Reading the Paston Letters
The Paston Letters is a remarkable collection of letters surviving from the 15th to the 17th century, between different members of the Paston family, their staff and their friends. In truth, the collection might better be referred to as the Paston Archive, as the medieval section contains many more types of document than just letters - though it is the letters that give us insight into the daily life and troubles of an ambitious family.
Whilst we've begun here by referring to them in the singular, the orginals are not all held as a single collection today. Nevertheless, we can think of the letters as being a magnificent and unique record of a family's correspondence in a time gone by, giving an insight into Medieval, Tudor and Stuart life in away which no other set of documents does.
If you wish to read a selection of the letters in a modern translation, then there are various recent publications available. You can find our selection listed on the page Editions of the Letters.
Reading the Originals
The selection below is from the 1904 edition as published under the editorship of James Gairdner. These use the original language of the letters, so can be difficult to read. However, we've attached a number of notes and are experimenting with a 'translation' system that will give access to the modern English words. There are only few letters in place at present, but we plan to develop things over time. Click the tabs at the bottom of the pages and then hover your cursor over the words to access these facilities. We're also adding some further analytical facilities.
There is a great deal of refining to do - for instance, at present if a word has various meanings, all of these may be presented when using the 'The Letter Today?' button. However, there is generally enough in place for an understanding of the letter to be gained. Further help on understanding may be gained by using the University of Michigan's Middle English Dictionary. The most authoritative help is to be found in the Glossary of Norman Davis's three volume edition of the Letters; the third volume being the work of Richard Beadle and Colin Richmond.
The intent of the volunteers working on these digital version of the letters is to explore the way the computer can explore them, to focus on some key parts of the Paston story and to offer a link through to view the original letters at the British Library or Norfolk Record Office. Around the letters the site offers a range of approaches to the Paston story, from primary school material to higher levels of study.
For those keen to develop skills in reading early archives, please select from the following:
Searching the Letters on the Site
You can search all the letters in various ways; below we give examples from different time periods.