Gairdner a debt of gratitude, were it only for- the introduction to Margery Brews.