426 pages, Harper Perennial, ISBN-13: 978-0007162222
This book tells the story of the Paston family of England from the aftermath of the arrival of Black Plague in England in 1348 to about 1503. These dark times saw the erosion and eventual complete collapse of royal authority in England and the loss of English power in France in a succession of multiple rebellions, usurpations of the throne, kings and royal heirs murdered and killed in battle, a mad king, many nobles executed for supposed “treason”, considerable social unrest, dislocation and lawless anarchy (most of it due to the Wars of the Roses).
The Paston family was then of no national importance and never achieved lasting national prominence. They first emerged from the peasantry into “gentle” status (i.e. members of the local well-to-do landowners in East Anglia) in the lifetime of William Paston (1379-1444), son of a peasant farmer, successful lawyer, royal judge and skilled social networker who made the family fortune. The astute William was the ablest of the family and was the source of all its eventual prosperity, including the achievement in 1673 of the earldom of Yarmouth. Unfortunately the second Earl died virtually bankrupt and without heirs in 1732, extinguishing William Paston’s direct line. The second Earl’s executors, however, discovered an enormous trove of letters and documents dating from the end of the reign of Henry V through the reign of the first Tudor, Henry VII (about 1422 to 1509). The Paston Letters are unique among medieval English documents. They are incomparably more voluminous, extensive and personal than any other similar documents from the time.
The Letters were mainly written to serve the family’s unceasing efforts to protect and increase their new social standing and wealth, but they also give a rich picture of life in such violent times and great insight into the personal lives of Paston family members and associates. Nothing else comes close to revealing so much of the actuality of lives of the time as perceived by those who lived them. The Letters immortalized the Pastons and are invaluable to history, and Castor’s narrative is, of course, primarily based on the Letters, which she uses with great skill to construct a coherent story of more than three generations of Pastons, along with an epilogue on the family’s ultimate fate and a concise essay on the discovery and scholarship of the Letters. Castor is a gifted writer who makes her protagonists, both men and women, live for the reader.
The book does not directly concern the high politics of the day except as those politics affected the Pastons’ search for political patrons who might help them protect their property and social status. The great interest of the book to us is the intimate glimpse it gives of life in a provincial gentry family seeking to protect itself in perilous times. The great accomplishment of Ms. Castor is the ability with which she makes these people and their beliefs speak to us so that we share their vanished world. As always the past is a foreign country where things are done differently indeed; but, thanks to Ms. Castor's skill, today's reader has an able and eloquent guide to those foreign parts. An outstanding book.