56 of 57 people found the following review helpful
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.
69 of 71 people found the following review helpful
on 7 September 2006
As a historian I have volumes of the Paston Letters, edited by James Gairdner, but they are just that, a series of letters. Helen Castor has achieved the impossible, taken the letters and made them part of a fascinating story that involves the reader all the way through. The Pastons come alive, with their grievances, their needs, their unhappiness, their illnesses, births, deaths and fluctating fortunes. It is good to see historical persons in their true context, Sir John Falstoft for one, and the various Dukes and Earls showing their true colours, not the ones history sometimes gives us. The duke of York rampages through the story, throwing his considerable weight around, (he's a favourite of mine) while poor King Henry slides in and out of conscious thought and the villains steal properties from their owners while their owners are in them ... This is the stuff of true history and Helen Castor is to be applauded for making it come alive in this readable and informative way.
52 of 55 people found the following review helpful
on 14 January 2005
I bought this book for two reasons; firstly because I love the period of history involved, 1400's, and secondly because I love local based history.
However this book offers MUCH more than that. It has all the pace, twists and turns of a John Grisham legal novel!!! Except this is real, not fiction.
The book follows the lives of the Paston family from Norfolk. From their lowly start as minor landowners, promoted from the peasant classes all the way through the many struggles and trials both in the courts and out to maintain their status and earn the lands and money due to them.
This book isn't all about legal negotiations though. The 15th century wasn't a black and white culture where lands and possessions were concerned; it was more about whom you knew and whether they owed you any favours. Or which people of high status you could get on side. Throw in the dangerous ups and downs of fortune when the English throne changed hands many times during the Wars Of The Roses, and having to judge the best side to be on, and you have an absolute classic thriller!
Yet again though, the book is even MORE than that. The excerpts of the letters the Paston family wrote to each other, not only tell of their legal battles, but have some amusing moments of banter between brothers and even in a serious letter it might finish off asking the recipient to buy them some material as they can't find any of quality in Norwich!
It's a fascinating book, that tells the story of the Paston family, whom by the end you can not help but feel close to and that you know them well. You also get a wonderful insight of the Wars Of The Roses from a slightly background view, as well as lots of information on day to day living in the 1400's.
If you love history you'll love this book!!!!
14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on 18 January 2005
A fabulous and, for me, different read. Not having much knowledge of the period, I was delighted by the clarity and openness of Helen Castor's writing. She peels off layer upon layer so that we are left with a feeling of genuine knowledge about the Paston family and an understanding of their complex world. While the context is all-important, the protagonists are revealed to us in a humane and understandable way so that the reader gains a sense of historical difference while also recognising the timelessness of human emotion, weakness and interaction. Well worth spending some time with this book.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 8 April 2015
What a very well written 15th Century English social and family history!
This is an eminently readable history of the 15th century Norfolk-based Paston family, researched and re-created from the collection of extant letters remarkably preserved from the time. The narrative records the Pastons’ fluctuating fortunes at different times during the middle and late 1400’s. It also includes enough of the wider view of royal and political history and the ups and downs of Wars of the Roses military history to provide ample background and context for appreciating the Paston family’s experience at different times.
My overall impression is derived from reading the book at only two sittings; on many occasions, I couldn’t have put the book down because it was so engaging. The author really does make the Paston family become live again. In particular, the Paston family’s struggle to hold onto its position and properties in Norfolk reads almost like a 15th century soap opera. On several occasions, my thoughts strayed to the concept of 21st Century ‘noisy neighbours’; such neighbours would represent luxury by comparison with the Pastons’ experience. How much legal property rights have progressed in the intervening centuries!
Also, particularly interesting were the frequent insights into the behaviours of bigger political players of the time (King Edward IV, the Dukes of Norfolk and Suffolk, to name but three); there are many, many characters who can be traced within the narrative and scrutinised.
We could very easily take for granted Helen Castor’s ability to make order and sense out of the vast collection of documents. Likewise, we could do the same regarding her ‘translation‘ of the letters from 15th Century English to our current everyday language. Thank you, Helen, for making the original letters in their context entirely comprehensible and, by creating a fluent narrative, enabling us readers to concentrate on the characters, their personalities and interactions both amongst themselves and with other non-family royals, nobles and prominent people.
The author’s writing, although based on what I’m sure is thorough-going academic research, is very clear and refreshingly free of academic language. She includes much detail without ever overwhelming me with too much to take in.
