Book Review: Blood And Roses

Blood And Roses:  One Family’s Struggle And Triumph During The Tumultuous Wars Of The Roses, by Helen Castor

The Paston family has acquired at least some attention as a notable and important part of English medieval history [1] and this book takes a detailed look at their history as it is recorded in their letters.  Admittedly, the survival of the Paston family archives is itself a dramatic tale that probably deserves a book of its own, but while the history of the Pastons as a notable family goes on at least to the period after the English Civil War when they had risen to the titled aristocracy before daughtering out, this book focuses its attention on a very detailed look at what was going on in the family based on the letters and other documentation and it is a look at the lives of upwardly mobile English during the period after the Black Death that is deeply interesting, not least for what it says about English attitudes of class and the way that villein status was fatal to one’s social ambitions and that those who rose above the status of their parents were subject to a great degree of trouble as a result of seeking to change their place in society.

This book of almost 400 pages discusses the lives and times of the Paston family of Norfolk during the course of the period from the Black Death to the end of the Wars of the Roses during the time when their archive of letters survives.  The book begins with a list of illustrations, family trees, a discussion of the rulers of England during this time, a map of their East Anglia, as well as an author’s note and some acknowledgements.  After that the book begins with the origins of the Pastons in a prologue, the rise of William I Paston in the law, which earned the family a fair amount of money and their first estates and a rise in position that came with struggles and the search for friends as well as the resistance against enemies.  A great deal of the middle part of the book drags because John I Paston is such a self-righteous prig that he manages to screw up his family’s acquisitions by getting himself jailed on multiple occasions and alienating a lot of potential allies by being unwilling to see things from any perspective of his own.  Finally, the book ends nicely by looking at how John II and John III Paston worked together to allow the family to rise and succeed in the midst of the Wars of the Roses, at which point the book ends with a discussion of the fate of the family later on as well as of the letters themselves.

In reading this book, and likely in reading the Paston letters as a whole, one gets a sense of the sort of tensions that families were under at the time and are still under to this day even if most families do not have estates to divide up among heirs or engage in pitched battle with the retinue of Dukes as was the case for the Pastons.  There are and always have been tough decisions made as to how family resources should be allocated, and how acquisitive one should be in a fiercely competitive society where estates gave money and status to those who held them but where it was not always easy to secure title and enforce rents on one’s tenants in the face of competition among other would-be elites.  That is certainly true nowadays and was even more true in the periods the book discusses where people had to choose which royal pretenders to back with potentially fatal consequences in terms of death in battle or being dispossessed after picking the wrong contender, or even dying in prison as John Paston did.  These letters have a lot to say about the stress that families were under, but were certainly a treasure trove of insights for historians who would be a lot worse off about life in the early modern period if not for their existence and preservation.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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