Who wrote the letters?The short answer is not, usually, the person who composes the letter, but rather a scribe.
Professional Letter WritersThe reliance on scribes, sometimes more than one in a letter, complicates the notion of a letter as a one-to-one exchange. Margaret Paston is known, for instance, to have used at least 29 scribes, including her sons, a family bailiff, chaplain, prior, servants and professional clerks. The Pastons could write; there is the odd letter here and there that we can establish is in their own handwriting. For instance, there are three in John Paston's own hand but the rest of his letters are by his sons or servants.
The Status of ScribesIn the Middle Ages, composition was considered the art form, whereas writing was considered a menial task. The average scribe, in the later Middle Ages, had to work seven days for the sum earned in one day by a common foot soldier. The father of English literature, Geoffrey Chaucer, in the fourteenth century provides an interesting insight into the status of scribes. He never wrote his own works, rather he dicated them to a scribe. He famously chastises his scribe in one of his poems:
Adam scriveyn, if ever it thee bifalle Boece of Troilus to wryten newe, Under they lokkes thou most have the scalle, But after my making thou wryte trewe. So ofte a daye I mot thy werk renewe, Hit to correcte and eek to rubbe and scrape; And al is through thy negligence and rape.
Chaucer uses sarcasm and wit to expose the relationship between scribes and authors during medieval times. It is unclear whether the poem is a verse written as folly for entertainment, written as a book curse, or a threat, but in all cases it sheds light on authors' dependence and interactions with scribes during the medieval times.
London and Norfolk ScribesThe independence and voice of scribes can be discerned in the Paston letters, particularly in relation to their dialects. This is perhaps seen nowhere better than in a 1448 letter from Margaret to John, where two different scribes are clearly employed within the one letter: one has a London dialect whereas the other has a Norfolk dialect.