Writing a Medieval Letter

By Mevanou Verch Reys Yriskynit

AKA Tina M Comroe © 2013

The Art of writing a letter certainly did not fall from the sky; it has been honed down through the centuries, from a beginning in clay tablets, to papyrus sheets in Egypt and China forward to parchment charters of the middle ages.

Letters of Patent, charters of peace, Stone monuments and personal missives all come to us in bits and pieces to show that mankind has always something to say to each other.

According to the Oxford Encyclopedia of Rhetoric;
Medieval letters were viewed as belonging to formal rhetoric. The medieval art of letter writing (ars dictaminis[a]) made this connection explicit by analyzing a letter’s structure by analogy with the parts of a Ciceronian oration, by emphasizing its persuasive function within a hierarchical social context, and by prescribing rules for its language and style. Variation from structural and stylistic norms was kept within strict bounds: no premium was placed on originality or individuality, since both sender and recipient defined themselves as members of a social category or class and in terms of their relative ranks (superior, equal, or inferior). Letters often were read aloud in public, and even those that were not were composed as if they might be. A confidential message was more likely to be conveyed orally by the letter’s bearer than by the written text, in part to prevent breaches of confidence due to a highly insecure system of transmission. The first important step away from the medieval conception of the letter as a modified oration was the Renaissance humanists’ return to the classical conception of the letter as, in Erasmus’s words, “A conversation between absent friends”.
Most rhetorical treatises were almost completely limited to three specific types of speeches, each linked to three respective institutions: deliberative to the public assembly, epideictic to the public ceremony, and forensic to the law courts.

The writing of letters was common enough during the classical period, though it never became a formal subject of discussion even with its inclusion as a brief appendix in the fourth century A.D. rhetoric of C. Julius Victor. During the Middle Ages, however, the written letter became a central concern of rhetorical theory. Medieval societies, in general, and medieval political structure, in particular, were not primarily municipal. In addition to their expressive functions, letters naturally continued to fulfill performative functions, such as the communication of news, the transaction of business, and the consolidation of familial and social networks. Collections of formulaic documents for narrowly specified business and legal purposes existed already in the Middle Ages and continue to be published to the present day. With the growth of literacy and the expansion of commerce, the numbers of such works increased dramatically during the Early Modern period. Directed to the working classes and the mercantile bourgeoisie, they provide pragmatic, goal-oriented instruction, often in the form of models that are no more than templates to be copied, with blanks left for names and other particulars. Epistolary rhetoric, understood as a set of formal rules or conventions governing the language and format of letters, has come to be associated almost exclusively with letters belonging to this tradition. Nonetheless, the business letter continues to be viewed as a secondary category, while the personal letter is still considered to be the primary form of the genre.
The Five Parts of the Medieval Missive

When re-creating a letter from the Middle Ages, one needs to remember what comes at the beginning, middle and finally end of a letter or missive. When you are writing, it’s not like putting together an email where spell checker is going to put squiggly lines under the misspelled words. Misspelled words are just fine, in fact there weren’t rules of spelling set in place until the printing press was created in Europe and then in  the 1800’s when dictionaries first started making the rounds and public education became mandatory for children. So, take care with your spelling, but the easiest way to put anything is writing is to phonetically sound it out and then put it down.

Part One: Salutatio

The Greeting, Salutation or the part of the letter which lets the recipient knows to who it is addressed and from whom it is. The Salutation contains the names of both parties. Among equals, or from an inferior to a superior (or to show extra respect), the recipient should be mentioned first. From a superior to an inferior, put the sender’s name first.

General rule: the highest rank receives the most politeness and therefore goes first.

Feel free to add flattering epithets to their name, and suitably humble ones to your own. Refer to the recipient’s rank or office, to their superior skills and personal attributes, or to their relationship to you.

Part Two: Captatio Venevolentiae:

This is the part in which the addressee puts the recipient in a good frame of mind toward the sender by sending good thoughts toward the health and wealth of the recipient and that of his family. Here is another chance to prepare the reader to look kindly upon you and the substance of your letter. This is also a good chance to let the recipient know of the support in any endeavor on the field at any moment.

Emphasize your own humility, praise the recipient, mention your achievements on their behalf or your worthy motivation. Say how important the letter is, how weighty its matter. The first sections of a letter are vital in securing the reader’s interest in your topic. They are not for talking business.

