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The Pastons and Their England

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The Pastons were very unique because not only were they part of a growing new level in society, due to the fall of feudalism, called the middle class, but also because their letters vividly depict a huge shift in the fifteenth century that saw a new economic situation develop causing the old regime, feudalism, to gradually fall and collapse. The Pastons and Their England by H. S. Bennett is an interesting story about the lives of an ordinary affluent fifteenth century gentry family because it reveals many aspects of their everyday life as well as the changing face of the medieval English countryside.

Their letters recreate through correspondence their struggle and triumphs during this time. Bennett’s book shows a time of great historical transition by putting the Pastons challenges and individual lives into historical context; in doing so, the book looks at the Pastons’ family’s experiences during the Wars of the Roses; at their careers in local government and society; the marriage market; the challenges of managing their estates; life within their household both in peace and war; the education of the Paston children; their religious interests and their leisure activities.

By visiting the major issues raised by the book, the authors interpretation of the letters and the type of history being written, I will show how the Pastons letters enable us, the reader, to view their world from the inside thereby providing pertinent information about this changing age in history. The importance of this new age of middle class was undisputable as the awakening of this gentry class gave the opportunity for a better life to many people just like the Pastons.

Bennett asserts that it was the “gradual formation and interaction of these new forces” that “assisted to bring about the end of the existing system [feudalism]. “1 Also, as Bennett notes, it was the lack of firm government that caused much unrest and lack of control so that lawlessness was able to thrive. 2 These notions are important to recognize since they caused much of the action during the time in which the Pastons wrote their letters, thus causing several major themes to arise, including property management, protecting lands with patronages, education in law, and advantageous marriages.

All these things helped the Pastons to succeed in the fifteenth century. According to Bennett, the Pastons rose to power quite rapidly and that this “rise was not pleasing to all their neighbours”3 This shows how the Pastons exemplify what was happening in this age when people acquired immense increases in family fortune. With the decline of the feudal system and the absence of a firm government came a wave of ambitious and deceitful men, who, not quite unlike the Pastons, were struggling to rise into the gentry class and establish their position in the country.

And, as said before, in order to do this people had to be ready to protect their possessions by every means possible; by the law, by influence of patrons, and by favourable marriages. 4 The Pastons took the concept of education in law very seriously as it was believed by William Paston that being educated in law would inevitably protect them and their possessions.

For example, this belief is illustrated by Agnes Pastons letter which advises her sons to remember their father’s advice “to think once [every] day of your father’s counsel to learn the law… hosoever should dwell at Paston, should need to know [how to] defend himself”5 Also, Bennett asserts that Clement Paston believed that education was the only way his family could protect the land they had. This is important because usually aristocratic families had much more power that is power in the force of men. But the Pastons, unlike these powerful men, would have only once defence, which was being armed with the knowledge of the law.

Studying law was a family obligation; as Agnes’ letter reveals since it was their only way to stop the acquired lands, such as those inherited from Fastolf and the manor of Gresham for example, from being taken away. While education in law was relatively new, it was also an inefficient defence against other gentry families. At this time in England they were without a clear monarch and so law and order thus began to break down. This affected the system of civil and criminal law in England as there was no ultimate authority to enforce this.

Given this situation various nobles used the opportunity to assert their power through direct force rather than legal means to resolve disputes. For example, John Paston spent more time in London trying to organize his case with the king than he spent at home in Norfolk. This had serious repercussion as he would often leave his wife alone to defend their properties. Other ambitious men like Lord Molynes who were trying to rise up would directly take matter into their own hands and take over property with small armies.

For example, Lord Molynes “sent a force a thousand strong to turn the Pastons out”6and threats of death even were imposed upon the Pastons if they were caught during the attack. The Pastons had no option but to leave and sadly, the only defence that John Paston had against Molynes was an indictment. This accusation was thrown out of court due to the fact that Lord Molynes had more personal influence in Court. Another example of this is the Paston family found itself embroiled in yet another struggle: The Siege of Caister.

