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The Paston Women and Chaucer: Reading Women and Canon Formation in the Fifteenth Century

Watt, Diane (2020) The Paston Women and Chaucer: Reading Women and Canon Formation in the Fifteenth Century Studies in the Age of Chaucer, 42.

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There they stood at Paston—eleven volumes, with the poems of Lydgate and Chaucer among them, diffusing a strange air into the gaunt, comfortless house, inviting men to indolence and vanity, distracting their thoughts from business, and leading them not only to neglect their own profit but to think lightly of the sacred dues of the dead.

For sometimes, instead of riding off on his horse to inspect his crops or bargain with his tenants, Sir John would sit, in broad daylight, reading. There, on the hard chair in the comfortless room with the wind lifting the carpet and the smoke stinging his eyes, he would sit reading Chaucer, wasting his time, dreaming—or what strange intoxications was it that he drew from books?

In her essay, “The Pastons and Chaucer” in The Common Reader, which was first published in 1925, Virginia Woolf imagines a row of manuscripts lining a wall in the family’s house in the Norfolk village of Paston, and a mother’s annoyance at finding her son, Sir John Paston, often referred to as John Paston II, with his head deep in a book rather than attending to the business of maintaining his estates. Woolf’s essay was written in response to reading James Gairdner’s monumental edition of The Paston Letters, published at the turn of the twentieth century. The Pastons were a fifteenth-century gentry family from Norfolk and their correspondence represents the largest surviving archive of private letters from medieval England. In thinking about women’s literary culture in medieval England, the Paston letters must not be overlooked, if for no other reason than that around one-fifth of the letters were written by women, and that the most prolific of the writers was a woman: Margaret Paston, the mother whose perspective Woolf adopts in the above quotation. Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own (1929) would come to play a central role in the tracing of feminist literary histories from the early modern period through to the twentieth century. Yet, Woolf’s own reading of the letters results in her characterising Margaret Paston as an individual for whom the distinctive, seductive, visceral smell of medieval manuscripts is dismissed as “a strange air”, and for whom poetry and literature are distractions from the real business of tending to the souls of the dead and to the property of the living. This idea that Margaret Paston was, if not hostile to books, then at any rate “not a reader” is one that continues to dominate her critical reception, and it is tied to wider generalizations about the limited engagement of middle-class laywomen with the literary culture in the later Middle Ages. But how valid are such assumptions about Margaret Paston or about late medieval women more generally?

Item Type: Article
Divisions : Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences > School of Literature and Languages
Authors :
Date : 2020
Copyright Disclaimer : © 2020 The New Chaucer Society
Related URLs :
Depositing User : Clive Harris
Date Deposited : 15 May 2020 16:43
Last Modified : 15 May 2020 16:43

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