Part Three: Narratio

This part is the Narration and explains the circumstances of the sender. Telling the recipient of the general news and happenings of those in the area, and what gossip there may be and the deaths that may have happened in the timeline of the writing.

Put here a clear and concise narration of the matter. State your request, announcement, whatever. This is less important than the previous sections, despite the fact that this is the reason for the letter. The question can only be posed after you have secured the positive interest and goodwill of the recipient. Original impressions count. If you haven’t been sufficiently well-mannered by now, you won’t get anywhere.

Part Four: Petitio

In this part the recipient is finally given the true reason of the letter, with the request and all pertinent information with which to give judgment, this can be omitted if the letter is not requesting any favors. This is where you can offer prayers, advice, threats if necessary. Put in a reproving (and improving) example, or a stern admonishment for bad behavior. If you have written a pleading letter, this is an excellent place for even more fulsome praise of the reader’s generosity.

Part Five: Conclusio

And finally the part of the letter that brings all the above together tied neatly and goodbyes and more well wishing are expressed. Don’t repeat the subject matter. Salute the recipient again if you wish. You may also wish to ‘affirm’ – state your loyalty, write about the pleasant effects to result from their compliance with your desire (i.e.: “Believe me, your most loyal servant and humble petitioner while I live.”). Alternatively, you may wish to ‘deny’ – state the evil consequences of ignoring your request (i.e.: “If you fail in this, you will surely lose our alliance”).

Part Six: Signatures and Dates

The signatures and the dates are required to give the letter its authenticity. If the author of the letter will not sign it, then the letter could be considered a forgery by many and would have been a cause for jailing the delivery boy, or causing a war.

The Signature goes at the end of the letter, whilst the Dates are penned up at the top of the page with where the writer was in residence alongside it.

Part Seven: Folding and Seals

The folding part is what becomes rather tricky. There are some extant documents and many are in museums, but not many of the museums are fond of publishing instructions on how to recreate the folds. So I am instead putting in pictures on how to elegantly fold a document and instructions on how to put a seal so that it will look medieval enough. With further research and a little more urging; I am sure that museums will pull a few moldy documents out and take some nice pictures on how they were folded and create instructions as to how to do it so that it is not completely lost to history.

I got this lovely picture from the website listed on the side of the picture.Letter Folding


Now for the wax seals.

The Wax Seal

To keep prying eyes from private missives a wax or clay seal was incorporated to warn away those that would pry or let those receiving it that it had been violated by finding a broken seal upon the folded document.

Seals, both public and private, reflect the world of medieval power, art and culture in miniature.

All official documents from the twelfth to the nineteenth century carried a wax impression of an appropriate seal to authenticate them. Many of these charters, acts and agreements still carry their seals attached by their silken cords. Even documents of a lesser nature would often have a seal impression attached by cord or a strip of parchment for identification or guarantee of the issuer.

The seal impressions were made with metal stamps called ‘matrices’. The design and production of seal matrices was a specialized practice, requiring much skill in reproducing the image and lettering required in reverse to produce the appropriate positive image. Seals survive both as matrices and as impressions, though impressions are more common.

Matrices can be made from a variety of materials: the majorities from c. 1150 to c. 1250 were of lead, and from 1250 onwards they are usually of copper alloy. Matrices made of silver are relatively uncommon but they are not rare, and those made of gold or ivory are very rare.

Most seals combine a legend with a pictographic device. The legends are usually in Latin throughout the middle ages, although vernacular legends are not unusual after about 1300. They may include the name of the owner, but impersonal mottoes are also common, especially in the 14th century. In the Middle Ages, the majority of seals were of pendent type. They were attached both to legal instruments and to letters patent (i.e. open letters) conferring rights or privileges, which were intended to be available for all to view. Also, in the Middle Ages it became customary for the seals of women and of ecclesiastics to be given a vesica (pointed oval) shape. Royal males and ordinary men would use the lozenge shape (circle). The central emblem was often a standing figure of the owner, or (in the case of ecclesiastical seals) of a saint.

In some medieval royal chanceries, different colors of wax were customarily used for different functions or departments of state. So I take from this that we can use colored waxes for our letters or charters just as they did; Red for Royal Charters, Black for Baronial etc…

The wax seal is the final part of a replica medieval document and among ways of closing a letter, it is unique. It allows the reader to instantly know whether another has tampered with the letter–indeed, some might say it was the wax seal’s function–and the seal itself often bears a distinctive emblem or symbol specific to the sender.