The term ‘law’ was seen as a bit of a joke as since the long arm of the law didn’t stretch very far, which was partly due to the major change at the time. Feudalism was declining and because of this two new classes of people emerged: a middle class and an urban population. Lots of landowners had serfs that left at random because they were not willing to work for ‘free’ anymore. But, the fact of the matter was that these serfs couldn’t find work elsewhere and many of them turned to crime.

This had a major impact, as people formed groups and rebelled against the higher powers. The king, even, was not ready for rebellious new age. The Pastons inevitably became another prime example of how the law couldn’t support their cases and why the king couldn’t deal with the current upheaval in the feudal system. So, as Bennett points out we can see the Pastons had a hard road ahead but were holding their own in the constant struggle that was taking place in fifteenth century England.

In this way Bennett puts the Pastons in the correct context of their time. Not only did weakness in the government allow unscrupulous, violent men to have opportunities to over throw other families but we can also see how litigation was thought to be a forcible method which was used to increase men’s power and wealth. 7 In addition, feudalism was the decent of wealth form the king down to the peasants. With feudalism declining we see the loss of the very cut and dry pattern of wealth. Anyone could now have money and everyone who had money spent it.

The Pastons became an integral part of the economy because they were like a ‘mini corporation’, where men were employed, they created goods and sold products which was all made possible because wealth was defined by land. The Pastons also realized that if they were to be successful they needed to have influence from patrons. Bennett explores how John Paston becomes the intimate friend of Sir John Fastolf because this shows how having a patron went hand in hand with establishing a family’s fortune.

John Paston knew, according to Bennett, that Fastolf was “the man to whom he must cling”8 Rich and generous patrons would pave the way for families trying to move up the social ladder. A patron such as this would be a great aid and safeguard then trying to go it alone in the fifteenth century. But, with the death of Fastolf, John Paston would although inherit much property, he would more importantly lose a patron that would see his inheritance protected. As Bennett notes, a patron offered “sure protection. ”

Furthermore, the Pastons represented the typical marriage market which could be found in the fifteenth century. At this time, rather than being an institution of love, marriage was primarily something entered into for reasons of social and material interest. For families such as the Pastons marriage would be used strategically in order to gain land, money, status, or closer ties with other families. 10 Further, while this was the normal practice for families of any measurable level of wealth or status, on higher levels marriage would be arranged as a tool for managing national or even international relations.

For example, Sir John Paston, son of Margaret and John Paston, was betrothed to Anne Haute and because she was a kinswoman of Elizabeth Woodville, the consort of Edward IV, this betrothal gave the Pastons a new tie with the court, which was necessary to them as they tried to safeguard the inheritance they had received from Sir John Fastolf. 11 This inheritance included Caister Castle, which was coveted by the Duke of Norfolk, a powerful enemy. Therefore the Pastons needed a powerful protector.

Sir John felt he had found one in Anthony Rivers, Lord Scales, the brother of the queen. Sir John was a courtier, and, with Edward IV’s court, was primarily based in London. He left the running of the Paston property to his mother, Margaret, and his younger brother John II. Bennett interprets through the Pastons letters how this family was able to move up in society from minor to major gentry. This is important because it shows how English people used marriage as a tool to enhance their position in life.

The Pastons letter were of immense importance because when one reads about war, religion, politics, and economics, these things alone don’t portray the whole aspect of a culture where things like daily activities are left out. The Pastons letters described war, religion, politics, and economics, but they also included relationships between family members, like husband and wife and father and son. They even included the smallest details such s the value of a book of that the tenants of property would own the windows of the house. These details give us an inside look at life during this chaotic time.

The Pastons unknowingly wrote history that was very diverse, as their letters cover most main topics of this era. The Pastons ongoing war over property shows us what life was like for the rising middle class. The feeling of struggle is felt throughout the book. The Pastons and Their England overall was a very good example of how history can be explained ion a manor other than a textbook. The Pastons showed the transition from a prevailing major system of government and life to a new age that was beginning to form a society that was built around law and parliament.

Furthermore, the Pastons give us an interesting insight into the ordinary lives of the emerging middle class. The letters provide us with a uniquely candid and detailed insight into the life of this particular family, who being a member of the landed gentry were not aristocrats. This allows these letters to provide a much clearer depiction of day to day life as more generally experienced in this period which most other historic sources fail to capture.

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