By Danièle Cybulskie
As we celebrate the day dedicated to love letters, it seems appropriate to share a Valentine’s Day story from one of the most famous letter-writing families of the Middle Ages: the Pastons.
Letters written by all sorts of different members of the Paston family managed to survive the Middle Ages against all odds, and they are a treasure trove of information for historians and romantics alike. This Valentine’s story is found in the hopeful correspondence of Elizabeth and Margery Brews to John Paston (III) in Letters of Medieval Women by Anne Crawford.
In early 1477, John Paston was in his thirties, and actively in the market for a wife. Luckily for him, he was introduced via mutual acquaintances to Margery Brews, and the pair were immediately smitten with each other. Because the course of true love never did run smooth (even before Shakespeare), Margery’s father, Thomas Brews, and John’s older brother (John Paston II) were initially opposed to the match: Thomas because Margery could do better financially, and John Paston II because his little brother neglected to ask him about her first (you can read more on their perspectives in Private Life in the Fifteenth Century by Roger Virgoe). Enter Margery’s loving mother, Elizabeth, who could see the stars in her daughter’s eyes, and the financial potential of the object of Margery’s affection.
Although their initial talks hadn’t yet won her husband over, Elizabeth reassures John in a letter in early February of 1477, “It is but a simple oak / That is cut down at the first stroke”, and says of Margery, “you have made her such an advocate for you, that I might never have rest night or day, for calling and crying upon to bring the [marriage] to effect.” In order to overcome Thomas’ objections to the marriage, and perhaps to regain some rest, Elizabeth decides to bring the full effect of the season to bear on the negotiations:
Friday is St. Valentine’s Day, and every bird chooseth him a mate; and if it like you to come on Thursday at night and so purvey you that you may abide there til Monday, I trust to God that you shall so speak to my husband; and I shall pray that we shall bring the matter to a conclusion.
It is a canny woman indeed who finesses a marriage negotiation for her daughter on a Valentine’s Day long weekend. If he had any serious plans to keep the marriage from happening, Thomas was in a losing battle from the get-go.
By the end of that fateful weekend, a love-struck Margery was writing gooey letters to John, calling him “my right-beloved Valentine” and composing (slightly-forced) poetry, as lovers do:
And if you command me to keep me true wherever I go
I wise I will do all my might you to love and never no more
Though John hadn’t yet been successful in his negotiations, Margery is sure that he won’t give up, so strong is their love. “If that you love me, as I trust verily that you do,” she writes with all the passion of blooming romance, “you will not leave me therefore; for if that you had not half the livelihood that you have, for to do the greatest labour that any woman alive might, I would not forsake you”. She ends the letter, “I beseech you that this bill be not seen of none earthly creature save only yourself.” Evidently, that was not to be the case, given that thousands of people – including us – are reading her words almost 540 years later (a fact which may make the rest of us want to burn our mushy love notes immediately).
In Margery’s next letter to her “good, true and loving Valentine,” she states plainly that her father is firm in his demand that her dowry be “£100 and 1 mark, which is right far from the accomplishment of [John’s] desire.” If he can live with that sum, however, she promises: “I may be your true lover and bedewoman during my life.” Whether or not John managed to draw more wealth from Thomas or not, the Valentine’s Day negotiations did come to a successful conclusion, and Margery and John were married just a few months later.
It seems that Margery and John Paston’s marriage was worth the trouble of a skillfully-wrought negotiation, judging by the post script on a letter she wrote to him while he was away on a business trip in December, 1477. In it, Margery writes with satisfied humour,
I pray that you will wear the ring with the image of St. Margaret that I sent you for a remembrance, till you come home; you have left me such a remembrance, that maketh me think upon you both day and night when I would sleep.
What was the remembrance that Margery got from John, and the reason for a ring of St. Margaret? Not even one year since their first fateful Valentine’s Day, newlywed Margery was carrying their future son, Christopher.
For more mushy letters as well as the serious and the soulful, check out Anne Crawford’s Letters of Medieval Women. For a more complete view of the Pastons and their time, have a look at Roger Virgoe’s Private Life in the Fifteenth Century: Illustrated Letters of the Paston Family. And for a smile and a warm fuzzy feeling, don’t forget to dig out your own mushy love letters from time to time.
You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist
Top Image: A Courtly Couple by Hans Holbein the Younger, c. 1532-6