Friday 6 June 2014

Writing a Medieval Letter

Writing a Medieval Letter

By THLaird Colyne Stewart
(mka Todd H. C. Fischer)
June 2014 (AS 49)

One opportunity to engage in medieval pursuits that is often overlooked is that of personal correspondence. Whether sending an email or a traditional posted letter, these missives give you a chance to flex your writing skills and put yourself into the mindset of someone who lived hundreds of years ago. This article will serve as a basic introduction to the art of letter writing.

Letters have evolved over time, and the formal way we write letters now is not the way they were written during the medieval period. (Please note that obviously in different ages and different locations within what we call the medieval world letters would have been written differently. What I am presenting here is a model based on Medieval European letter writing around 800 to 1300 BCE.)

Like most medieval documents, letters were highly structured and included specific components.

Salutatio (Salutation)

The first past of the letter is the salutation, which contain the names of both parties. Among persons of equal social standing, and when the sender is inferior to the recipient, the recipient should be named first. It is entirely fitting to be flattering, listing the recipient’s titles and virtues.

Below are some examples of salutations:

  • To her dearest lord and father, Louis, by grace of God king of the French, M[arie] countess of Troyes, his beloved daughter, greetings and deepest love. (A letter from an unnamed man to Marie of France, undated.)
  • To the queen of the French, abbot William. (A letter from Abbot William of St. Thomas of the Paraclete to Ingeborgof Denmark, 1195.
  • Adelaide [Aelis] who was the wife of lord John of Avennes, defender of Holland and of Zeeland, to the castellan of Ath and all his sergeants, greetings. (A letter from Aleid of Holland to the castellan of Ath.)

Captatio Venevolentiae (Securing of Goodwill)

In this section of the letter, the sender attempts to put the recipient in a good frame of mind by wishing them good health and good fortune. You could also quote a proverb that relates to the intent of the letter. (For instance, if you are hoping to receive some money, you would quote a proverb about how noble generosity is.)

Below are some examples of the Securing of Goodwill:

  • With how much very sincere affection we love and especially intend to honor your person in God, so much the more willingly we give benign audience to your requests and open the door of our hearing liberally, particularly since they savor of justice and contain equity. (A letter from Alexander IV to Margeurite of Provence, January 23, 1258.)
  • I shall speak to you as to a father and lord whose honor my lord king and I and our whole kingdom desire as our own; for your honor is ours and your confusion, God avert it, is ours, who have accepted you as father and lord, and have scorned the hostility of those seeking your soul in our circle of raging kings, for God's sake and yours. Hear therefore, if it please you, your daughter and in what I am about to say do not scorn/condemn the female sex, but attend to the affection of one who loves [you]. (A letter from Adela of Champagne to Alexander III, 1168 or 1169.)
  • Ever since I became aware of the odor of your good reputation which has spread far and wide like a sweet perfume, I have longed to make myself known to you at some favorable opportunity, that I might deserve through this acquaintanceship to gain your friendship. But since I see myself totally lacking in merit perhaps I might somehow share yours by a communion of charity. So I thank God that, while I was harboring this wish and was eagerly looking for a way of executing it, Dom Hugh, the hermit of Caen,(2) our mutual brother and friend in Christ, informed me that your holiness, with sentiments not unlike my own,was looking for a similar opportunity in my regard. (A letter from Anselm of Bec to Frodelina, 1074 or 1075.)

Narratio (Narration)

This part of the letter explains the circumstances of the sender. They may write about their family, the local news, or other such matters.

Here is where you will state the actual purpose of the letter, be it a request, relaying information or whatever else.

Below are some examples of Narration:

  • I must confess to you, dearest friend, that although my bodily eyes see you but seldom, I never cease to look upon you with the eyes of the spirit. These little gifts are tokens of affection, but are quite unworthy of Your Holiness. Please believe that so long as I live I shall always remember you in my prayers. I beg you by our trusted friendship to be loyal to my insignificance, as I have faith in you, and to aid me with your prayers so that Almighty God may order my life according to His will. (a letter from Cena to Boniface, 723-755.)
  • Willingly and gratefully we received the little gifts of your greeting and with God's help we desire to repay them worthily and we consent to have her, whom you wrote about, in our prayers and communion with good spirit and pure faith towards you at the hours you suggested, incessantly. (A letter from Cuneberg to Abbots Coengils of Glastonbury and Ingeld, and priest Wigbert, 729-44.)
  • My lady, about what you sent to us concerning your case, for which you have done hommage to the king of Germany and the king of Sicily is denying your right, since this case is not moving towards settlement as we desire,in which case you have asked for our help; know, lady, that we are determined to help you and that we will do it willingly. (A letter from Edward I to Margeurite of Provence, 1280.)

