Medieval Letter-writing (Class notes)

Aelflaed of the Weald (India Ollerenshaw), 2000.

The Components of a Theoretically Perfect Medieval Letter

Lots of flattery. Lots. This is called RESPECT, not boot-licking. Lay it on as thick as you like. Or thicker.

Salutation - contains the names of both parties. Among equals, or from an inferior to a superior (or to show extra respect), the recipient should be mentioned first. From a superior to an inferior, put the sender's name first.

General rule: the highest rank receives the most politeness and therefore goes first.

Feel free to add flattering epithets to their name, and suitably humble ones to your own. Refer to the recipient's rank or office, to their superior skills and personal attributes, or to their relationship to you. The master of Bologna wrote: "These additions should be selected so that they point to some aspect of the recipient's renown and good character"

Some examples(from the Bologna manuscript):

"To the vigorous soldier and noble friend, Earl David, Richard, the Duke of Venice, sends greetings and wishes for every good fortune."

"…to Nathan, I wish an increase of true piety in Christ"

"Peter the father and Mary the mother, to John most beloved son, send fresh greetings and eternal blessings."

(from the above son to his long-suffering parents) "To Peter and Mary his parents, John, once dear to them but now without cause become worthless…"

Securing of Goodwill - judicious flattery, influencing the reader to evoke the desired response.

John of Garland recommends the use of a suitable proverb at this stage: "a brief statement, moral in purpose, setting forth what is good or what is bad in an important matter". For example, if your matter is a request for money or gifts, a proverb or biblical quotation dealing with generosity would be appropriate.

Here is another chance to prepare the reader to look kindly upon you and the substance of your letter. Emphasize your own humility, praise the recipient, mention your achievements on their behalf or your worthy motivation. Say how important the letter is, how weighty its matter. The first sections of a letter are vital in securing the reader's interest in your topic. They are not for talking business.

Narration - a clear and concise narration of the matter. State your request, announcement, whatever. This is less important than the previous sections, despite the fact that this is the reason for the letter. The question can only be posed after you have secured the positive interest and goodwill of the recipient. First impressions count. If you haven't been sufficiently polite by now, you won't get anywhere.

Petition - this can be omitted if the letter is not requesting any favours. This is where you can offer prayers, advice, threats if necessary. Put in a reproving (and improving) example, or a stern admonishment for bad behaviour. If you have written a begging letter, this is an excellent place for even more fulsome praise of the reader's generosity.

Conclusion - don't repeat the subject matter. Salute the recipient again if you wish. You may also wish to 'affirm' - state your loyalty, write about the pleasant effects to result from their compliance with your desire (ie: "Believe me your most loyal servant and humble petitioner while I live."). Alternatively, you may wish to 'deny' - state the evil consequences of ignoring your request (ie: "If you fail in this, you will surely lose our friendship").

Austin, T., Article in Tournaments Illuminated Vol. 131, pp 6-10.

St Clare Byrne, M., (ed) The Lisle Letters

Davis, N (ed), The Paston Letters

Copyright India Ollerenshaw 2000. Free use for non-profit.

This article is a set of class notes, and was published in issue 9 of Cockatrice.

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