Aug 7, 2015

Medieval Letters episode 2

More fascinating medieval letters, from Medieval Codes researcher Megan Dase:

Letter #3

 “Prithee tell him, so much the rent of his land
comes to. He will not believe a fool.”- King Lear 1. 4. 660.

12th-century England

“Miles earl of Hereford to all his friends, French and English, of England and of Wales, greeting. You are to know that this Folebarba is my jester and my man. So I entreat all my friends that they look after him, lest harm happen to him. And if anyone does him good for love of me, I will know how to thank him.”

A 15th-century jester. Image: (c) The Broadside Parishes.
What we have here is a certificate that Folebarba (Funnybeard) the jester might have carried on his person when he was parted from his master. It is also imaginable that the earl of Hereford wanted to ensure Folebarba’s comfort and safety at their mutual place of destination where the jester was simply arriving before the earl. Whatever the context, this delightful note reveals how a slip of parchment could act as a device authenticating or vouching for the good character of its bearer.

In fact, it was common for vagrants and travelers to tote around “testimonies of trustworthiness” in the case their integrity came under scrutiny. In 1248, five men visiting Essex and acquitted of horse theft in the local courts were forbidden to return to the county unless they brought back with them “their testimonial of trustworthiness (warrantum suum de fidelitate).” In 1261, an apprehended horse thief, Robert de Parys of Battle, was released by the authorities on the condition he would fetch a testimonial of trustworthiness to present before the courts … but Robert never returned. Apparently he wasn’t very trustworthy.

It is possible that the earl of Hereford’s genteel friends had reason to distrust a jester lacking such a certificate. Given the way jesters were generally recruited, the court goofball could come from a variety of social backgrounds and therefore be eyed with suspicion. In her book on the history of the jester, Beatrice K. Otto explains that “an erudite but nonconformist university dropout, a monk thrown out of a priory for nun frolics, a jongleur with exceptional verbal or physical dexterity, or the apprentice of a village blacksmith whose fooling amused a passing nobleman” could emerge from their humble beginnings and become witty companions to the rich. Perhaps the earl of Hereford feared that his companions would mistreat a jester separated from the protection of his master, on the grounds of his low birth. M. T. Clanchy notes also that jesters were wont to make enemies when their jokes caused offense or ribaldry got out of hand. The earl’s concern for the welfare of Folebarba is touching nonetheless, and this document shows that medieval people considered pieces of parchment a legitimate means of certifying that persons under question or suspicion were indeed trustworthy.

Letter #4
Practice Makes Perfect

15th-16th century England 

Transcription of the original Middle English from Trinity College Cambridge MS R. 4. 20, fols. 87v-88r.

“Alas swet hart I am youre pore servant wherefore I beseche yow yf that yt pleasith yow to gyve awdyens unto my words of a thynge which I shall tell you alas swete hart knowe the bewty of yor person and the pleasant fygure formyde and composyd above natures operacyon: hath ravyshyde my sprytes and enbrasyd my hert in such wise that nyght and day I thinke on none other thing save onlye on yor love and that wors is I lose rest meat and drinke maners and [countenance] what I think upon yor grey eyen and resplendishing visage so I require of god that he will gyve me you volent and corage for to receve me for yor trew lover for if so be ye refuse me for yor trew lover ther is nothyng so nere me as to envoke the deth alas alas swete hart yow that are amiable & cortays be not cause to dymynyshe my lyfe but gyve me holy yor love by such a covenant that I shall in love ye more then ever it was.”

Cambridge, Trinity College MS R.4.20, fols. 87v-88r. Image: Trinity College, Cambridge.

This letter serves as a good example of how imperative material context can be when examining a piece of historical writing. By looking solely at the transcription I have provided above, you might reasonably assume this is a late-medieval love letter written in Middle English. Perhaps you are even swooning and wishing your own beau would write you something so full of passion! Perhaps you are hoping (like myself) that the word “resplendishing” will be re-introduced into the modern English vocabulary. It is certainly a provocative and entertaining fragment of writing.

First impressions quickly fade away, however, when we look at the location of the letter in this codex and what is going on in the margins. The love letter is found in Cambridge, Trinity College MS R. 4. 20, which begins with The Travels of Sir John Mandeville (fols. 1r-87r), contains one of the extant versions of John Lydgate’s poem, The Siege of Thebes (fols. 89r-169r), includes fragments of several hymns (fols. 169v-172r), and a few lines of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde (fol. 171v). The letter is located in the middle of the book, on two of three blank pages that separate Mandeville’s and Lydgate’s works. Miscellanies such as this one are particular to late medieval England, the Auchinleck manuscript being perhaps the most well-known example of them. Containing a variety of both religious and secular material, they acted as a kind of miniature library for the middle-class household which might have only otherwise been able to afford a book of medicinal recipes. Books and parchment were expensive items due to cost of production and this may explain why the scribe, who might be an owner, John Hyde (as he pens himself at the top of the first page), chose to make use of the blank space in the middle of his book.

