The Bounty of Information You Can Learn from Period Letters

Introduction

For years I have been fascinated by the structure and rules of medieval letters. My journey into this topic began with my interest in the letter-writing manuals that first began to appear in Europe in the early twelfth century.

Image of Ulrich von Winterstetten delivering a message. From Great Heidelberger Liederhandschrift (Codex Manesse) by Minnesänger. Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg / “Codex Manesse” / p.17r

As part of my studies, I have begun collecting period letters to examine how the structure of letters in practice evolved over time. In reading these letters I have become fascinated with the kinds of information and insight into daily life that they provide.

I recently acquired a collection of 72 letters written by Alessandra Strozzi to her sons, who were exiled from Florence by the rise of power of the Medici – their political rivals. These letters, sent between 1447 and 1470, reveal incredible information ranging from the marriage arrangements of her daughters, surviving the plague, prices of goods, and not a small amount of maternal instruction and expertly woven guilt.

Letters are a jewel in the study of medieval every-day life. When reading a letter it brings these voices of the past to life and helps you relate and understand them in incredibly personal ways.

Here I’ve collected snippets of letters across a span of times and locations. In this article I share with you examples of some of the things we can learn from them.


Buying, Selling, & Prices of Goods

Often in familiar or business letters you’ll find a variety of mentions for goods. Some include prices, some information on buying and selling.

In a letter from the 1300’s in Russia, a merchant notes to the recipient or distributor of their goods directions on selling wine, and not to trust the funds to their servants.

“I sent you six barrels of wine, [level] – as your finger gets it. So you check it out well. And sell like those on the same terms… And don’t give my guys money – let’s go along with the debt.”

Gregory, Letter to Yermola and Ozekey, 1380-1400, Nenovgorod excavation, Slavic studies, Letter #39

The Strozzi letters frequently mention requests for goods and their prices. As a mercantile family in Florence – a city run by merchants – goods and their prices were included in most letters. Sometimes it was simply a request for a soap that couldn’t be found in Florence. In a letter to one of her sons requesting flax, Alessandra Strozzi also requested almonds for Lent:

“Could you include ten libbre of almonds for Lent, as they’ll travel quite safely inside the bale of flax. I’m asking you for them because I hear they’re cheap where you are, whereas here they’re expensive.”

Alessandra Strozzi, Letter to Filippo degli Strozzi. November 4, 1448. From collection edited by Judith Bryce, p.40

Alessandra Strozzi frequently wrote about the sewing work she was doing and the cost of linen (flax) for making cloth. For reference, the unit of measure she uses, a braccia (or braccio), is equal to roughly 23 inches (Holton & Brush, p. 81):

“That’ll be a hundred and ten or a hundred and twelve braccia of cloth in all…if I want to sell it I’ll get four grossi a braccio which is the current price…That flax you sent me has turned out really well and is selling at twenty-five grossi for twelve and a half libbre.”

Alessandra Strozzi, Letter to Filippo degli Strozzi. December 26, 1449. From collection edited by Judith Bryce, p.46.

Love, Marriage, & Gettin’ Busy

Marriage, love, and the physical aspects of love are mentioned all across times and locations. And even in letters to kings and queens. In a letter to Queen Eleanore, Archbishop Rotrund berates her for attempting a coup against her husband, King Henry II. By leaving her husband’s side, she defied God’s law:

“Since married people are made one flesh, it is necessary that unity of spirits be joined to union of bodies.”

Archbishop Rotrud of Rouen, Letter to Queen Eleanor, 1173

Royalty were also unexempt from the being put into the “friendzone”:

Elizabeth Tudor’s letter to King Edward VI, April 21, 1522 as an example of her letters. From the Harvard University Library.

“And while we perceive therefrom that the zeal and love of your mind towards us is not diminished, yet in part we are grieved that we cannot gratify your Serene Highness with the same kind of affection…we therefore beg your Serene Highness again and again that you be pleased to set a limit to your love that it advance not beyond the laws of friendship.”

