Although European society has changed hugely since the Middle Ages, some documents and objects from the time still have the power to speak straight down the centuries and demonstrate that despite radically altered worldviews, we do have things in common with our medieval ancestors. I was reminded of this when I came across a collection of model letters dating from 1200 to 1250, which contained templates for students to send to their parents. The style may be formal and full of allusions to Christian and classical literature, but the content is strikingly similar to students’ emails to parents today. The writer tends to slyly work his way from affectionate greetings and assurances of his hard work, to earnest requests for money or other commodities. Take this early 13th century model letter as an example; my favourite part is when the student says he “cannot now specify” his expenditure:
“B. to his venerable master [father] A., greeting.
This is to inform you that I am studying at Oxford with the greatest diligence, but the matter of money stands greatly in the way of my promotion, as it is now two months since I spent the last of what you sent me. The city is expensive and makes many demands; I have to rent lodgings, buy necessaries and provide for many other things which I cannot now specify. Wherefore I respectfully beg Your Paternity that by the promptings of divine piety you may assist me, so that I may be able to complete what I have well begun. For you must know that without Ceres and Bacchus, Apollo grows cold. Therefore, I hope that you will act in such a way that, by your intercession, I may finish what I have well begun.
Clearly the desired response to such a missive would be affectionate, containing liberal promises of monetary aid. However, medieval writers seem to have taken delight in composing parental reproofs full of withering put-downs. In one model answer from a collection in Franche-Comté, an exasperated father writes:
“To his son G. residing at Orléans P. of Besançon sends greetings with paternal zeal. It is written, ‘He also that is slothful in his work is brother to him that is a great waster’. I have recently discovered that you live dissolutely and slothfully, preferring license to restraint and play to work and strumming a guitar while the others are at their studies, whence it happens that you have read but one volume of law while your more industrious companions have read several. Wherefore I have decided to exhort you herewith to repent utterly of your dissolute and careless ways, that you may no longer be called a waster and your shame may be turned to good repute.”
Although these are model letters, we find their content replicated over and over in the following centuries in individually composed letters. Take, for instance, a 1762 letter from Jeremy Bentham to his father, written whilst he was a student at Queen’s College, Oxford. It is startlingly similar, except that he asks to be sent some tea and sugar, not money. Bentham reasons that these commodities are much cheaper in London, thus presenting his request in the light of economical living, although a cynic might view this as a mere ploy for a free home care package!
Queen’s. February 5th 1762.
I hoped to have had the pleasure of hearing from you before now; but as that could not be, I flatter myself I shall not be disappointed of an Answer to this, when it comes to hand. I have the Satisfaction of telling you that I go on briskly in Homer, doing generally a book in two days, which is no very inconsiderable thing, to do exclusive of the College-business. – You cannot expect a long letter from a place so destitute of Novelty as this is, all the news there is here is that the College is not only as full as it can hold but even fuller, there having come 3 or 4 in the little time that I was absent, one of whom his name is Piers; whose father is a wholesale grocer in London; which puts me in mind of my wants, which I hope you will supply; you may guess I mean Tea and Sugar; or else I must be forced to get some here at half as much again as you can get it me for; I have been forced to live upon my Friends these 2 or 3 days. Pray give my duty to Grandmama and love to brother Sammy, and fulfill the expectations of
Your dutiful and affectionate Son