Sealing wax comes in a plethora of colors unavailable to those sending letters in the Middle Ages, including metallics; wax seal stamps have just as many, if not more, designs. Your local craft store should stock both and, if they don’t have what you’re looking for, a card store such as Hallmark might. Online retailers assuredly will.

You will need:

  • sealing wax
  • a seal stamp
  • a lighter or candle (not matches)
  • your letter

Now on to the Sealing of your letter

  • Fold the letter according to the instructions.
  • Light the wick on a stick of sealing wax and hold it over the center of where the flaps meet. Keep the flame upraised at a 35-45° angle to avoid sending black, wavy lines through your seal.
  • Allow the wax to drip onto the center until the glob is about the size of a nickel. The size and shape of this glob will depend on the size and shape of your stamp, but ensure that there will be a small border around the stamp when you press down.
  • Quickly press the stamp into the center of the seal. Do not twist the stamp or you will mar the imprint.
  • Hold your letter down with one hand and lift the stamp from the wax with the other hand.
  • Allow the wax to dry for about 10 seconds.

Voila! You can have a Page deliver your missive to the intended Peer and be proud of the work you have done!

A Letter from Eleanor of Aquitaine to her son John King of England 1200


(Salutatio)To her dearest son, etc., John, by the grace of God, Eleanor, by that same grace, etc., and with the blessing of God as hers.

(As this is a letter between equals there is no need for the Captatio Venevolentiae)
(Narratio)You will know, dearest son, that we ordered your relative and ours, Viscount Americ Thoarc to come to Fontevrault to visit us in our illness and he came; whence, thank God, we are getting better than we normally are. Especially you should know that I and your faithful Guido de Dina asked and showed him so much that he was altogether in your service since he himself had done you no harm nor held any of your lands unjustly, as your other Poitevin barons do.
And again we showed him that he should feel great shame and sin that he suffered your other barons to disinherit you unjustly: He listened and at the same time understood your words; and because we spoke right and reason to him, he freely and willingly conceded that he and his lands and castles were from now on at your command and will, whatever he might have done before: And his friends, and others, who had seised [taken possession of] the land and your castles without your permission and will, unless they do your pleasure and will, and wished to give back in peace those things which they had unjustly seised, he will oppose them with all his power as much as you possessed as well as your brother Richard who was king of England, [possessed] on the day he died.
And since he conceded benevolently what we had asked, namely that he will be in your service well and faithfully against all men, I, who am your mother, and your faithful Guido de Dina, have undertaken that you will be towards him as a Lord ought to be towards his loyal man; and I and your faithful Guido de Dina pledged that he will do whatever we report to you and his letters which he sends to you.
(Petitio)We ask you therefore assiduously and we advise you for your good that, save your business in England, you make haste to get to the Norman areas and signify all your will to us and the said Viscount Thoarc; since, as we said before, he is prepared to acquiesce in all things to your order and will; if, at your order, to come to you in England or in Normany, or wherever it pleases you, and he much desires your coming.
(Conclusio)In hearing and doing this, your faithful Guido de Dina, Constable of Auvergne, was present.
With my witness and that of Guido at Fontevrault.




Woman's Seal Matrix


Internet sources

  1. http://wac.colostate.edu/books/textual_dynamics/chapter4.pdf
  2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lawrence_of_Aquilegia
  3. http://www.nnrh.dk/RR/rr-pdf/62.19-23.pdf
  4. http://aelflaed.homemail.com.au/doco/letters.html
  5. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seal_%28emblem%29
  6. http://www.kings.cam.ac.uk/archive-centre/archive-month/january-2010.html
  7. http://epistolae.ccnmtl.columbia.edu/
  8. http://epistolae.ccnmtl.columbia.edu/letter/1187.html
  9. http://epistolae.ccnmtl.columbia.edu/letter/556.html
  10. http://www.answers.com/library/Oxford+Articles-cid-27373419
  11. http://codesmiths.com/shed/workshop/recipes/sealingwax.htm
  12. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_orthography#History
  13. http://cool.conservation-us.org/iada/ta95_039.pdf
  14. http://www.dragonbear.com/letters.html

4 comments on “Writing a Medieval Letter

  1. Thanks! This is the best description on the net I have found! Its a great overview of the whole letter-writing process, and I know I am on the right track with my letter now.
    Blessings to thee!

  2. Pingback: Medieval letters and emojipasta

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