Queen Elizabeth I, Letter to King Eric of Sweden, February 25, 1560

But enough about that, let’s get to what we’re all really interested in – dirty talk! The letters of Abelard and Heloise (1130-1134) are a whirlwind of emotions. The star-crossed lovers wrote to each other letters that swung from berating to reminiscing on their physical love. I highly recommend reading this collection and learning more about them.

Oh heck, let me give you a little of the back story. Abelard was a man renowned for his very large…brain. He was hired to tutor a beautiful 16-year-old named Heloise by her uncle. Abelard schooled her in more than just philosophy…and when it was discovered she was pregnant, Heloise’s uncle forced them to marry. Abelard, a bit put out by this, took Heloise off to a cloister after the birth of their child. Heloise’s uncle, who was a powerful member of the clergy, felt Abelard just put her there so he could continue his philandering with other women and occasionally visit Heloise for some marital relations. The uncle had Abelard captured and castrated. After this, Abelard pushed Heloise to enter the church, as he himself did, where they served until their deaths.

The letters of Abelard and Heloise take place many years after they both settled into the church. In her first letter to him, Heloise reflected in pride about her lover:

“Every wife, every young girl desired you in absence and was on fire in your presence; queens and great ladies envied me my joys and my bed…for your manhood was adorned by every grace of mind and body.”

Heloise, Letter to Abelard. Known as “Letter II”

Not to be outdone, Abelard gets a little more detailed when recounting their past physical relations.

“After our marriage, when you were living in the cloister with the nuns at Argenteuil and I came one day to visit you privately, you know what my uncontrollable desire did with you there, actually in a corner of the refectory, since we had nowhere else to go.”

Abelard, Letter to Heloise. Known as “Letter III”

Yowza!


Plague

Getting back to more serious stuff, and what’s more serious than…the plague!

Letters sent during times of plague capture the fears of the people sending and receiving them. In the Strozzi letters, Alessandra documents the increase in the number of cases in her neighborhood block, the deaths, and people going into the countryside to escape the plague. Alessandra, living on a tight budget, was unable to do so.

“There are four or five cases of plague every day at the moment, and on 29 October it was said there were eleven deaths. This is bad news for us as we haven’t any way of escaping it. “

Alessandra Strozzi to Filippo degli Strozzi. November 4, 1448. From collection edited by Judith Bryce, p. 36

In a later letter, she reveals that she was able to find the money to send her youngest son away during the spring, when the plague was more prevalent.

In these letters we also learn about medicines and methods used to protect against plague. Galileo Galilei’s daughter, Sister Maria Celeste, sent many items to her father during the plague in Italy that spanned from 1630 to 1633. She sent him vials of blessed water and various types of curatives she and the sisters of her abbey were frequently creating. One letter documents the ingredients and how to take the medicine:

“Here are two small jars of electuary for safeguarding against the plague. The one that has no written label is composed of dried figs, nuts, rue and salt, held together with as much honey as was needed. You may take it every morning, before eating, in a dose about the size of a walnut, followed immediately by drinking a little Greek or other good wine, and they say it provides a marvelous defense.”

Sister Maria Celeste, Letter to her father, Galileo Galilei, November 2,1630. The Galileo Project

Family (and Nagging)

As I mentioned in the introduction, the letters of Alessandra Strozzi included not a small amount of parental direction, and some really expertly used maternal guilt. My Jewish grandmother would be very proud.

“Please God I see you and Lorenzo again safe and well before I die. Above all, my son, whereas last year your bad behavior caused me so much grief, make sure you are conducting yourself in such a way as to bring me consolation. Consider your situation and what Niccolo has done for you, and that you ought to try to be worthy to kiss the ground he walks on…Take great care about what you spend, so that I don’t have any more grief than I’ve already had.”

Alessandra Strozzi, Letter to Filippo degli Strozzi. November 4, 1448. From collection edited by Judith Bryce, p. 33-34

There are many more great examples in the Strozzi letters. I highly recommend the read!

Grandparents also wrote to each other on the status of their kin. In a letter to her son-in-law’s father – the king of England – one grandmother shared the details of the health of a granddaughter who was battling an illness. When closing the letter, she added this small mention of her grandson:

“And know, sir, that Arthur is a very good child, and very pretty, thank God.”

