Medieval Writing
Paleography Exercises
Letter to John Paston III from William Paston III, c.1478 (British Library, add. ms. 27,446, f.18). All images by permission of the British Library.
The above is one of the famous Paston letters, a uniquely comprehensive selection of personal family letters from the late medieval period. The Pastons were an upwardly mobile Norfolk family living in times of great social change and unrest. The collection of their letters of the 15th century has proved a rich lode for historians to mine, showing, as they do, aspects of life outside the officially recorded doings of kings and courts. This letter is from William Paston III to his brother John Paston III. (The Pastons were not especially creative with Christian names.) He refers to being a student at Eton, and his needs are not so different to those of students 500 years or so down the track. He needs money, new clothes and would like a jolly little holiday in London at his brother's expense.

The letter is addressed on the back in the writer's own hand:

To hys worchepful brodyr John Paston be thys delyvered in hast

which shows two things; first that he was anxious for his needs to be fulfilled, and second that with the Post Office several hundred years away from being invented, it was obviously entrusted to a messenger who knew where to find the recipient.

In terms of paleography, this represents the personal handwriting of an individual rather than a professional category. It was not dictated to a scribe, but writen in the author's own hand. With this collection of letters, it is possible to identify the handwriting of individuals, not just generic styles. It is a form of cursive, and displays the idiosyncrasies of a non-professional piece of work. There are crossings out and blobby bits. In fact, it looks as if he might have been having a bit of trouble with his pen. There is a blob of sealing wax on the left hand side.
There are various printed editions of the Paston letters, or extracts from them. The modern definitive edition is Davis (ed.) 1971. This has detailed transcripts and learned footnotes.

| overview | text | alphabet | abbreviations | exercises | transcript | modern paraphrase |

Click on each of the above to walk your way through the text. The transcript will appear in a separate window so that you can use it for reference at any time. These exercises are designed to guide you through the text, not test you, so you can cheat as much as you like.
Script sample for this example
Index of Exercises
Index of Scripts

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