Finally, it is always good to be able to dip into a book subsequently via a well-constructed index which is provided here.
If you want to know more about 15th century English social history beyond mainstream political and military events, this book is a must to buy!
20 of 22 people found the following review helpful
on 12 August 2006
I am currently in Year 12 and studying the Wars of the Roses, and came across this book when searching for some interesting background reading. But it is so much more than a regular history book - whilst illustrating how the wars affected lesser figures such as the Pastons, it also provides a gripping family saga worthy of any historical fiction. The conviction that it all really happened makes it, to me, all the more fascinating. I admit to getting slightly bogged down in some of the details of the legal disputes, but I persisted and it was worth it. If anything the events grow more exciting as the book progresses, just like a well-written novel. In short I would recommend this book to anyone, historian or not.
36 of 40 people found the following review helpful
on 27 October 2004
I don't read non-fiction. Just don't. I don't have enough time to read, and when I do I focus on Fiction. But this book recently caught my eye and I decided to give it a try. I was hooked from the first line. Dr Castor writes fluently and compellingly but also manages to convey an amazing amount of information and insight about the period. And the subject matter is fascinating - seeing a family through over a century of political affairs that we learnt about in O-Level history, but seeing just how little - or how much - impact these events had on them. It's both an extraordinarily good read in the manner of a blockbuster novel, reading about one family's fortunes through the generations, and also incredibly informative about the period. A great achievement.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 10 January 2014
The Paston Letters give a fascinating insight into ordinary peoples lives during the War of the Roses. Whilst calling the Pastons an ordinary family probably does overstate the case, as they had by the time of Edward IV risen to become landed gentry, it is so refreshing to learn more about those outside the Royal family or noble families of the era. Helen Castor has carefully selected the letters to reveal a picture of a family mainly dedicated to their own family concerns, whilst been fully versed in what is happening on a national scale and on occasions becoming personally involved in these historical events. Whilst the book does require considerable concerntration especially in the early chapters outlining the family's struggles over land amongst the local magnates and polital elite, it is also very engaging and Castor gives real warmth and understanding when suggestions possible motivations behind the actions of Paston Family members. Such a wonderful book I didn't want it to end.
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on 12 May 2005
This was extraordinarily well written. Unlike many history books, it did not lose itself in dullness and too much detail. The writing was fluent, and the author managed to show the reader the greater picture of those troubled times while still keeping her primary focus on the Pastons. She has a wry way of speaking sometimes, and slips in those fascinating details which, while not technically necessary, give the book life.
Well deserving of five stars, and well worth the read.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 21 October 2013
This book centres around the Pastons of Norfolk during the Wars of the Roses. Castor presents a work which is based on primary sources in the format of written correspondence between the Pastons and their associates. It provides a terrific insight into the life and struggles of the Pastons to hold onto lands and properties commencing with William Paston. The work shows how much of a struggle it was for his descendants to hold on to such properties due to political as well as financial difficulties. It demonstrates how much pressure the younger Pastons had inherited in order to hold onto their respectful positions in life. Castor deals with the everyday events within Paston family life such as with Margery Paston who marries Richard Calle a trusted servant of her widowed mother Margaret. Margaret felt that Margery had married beneath her station subsequently bringing the family name into disrepute. Richard Calle was from a family who owned a shop and there were unsuccessful attempts made on the part of the church as instructed by Margaret Paston to find the marriage illegal. Consequently, Margaret Paston never spoke to her daughter again. This provides an insight into fifteenth century family life during the turbulent times of war and political instability.
The book contains over 303 pages plus the bibliography and colour plates. Such pictures include a medieval wedding, the marriage of Henry VI to Margaret of Anjou, Westminster Hall where the court of Common Pleas sat a building which dates back to the eleventh century, the south-east of England Gough map, dated 1360, the ruins of Caister Castle, an autographed letter from John Paston II to his mother Margaret, etc. The print of the book is quite small and I do agree with a review at the beginning of it by The Herald saying 'The history of these times is complex, and this is not a book to read with one's eye on the sports results. But it rewards concentration'. I found myself reading bits and pieces of it twice or more to ensure I hadn't mistaken someone to be someone other than who they really are!! However, as with other books of this kind I highly commend the research which has been put into this work and have no hesitation in recommending it.