Blanche, Duchess of Brittany, Letter to King Henry III, 1263-70, about their mutual grandson. From the collection of personal letters edited by Catherine Moriarty, p. 304
Letter to Galileo Galilei from his daughter, Sister Maria Celeste, August 21,1623. From Works of Galileo, Part 1, Volume 13. Example showing the layout and folding with address.

Children also wrote such missives to their parents. There are great examples of sons writing to their parents for more money to buy supplies while at university (and some parental responses berating them for not going to class).

From the collection of Sister Maria Celeste to her father, Galileo Galilei, she uses some quality guilt-tripping in requesting a new quilt be sent to her:

“With the chill weather coming on, I will surely grow numb with cold, unless you help by sending me a warm quilt to protect me, since the one I have now is not mine, and its owner wants to use it herself, as is only right. The one that you sent, Sire, along with the woolen blanket, I leave with (Sister) Arcangela, who wants to sleep alone, and I respect her wishes. But I am left with only one cotton coverlet, and if I wait until I have earned enough to buy a quilt, I will neither get one, nor survive this winter: therefore I beg this benevolence of my beloved (father), who, as I know so well, will not be able to bear the thought of my suffering.”

Sister Maria Celeste to her father, Galileo Galieli, 11/2/1630, (source: Galileo project)

Law, Order, & Processes

And let us not forget the extensive examples of legal aspects documented in thousands of letters across the Middle Ages.

One more common example addresses the use of jewels as surety for a debt:

“We request you urgently that you will hasten and apply your good offices with all possible diligence to the release of our said jewels, taking them into your own keeping, and retaining them until such time as you have been fully paid by us for all of your expenses.”

Regarding jewelry being used as collateral against owed money. Nov 1432 to April 1433 – from a Duke to merchants in Bruges holding jewels in pawn. From the collection of personal letters edited by Catherine Moriarty, p.115

In another example, we see a petition sent to the King of England for the release of a prisoner by his wife:

“Whereas John de Kynnesley, her husband, by hate and malice, was put in prison within the castle of Norwich, where he has long lain through false suggestions, that it would please your most gracious lordship, for the love of God, and for the souls of your most noble father and mother, whom Gold assoil, to grant and give to your said suppliant your gracious letters, sealed under your seal, made in due form, directed to the sheriff of the county of Norfolk, charging and straightly commanding him to deliver up the body of the said John out of prison…and she will pray God for you and for your progenitors for ever.”

Joanna de Kynnesley to King Henry IV, requesting the release of her husband from prison, 1399-1413. From the collection of personal letters edited by Catherine Moriarty, p. 89

And let us not forget the Strozzi letters. Alessandra wrote to her sons on many different legal topics. One such item shared some of the rules around the buying of a house connected by a wall to her own, for which the law gave her first right of refusal when the property came up for sale:

“Donato has sent to ask me to agree to him buying it because the legal papers can’t be drawn up unless I give consent as the only person with adjoining property. I’ve replied saying that I see I have the right of first refusal (to buy the house).”

Alessandra Strozzi to Filippo degli Strozzi, November 4, 1448. From collection edited by Judith Bryce, p. 37

More from the letters

From examining historic letters, we can learn not just about every day life but also about the other influences of the time. Florence, being a city run by the merchant class, utilized mercantile practices in many aspects of life (Reinert p. 16), such as in documenting the date of receipt on goods in letters (Strozzi, p.29). This gives us amazing information about ease of travel in various regions. It also tells us what kinds of expectations people had for how long it would take their letter to arrive at its destination.

For example, the Strozzi letters document the dates between sending and receipt between the cities that her sons lived in or were locating (miles are using modernly calculated distances in Google maps):

  • Naples
    • 295 miles – Roughly 12 -20 days
    • 14 to 24 miles per day
  • Bruges
    • 816 miles – Roughly 25-60 days
    • 13 to 32 miles per day
  • Rome
    • 173 miles – 7 days (one letter only)
    • 24 miles per day
  • Salerno
    • 322 miles – 20 days (one letter only)
    • 16 miles per day
  • Castellammare
    • 283 miles – Roughly 11-18 days
    • 15 to 25 miles per day
  • San Quirico
    • 78 miles – 2 days (one letter only)
    • 39 miles per day

We also can learn from the materials used for sending the letters. Not just about the paper used, what the ink was made of, and the status of the sender from how expensive these materials are. The Novgorod Archaeological Expedition, in Novgorod, Russia uncovered over one thousand letters written on peelings of birch bark over a period of more than four hundred years (Artsikhovsky, et al).

