A Medieval Family: The Pastons of Fifteenth-Century England - Frances Gies, Joseph Gies
I've come to prefer social history to "big events". This is an account of the fortunes of a newly-prosperous family, who had made their fortunes as lawyers, drawn from an unusually complete collection of their correspondence. The correspondence deals with many matters of money and litigation. They were not unusually litigious for their times; it was just a difficult century. Several letter-writers emphasized that it was necessary to be well-versed in law, besides having powerful friends, in order to protect one’s fortune.

It sounds like it was a wild time to be a lawyer: not that there weren’t legal procedures in place, but the problem was enforcing them. Wills, contracts, judgments, and arbitrations could stipulate money to be paid and actions to be taken, but whether these were carried out was quite another matter. Standard procedure when disputing possession of a manor was for the party who was stronger in arms to forcibly take over the place, while litigation was ongoing. And securing judgments in the courts depended very heavily on alliances and money, with bribes flowing freely and machinations to get the disposal of one’s affairs in the hands of someone well-inclined.

Another matter that receives some discussion is marriage negotiations and kinship relations. All these things are gone into just enough to elucidate the Pastons' affairs, as are historical and national matters that the Pastons played tangential roles in. We also get some information on how they spent their money, at least as far as clothes and luxury goods that they had to order sent up from London.

The introduction says, the letters "amount to a sort of nonfiction historical novel". I don’t know if I can quite agree with that: although there are occasional striking details, the outline of events is too sketchy for a novel, and more importantly, the personalities of the people involved remain mostly unknown. The letter writers seem to have stuck to a brief, businesslike tone more often than not, though some individuals were chattier. It is difficult to keep track of the enormous number of people mentioned other than the few main members of the Paston family.

A more important criticism lies in the superficial nature of the narration. The Gieses are writers rather than research historians, and the second-hand nature of any analysis they quote shows through. There are many books about the Pastons, and I don’t think this one is essential. Nonetheless, it’s well and clearly written, and enjoyable to read.