By James Westfall Thompson
The Rice Institute Pamphlet, Volume 17, Number 2 (1930)
Introduction: History sometimes has scattered poppy without merit. We know little of many who were once great in the earth, and still less of the life of the people in their times. The life of the past must be visualized by piecing together detached and scattered fragments from many sources. The result is a composite picture, not a portrait. It is only now and then that the student of history is able to penetrate behind the veil of obscurity and get glimpses of intimate personal life and learn to know the men and women of the past with some degree of acquaintance.
A rare opportunity to know English provincial life in the fifteenth century is afforded in that wonderful collection known as “The Paston Letters.” This familiar correspondence of a Norfolk family, whose position was that of small gentry, covers three generations in some of the most stirring years of English history. It was the age when England’s empire in France was wrested from her by Joan of Arc; the age when the white rose of York and the red rose of Lancaster were dyed a common color on the battlefields of Barnet, Towton, Wakefield Heath, and Bosworth Field. It was the century of Warwick the kingmaker, and Henry Tudor; of Sir Thomas More’s birth and of Caxton’s “Game of Chess.”
The intense human interest of these letters has commanded the admiration of readers ever since John Fenn edited them, or those then known, in 1787. More than a hundred additional letters have since been discovered and the story of the errant ways of the flying leaves of this famous correspondence is a little Odyssey in itself. In a letter to his friend Vigfhsson, in 1883, the late Professor York Powell of Oxford wrote :
“I have just read through the Paston letters. They are interesting like a novel. Old Madam Paston, the managing mother ; the scape-grace eldest son ; the practical younger son, who after many trials at last gets a rich wife (good honest girl, who is full of fun and writes him the most amusing letters) and ultimately comes into the property. A grasping uncle, who is always trying to cheat the two young fellows, who outwit him in the end. The father and grandmother, too, great characters in their day, shrewd, wordly, but honestly sticking to their work, and above all determined to die richer than they were born.”