Letter Collections in the Middle Ages


Letter of King James VI of Scotland - 1579

Letter Collections in the Middle Ages

By Giles Constable

Paper given at Religious Tolerance – Religious Violence – Medieval Memories: A colloquium in memory of James Powell, held at the University of Syracuse, on September 28, 2012

Giles Constable explains that “letters are among the most important sources of medieval history, but also among the most problematic.” His paper provides an overview of medieval letter collections, which includes works by Bernard of Clairvaux, Hildegard of Bingen and several popes. Constable estimates that 99% of all surviving medieval letters have been preserved in collections, and that they come in a wide range of forms – some were literary notes, others didactic, some were written in the names of other people, some were fictional letters or outright forgeries (ie letter writers in the Middle Ages included Heaven, Jesus Christ, and the Devil); all were to some extent public.

Constable notes that historians need to ask how and why these letters were preserved and collected? One important aspect is who is the author of the collection – in some cases it was the original writer who made the collection, or it could be an assistant or secretary. Collecting these letters could be a difficult task – if the writer did not make a second copy for themselves, they would need to later ask the recipient to return the letter (there are several examples of this occurring).

Another question to ask would be how were these letter collections organized? In some cases they were arranged chronologically, but with Hildegard of Bingen the letters were arranged by the political and social importance of the other party. Others could be arranged by subject matter. Another important issue is whether or not these works were the original letters and how complete these collections were. Constable notes that some letters were revised and improved. Most revisions were quiet small, but others could be larger, such as Bernard of Clairvaux’s letter to Hildegard which was significantly enlarged after his death.

He also notes that variety was an important aspect of many of these collections – in an introduction to one collection states it was made in part so that “the bored could be refreshed.” Another manuscript that was made in England around the year 1300 has over 1700 letter, which differ widely in subject matter – many letters were on mundane matters, and that it also included instructions on how to write letters. Constable believes it is hard to judge why some letters were included while others were not, and that we can never be sure that a collection was complete.




Constable offers three pieces of advice for historians when they are working on letter collections:

1. Break down the distinction between the types of collections – these letters were both business and personal

2. Avoid categorizing a letter based on the collection it was found , as we will never be sure who wrote it or if it is authentic

3. Each collection should be seen as both a whole and for its constinuent parts

Lastly, Constable notes that while some letters are mundane mundane (one surviving letter deals with repairing the roof on a farm house); that it was quite a big deal to write a letter in the Middle Ages, so they all had a purpose.