This work of history takes a look at the multi-generational Paston family throughout the years immediately after the Black Death and through the Wars of the Roses. The Pastons left behind an immense number of letters which have been miraculously preserved for six hundred years and as such are a historical treasure trove for those of us who wonder how gentlemen lived in the fifteenth century. Helen Castor recounts the rise and fall of their fortunes here, illuminating their individual personalities; the tenacious women, especially Agnes and Margaret, the hard-working William and John and the at times disappointing John II. Using the Pastons as a lens, Castor picks up larger issues at work in fifteenth century England and provides a fascinating biography about a surprisingly ordinary family.
I read this one for my dissertation, so I paid much closer attention to it than I would have otherwise. To my surprise, I still really enjoyed it. Helen Castor writes clearly and succinctly, so that while we’re learning facts, we don’t feel bogged down by too much academic language. She also summarizes quite a bit of information about the period, so I think this would be useful for even those who aren’t too familiar with fifteenth-century England. Even though I’m well acquainted with the Black Death and the manueverings of the Wars of the Roses, it is integrated enough into the Pastons’ story so as not to become boring.
I have personally read quite a number of the Paston letters; they’re invaluable because the Pastons were intimately involved at court and reflect the surprising amount of social mobility available shortly after so many died in the Black Death, so they have both an insider’s perspective and a consciousness of where they had come from. Castor reflects this well and does a very admirable job condensing the contents of the letters and quoting them where necessary to provide a steady, smooth narrative. It does falter occasionally because the Pastons were embroiled in a seventeen year struggle to reap some benefit out of Sir John Fastolf’s will after John I became closely involved with him. This can get boring, but the way the families’ characters show through the struggle kept me reading and it was certainly worth it in the end.
This would be a wonderful book to start with for anyone who is interested in familiarizing themselves with fifteenth century England. For those who have enjoyed the recent spate of historical fiction centered around the Wars of the Roses, Blood and Roses would be an excellent choice to broaden your knowledge of the period while avoiding writing that feels too academic or stilted. I highly recommend it.