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Essays in Medieval Studies 21 (2005) 123-131

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Aural and Written Reception in Sir John Paston, Malory, and Caxton

St. Olaf College

In an essay entitled "The Pastons and Chaucer," which appears in The Common Reader, Virginia Woolf paints a portrait of the fifteenth-century gentleman, Sir John Paston:

For sometimes, instead of riding off on his horse to inspect his crops or bargain with his tenants, Sir John would sit, in broad daylight, reading. There, on the hard chair in the comfortless room with the wind lifting the carpet and the smoke stinging his eyes, he would sit reading Chaucer, wasting his time, dreaming—or what strange intoxication was it that he drew from books? A whole year of days would pass fruitlessly in dreary business, like dashes of rain on the window-pane.... But Lydgate's poems or Chaucer's, like a mirror in which figures move brightly, silently, and compactly, showed him the very skies, fields, and people whom he knew, but rounded and complete. Instead of waiting listlessly for news from London or piecing out from his mother's gossip some country tragedy of love and jealousy, here, in a few pages, the whole story was laid before him. And then as he rode or sat at table he would remember some description or saying which bore upon the present moment and fixed it, or some string of words would charm him, and putting aside the pressure of the moment, he would hasten home to sit in his chair and learn the end of the story.1

The historical Sir John Paston no doubt attracted Virginia Woolf's attention because he was a great reader, lender, borrower, and collector of books. The largest family letter collection to survive from the Middle Ages, that of the Paston circle, is full [End Page 123] of references to Sir John's reading: an inventory of items stolen in an attack on Hellesdon manor lists as "taken out of" Sir John's chamber "a boke of Freynsh."2 Sir John asks his brother to send him his copy of Lydgate's "Temple off Glasse" and sends servants to collect books which he had loaned out.3 Elsewhere he asks his mother and brother for a loan so that he can have his confiscated books returned to him.4 Anxious for books but always short of cash, Sir John left his scribe, William Ebesham, begging for payment for his copying out of Paston's "book of knighthood" or "great book"—that is, a chivalric encyclopedia.5 Sir John asks his mother to send him two (unspecified) French books copied by the same scribe.6 A friend jokes with him—for Sir John was something of a lady's man—that he doesn't need to borrow his copy of Ovid's De Arte Amandi, but rather the De Remedio.7 Sir John's own inventory of his "English books" reflects a taste for the ancients, Tully in particular; for the English poets Lydgate and Chaucer, the latter of whom is represented by copies of a "Troilus," "The Legende of Ladies" and "The Parliament of Birds" (though not, as Woolf mistakenly assumed, the Canterbury Tales); for didactic moral treatises including Christine de Pizan's Othea and "in print of the Pleye of Chesse," that is, the incunable of Caxton's Game and Play of Chess; and for various Arthurian texts, including a "green Knight," a "Perceval," and a "Dethe off Arthur."8 This eldest son—known to scholars as John II since his father and brother, John III, bear the same first name—proved a disappointment to his parents (John I and Margaret), but Virginia Woolf thought that she found in him a kindred spirit. Taking a break from writing Mrs. Dalloway by reading the Paston letters, Woolf imagines in Sir John a reader who escapes from and celebrates the minutiae of life with "some string of words" that would "fix" the "present moment."

Woolf praises Sir John, one of her "common readers," as occupying the boundary between...