Cambridge, Trinity College MS R.4.20, fol. 87v (detail). “This is John Hydes is boke.”

All the evidence quite literally “about” this letter seems to suggest that John Hyde (?) was conducting a writing exercise or perhaps practicing his letter before setting it down in ink on the expensive piece of vellum he intended to send to his lover. The margins of the letter are riddled with pen-trial marks and even a few alphabets written lengthwise down the page.

Cambridge, Trinity College MS R.4.20, fol. 87v (detail). Marginal alphabet.

The main script is perhaps best described as a variation of lettre bâtarde which the copyist has written with obviously deliberate neatness. He begins with large, clean letters, switches at the top of the second page to smaller letter forms, and then changes back again to the larger hand, a sign perhaps that he wanted to test the look of different letter sizes. Although my transcription above ends quite naturally, the way a real letter might conclude, the writer’s practice exercises continue as he appears to start his letter over twice with the same “Alas swet hart I am your poor servant” with which he began. He ends abruptly (and quite messily) with “wherefore I beseche yowe.”

This “practice” love-letter, randomly scribbled onto a few blank pages amid some popular late-medieval poetry, is almost more fun to think about and explore than if it were a genuine letter. It is possible that this letter is merely an example of a writing exercise that someone was using to improve his rhetorical skills through the famed epistolary medium. Personally I prefer the theory that involves a certain John Hyde smuggling the family book into his room to polish up his love-note on a rough draft before sending a final copy off to his “swet hart.”

Letter #5
#studentlife #thestruggleisreal

12th-century England 

University lecture, from a 14th-century MS. Miniature by Laurentius de Voltolina.
Image: (cc) Jörg P. Anders, Kupferstichkabinett der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin.
“To his father, his son sends greetings. Upon your scholar, O Pious Paternity, [may you cause] your affection to flow always—and abundantly. The course of nature is seriously distorted, and the laws of equity seem violated, in a father who does less than he might for his son. And, for God’s sake! (saneque) what sort of goodness is there in a man who is oblivious of his own offspring? Lions and tigers defend their young until they can thrive by their own natural fierceness, and are seen to teach their skills by demonstration while providing the necessities for life for them. More savage (ferocior), therefore, than savage beasts is he who fails to come to the aid of his own son, especially one whose intention is to live honestly and, by living honestly, to be acceptable both to God and to his parents. I have received Your Paternity’s letter by which you showed, so far as words go, that you hold us in tender paternal affection but, so that your affection is not expressed only in a literary form, some practical performance in the sending of necessities should generally follow it up, [lest] otherwise I regard ([or] consider) your paternity’s assistance as valueless. Farewell.”

Some things never change. Judging by the number of extant letters that involve a son writing to his father and/or mother for more money, university students seem to be able trace their stereotypical poverty right back to the medieval period. As a father in an Italian formulary letter sighed, ‘‘a student’s first song is a demand for money, and there will never be a letter which does not ask for cash.’’ It appears that the author of this letter wrote to his father hoping he would refill his son’s empty coffers. When the father wrote back professing his “tender paternal affection” without anything tangible to show for it, he worked his son into a bit of a rage. The son argues that his father is worse than a savage beast, defying the laws of both nature and justice since even the most ferocious of creatures, lions and tigers, provide for their young until they reach a stage of independence. The severity with which the student addresses his father is surprising (and hilarious) since such letters functioned largely as rhetorical exercises. Although the metaphor drawn from the natural world gives the letter a hint of sophistication, the son’s contention that he has been gravely mistreated shines through in a very … colourful way, particularly in his exclamation of “saneque” which translates more literally to “for sanity’s sake!” The letter’s rough Latin, moreover, suggests that this student relied in no way on a model letter as many other medieval students did, but composed the thing himself. Whether or not he worked up the courage to actually send it to his “Pious Paternity” is another matter. The poor fellow may have just needed to vent as university students are wont to do.   

Megan Dase 

References and Further Reading

Letter #3 is from M. T. Clanchy, From Memory to Written Record: England 1066-1307, 3rd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 91.

Letter #4 is from the collection of Western Manuscripts held at the Trinity College Library in Cambridge, digitised.

Letter #5 is from Martha Carlin and David Crouch, Lost Letters of Medieval Life: English Society, 1200-1250 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013).  

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