We also see how people addressed their letters, giving us insight into who was carrying the mail. For example, we know in Italy the expansion of trade empowered the merchants of the time to establish their own routes. Merchants and their messengers traveling these routes ending up “(providing) the most extensive and regular postal system of this period.” (Brix). I hypothesize that how these letters were addressed – as in, what information was given about the addressee and their location – can inform us of who was carrying the letter: a dedicated messenger, a merchant on a regular route, or even a friend or family member taking along mail on their travels. How these addresses were written also reveal to us detail on the establishment of more formalized postal systems. I look forward to digging into this hypothesis more.


Areas for Future Study

Besides learning more about how the addressing of letters gives us insight into the postal carriers of the time, I have more items I’m excited to learn about.

I’m still fascinated by the letter writing manuals of the Middle Ages. I’m hunting down copies of the texts so I can do a more thorough examination of letter formatting and how it evolved. Spending time reading period letters now will help me see how these guides were put into practice.

I also love the incredible texture that letters share. How family members spoke to each other. How the day-to-day life was accounted. We learn not just about what was going on around the writers, but about the writer themselves. These are peeks into personality and how people thought about themselves (Kong, 2010). There’s a great vein of study on the concept of the self as documented in letters that I’m fascinated to dig into. The Renaissance also heralded the rise of humanism, and I’m curious to see how this philosophy impacted the medieval mind.

There’s so much more to learn. It’s a smorgasbord I can’t wait to dive into.


Cover Images:

From left to right:

  • Folio 3v, Marginalia from the “Production and use of the Decretals” , The Decretals of Gregory IX, edited by Raymund of Penyafort.
  • Folio 17r, King Alaric receiving Clovis’s messenger from Jehan Froissart’s Les Grandes Chroniques de France, Book 1, 21.
  • Folio 303r, “Der Taler”. From Great Heidelberger Liederhandschrift (Codex Manesse) by Minnesänger. Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg / “Codex Manesse” / p. 303r
  • Folio 117r, “The Signs of the Zodiac: Sagittarius”, Tübingen House Book: Latromathematical Calendar Book; the Art of Astronomy and Geomancy. Germany. 1430

Bibliography & Citations


Check out my exhibit from last year’s Athenaeum:

A Bycocket Fit For A Queen & A Honeycomb Smocked Apron

Cover art from my 2020 Athenaeum exhibit

9 Replies to “The Bounty of Information You Can Learn from Period Letters”

  1. Very interesting! I love reading through the Letters from the Court of Henry VIII 🙂

    I love that you are shining a light on an aspect of period life that is often over looked or glossed over.

    Thank you so much for sharing!!

  2. Absolutely fascinating exhibit! I’m so glad I made time to read it, especially since I realized you were the one I was looking into letter writing manuals for (it’s me, the SCAdian Librarian 😉 I’m just bad with names and didn’t recognize yours!). But I love all the snippets you gave of the different letters and how you’ve grouped the different categories here. Fantastic work – well done!

  3. I knew that I would love this exhibit as soon as I saw the title! This has been an interest of mine for quite some time! I also love the glimpse of everyday life and the way people spoke to each other in letters. I will definitely be going through your bibliography!

    You said “I’m still fascinated by the letter writing manuals of the Middle Ages. I’m hunting down copies of the texts so I can do a more thorough examination of letter formatting and how it evolved. Spending time reading period letters now will help me see how these guides were put into practice.”

    I’m very interested in the letter writing manuals also – I’d love to talk more with you about them!

  4. I love this line of research! Not only to see how people spoke to each other, how letters were structured (greetings and closings) but the rich details of what can be gleaned from the contents, really bringing the people to life in a new way. I can’t wait to see what else you uncover in your research!

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