Petitio (Petition)

The Petition gives details on your request (and can be omitted if your letter does not include a request). This section can also contain threats, pleas, admonishments or anything else that is appropriate for the tone and matter of the message.

Below are some examples of Petitions:

  • And I Cneuburg beg you, o faithful priest Wigbert to keep the names of our dead sisters in your memory, and transmit them to our friends all around. (A letter from Cuneberg to Abbots Coengils of Glastonbury and Ingeld, and priest Wigbert, 729-44.)
  • Consider, I beseech thee, what thou owest me, pay heed to what I demand; and my long letter with a brief ending I conclude. (A letter from Heloise to Abelard, 12th century.)
  • Just so, if perhaps one might have wished to marry a man, having left Christ in the power of the devil, not only the one who flees but also the one to whom she is joined, is a foul adulterer and a sacrilege rather than a husband; or whoever might do this has ministered poison rather than counsel, will be struck with similar vengeance, as was said above, by heavenly justice, with us confirming; until, when there has been a separation, with fitting penance to expiate the crime, she will have deserved to be received and [re]connected to the place which she left. We add, also, those priests who will be our successors shall be held by the condition of similar strict condemnation. And if, which we do not believe, they might wish to relax anything other than what our deliberation contains, they should know they will have to make their case with us before the eternal Judge, since it is common instruction of salvation that what has been promised to Christ must be inviolably observed. (A letter from unknown bishops to Radegund of Thuringia, circa 550.)

Conclusio (Conclusion)
This section ties the entire letter together, states your goodbyes and expresses more well wishes. You can also affirm your loyalty here or state the consequences of ignoring your request.

Below are some examples of Conclusions:

  • No more to you at this time, but Almighty Jesu have you in his blessed keeping. Written at Norwich on Hallowmass Day at night. By your servant and bedwoman Margery Paston. Sir, I pray you if ye tarry long at London that it will please you to send for me, for I think long since I lay in your arms. (A letter from Margery Brews Paston to her husband John Paston III, 1481.)
  • These which I write to you, are only a few things, dearest, of the many which we have done, and because I am not able to tell you, dearest, what is in my mind, I charge you to do right, to carefully watch over your land, to do your duty as you ought to your children and your vassals. You will certainly see me just as soon as I possibly return to you. Farewell. (a letter from Stephen, Count of Blois and Chartres to his wife, Adele, 1098.)
  • Fare thee as well as I fare. (A letter from Constance of Brittany to Louis VII of France, 1160.)

Signatures and Dates

For a letter to be considered authentic, it had to be signed. If it wasn’t, it would be assumed to be a forgery. The signatures went at the end of the letter, while the date was usually at the top of the page, as well as a notation as to where the writer was in residence when penning the missive (though sometimes the date and location would be included in the Conclusion).

Folding and Seals

If you really want your letter to look medieval, you can fold it and seal it with wax. If you want to go that extra step, see Mevanou Verch Reys Yriskynit’s article (listed in the Bibliography).


Below is a letter from Adam Marsh to Eleanor of Provence, dated either 1242 or 1243.

[Salutation] To the most excellent lady, E[leanor], by the grace of God queen of England, lady of Ireland, duchess of Normandy, Aquitaine, countess of Anjou, Brother Adam [sends] peace on earth and glory in heaven.

[Securing of Goodwill] Behold before the most venerable highness of your serenity, grief makes the wounded heart uneasy and a blush covers the confused face, because despite the compelling efficacy of your command, with obstacles of difficult cases detaining me, I am not able to attend personally the honorable presence of magnificent sublimity this time. [Narration] There is however some remedy to my troubles in this, that at the suppliant prayers of my modesty which I put forth humbly in the present letter, what sad devotion can not fullfil, merciful worthiness wishes to pardon. On the eve of St. Andrew I received the letter of your ladyship with that reverence that was fitting. On which day I could scarcely prepare the presents swifty for the various interruptions.
I was with the lord count of Cornwall the first Sunday of Advent, whose anger, as I see it, which he expressed strongly in your presence, has abated after consideration. He added with very firm assertion his benevolence to everything that affects the safety and the honor, as it is most worthy, of both the lord king and his heirs.

[Conclusion] May the desirable prosperity of your generosity be preserved always in Christ and the very blessed Virgin.


Epistolae: Medieval Women’s Latin Letters,

Medieval Letter-writing (Class notes), Aelflaed of the Weald (India Ollerenshaw), 2000,

Medieval Missives: Aids to Letter Writing, Caryl de Trecesson,

Writing a Medieval Letter, Mevanou Verch Reys Yriskynit (AKA Tina M Comroe), 2013,


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