Book Reviews

Blood and Roses. The Paston Family in the Fifteenth Century. by Helen Castor

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List Price: £20.00

 

Hardcover: 368 Pages.

Published: 16 September 2004 by Faber and Faber

Edition: 1st edition

ISBN: 0571216706

EAN: 9780571216703

The Wars of the Roses turned England upside down. Between 1455 and 1485 four kings lost their thrones, more than forty noblemen lost their lives on the battlefield or their heads on the block, and thousands of the men who followed them met violent deaths. Yet almost nothing is known about the thoughts and feelings of the people who lived through this bloody conflict, whether king or noble, landowner or peasant. Almost nothing, but not quite. As they made their way in a disintergrating world, a Norfolk family called the Pastons were writing letters - about politics, about business, about shopping, about love and about each other. Extraordinarily, these letters have survived the centuries; they form the earliest great collection of private correspondence in the English language. More than five hundred years on, the Pastons' voices still have the immediacy of an overheard conversation. Blood and Roses traces the remarkable story of the Paston family across three generations. The world of the fifteenth-century aristocracy was a world of cut-throat snobbery and vicious power struggles, and the Pastons were newcomers to the grame: an ambitious nouveau riche family striving to establish themselves among the landed gentry. They took part in the Wars of the Roses in supporting roles, but they were extraordinary characters in their own right: William Paston, the self-made man who founded the family's fortunes; his son John Paston, who embarked on his own battle to inherit the estates of the rich old soldier Sir John Fastolf, the model of Shakespeare's Falstaff; John's wife Margaret, who held the family together for forty years, raised seven children and defended the family's property from armed assault along the way; and their sons John II - a courtier with a passion for books and an eye for female company - and John III, the sensible, reliable brother, whose touching correspondence with his sweetheart includes the earliest surviving valentine in England. Helen Castor explores the Pastons' experiences of birth, marriage, death and the realities of daily life, and unravels the turbulent politics of the family's affairs against the backdrop of civil war between York and Lancaster. The result is a vivid evocation of the medieval world. Blood and Roses draws on a wealth of original historical research to tell the dramatic, moving, often funny and always human story of how one family survived one of the most tempestuous periods in English history.

Reviews

5.0 Stars5.0 Stars5.0 Stars5.0 Stars5.0 Stars  by Anne

Absolutely gripping

In this book the author brings to life Mediaeval England through a study of the Paston letters. The Pastons were an up and coming family of the time who wrote to each other a lot and whose preserved letters are a wonderful resource for scholars of the period. In this book the author works through the family history and shows us what life was like for some people who had land but were not of the aristocracy. I found it gripping reading and I really began to understand the era and how people lived in a way that I had not before.

The style is very readable and the author includes just the right number of quotations from the letters to illustrate her point but not to break up the narrative. She especially illuminated for me the way that life was so dependent on patronage and how justice in the courts often depended on who you knew irrespective of the strength of your case. I also learned a lot about how fragile land ownership actually was and about how important it was to possess the land and to have the men to defend your possession. The poor tenants seemed to have a very rough deal in that they frequently didn't know who to pay rent to and when someone else might appear and claim ownership and demand more money. In addition to the social history there was also the personal one with the family protecting each other, providing for their future and also showing love in their letters.

There is lots of information in this book but because the author is following one family it makes it very accessible for the general reader like myself. The author also finds a way to distinguish one family member from another even when they have the same name (two brothers each called John who were sons of John and had sons called John for example) and so I was able to keep them clear in my mind which isn't always the case in factual books with lots of characters.

Well worth a read especially if you have an interest in Medieval history.

 
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