Low content day: birchbark letters

I have sworn on the altar of God eternal hostility to, er, not posting things on this blog. But today I am sick and knackered, so it is going to be a mostly link-heavy post today.

As you may know, our access to details of the private lives of individuals in history is mainly dependent on how perishable and/or well-preserved their means of communication was. In preliterate societies, that means you’re pretty much up shit creek. Oh, you can establish quite a lot with archaeology, but obviously not as much as you can with archaeology and written sources. And in many early societies, it’s rare for letters to be preserved even if they were relatively common. That’s why when you get something like The Vindolanda Tablets, a collection of everyday correspondence from people in and around a Roman fort in northern Britain, it’s so exciting. This one is probably the most famous:

Claudia Severa to her Lepidina greetings. On 11 September, sister, for the day of the celebration of my birthday, I give you a warm invitation to make sure that you come to us, to make the day more enjoyable for me by your arrival, if you are present (?). Give my greetings to your Cerialis. My Aelius and my little son send him (?) their greetings. (2nd hand) I shall expect you, sister. Farewell, sister, my dearest soul, as I hope to prosper, and hail. (Back, 1st hand) To Sulpicia Lepidina, wife of Cerialis, from Severa.

But preservation is a hit-and-miss thing. A huge number of letters or notes written on birch bark from Novgorod, for instance, have been preserved simply because soil conditions kept them nice and wet and prevented the air from getting at them. There are loads of fascinating letters, including financial transactions, love letters and crime reports. You can read a little bit about them here. One particularly charming group of documents appear to be schoolwork from a kid called Onfim, complete with his doodles. There’s a fun page about them here.



The left image shows Onfim’s schoolwork, while the right is on the back of the page; he’s drawn a fearsome wild beast with a sign that says “Greetings from Onfim to Danilo.”

So there you go. Not much for today, but it’s been a long day and I have that thing where my everything hurts.

Low content day: birchbark letters

Invective Through the Ages 1: The Paston Letters

OK, so, the Paston letters is a huge collection of correspondence between various members of the Paston family, a family of gentry from Norfolk. The letters run from the 1420s to the very early 16th century, and they’re a fantastic look at what life was like for a family during the Wars of the Roses, as well as a great source of insight into all kinds of everyday-life stuff. The letters are online here, but they’ve also been printed umpty-million times and you can find those on Google Books. 

Today, what I want to talk about is just the name-calling. There’s a fair amount of trash-talk in the Paston letters, which spend a lot of time recounting brawls and affrays between Paston supporters and the supporters of their various rivals. 

And when Gloys was further passed by the space of three or four stride, Wymondham drew out his dagger and said, ‘Shalt thou so, knave?’ And therewith Gloys turned him, and drew out his dagger and defended him, fleeing into my mother’s place … and then Wymondham called Gloys thief and said he should die, and Gloys said he lied and called him churl, and bade him come himself or ell the best man he head, and Gloys would answer him one for one … and with the noise of this assault and affray my mother and I came out of the church … and I bade Gloys go into my mother’s place again, and so he did. And then Wymondham called my mother and me strong whores, and said the Pastons and all their kind were [WORDS MISSING HERE — WHY, GOD, WHY?] … said he lied, knave and churl as he was. And he had much large language … 

I know it’s childish of me to like it, but it’s just such a weird insult. Strong whores? I’m sure it made sense in the 1440s. 

Margaret Paston didn’t take any shit, incidentally. Consider: 

Right worshipful husband, I recommend me to you, and pray you to get some crossbows … 



Invective Through the Ages 1: The Paston Letters