Have you ever told someone off for their own good? Would you like some inspiration from the early modern era?
One of our manuscripts (Add MS 15891) began as a letterbook compiled by Samuel Cox, secretary to the Elizabethan courtier Sir Christopher Hatton (c. 1540â1591), but it continued to accrue examples of elegantly phrased letters after his death. Among them is a blistering letter (ff. 195râv) Lady Margett wrote in response to the âpaper mouth full of lyesâ she had received from her sonâs schoolmaster. The copy of her letter is undated, but words such as âspurgauleâ (to strike with the spur) would suggest that it belongs to the mid- to late 16th century.
The first page of a letter of a gentlewoman to a schoolmaster: Add MS 15891, f. 195r
During this time, there was a flourishing market for letter writing manuals in English. They provided formulae and models for topics such as exhorting someone to lament, rejoicing about a friendâs return to health, or even how to write a letter when you had very little news to impart.
According to William Fulwood, whose The Enemie of Idlenesse (1568) was the first letter writing manual in English, a letter of invective should fall into three parts. First, the author should win goodwill by emphasising that they wrote reluctantly, only after deciding that, having already endured the addresseeâs wicked behaviour for some time, it would be wrong to allow it to worsen. Second, they should explain the grounds for their censure and provide evidence. Finally, if the writer was addressing a friend, they should write gently, stating the inconveniences which would ensure if their behaviour continued. When addressing an enemy, the writer ought to emphasise that they acted out of morality rather than hatred, and would speak more fully on the matter at an opportune moment.
As a gentlewoman, Lady Margett might have received a reasonable education in rhetoric, but is highly likely to have been familiar with these manuals. If she had used Fulwoodâs suggested opening in her previous âcurtuousâ letter, this time she decided to go on the attack by likening him to a horse whose âwynching [wincing] and kicking âŠ bewrayes your gald back.â Not content with one insult when she might use several, Margett had evidently mastered the abundant style and the use of a colourful simile:
'You ar lyke the cholerick horse ryder, who beeing cast from the back of a young coult and not daring to kill the horse, went into the stable to cut the sadle: or lyke an angry gnarling dogg, that byteth the stone & not hym that threwe it.'
As well as being like a horse with a sore back, an angry dog and an irritable horse rider, the schoolmaster was ânot vnwarthy of a fooles coate with fowre elbowesâ for failing to heed the wise manâs saying that âhe maketh hym self well belouved, that geueth a mylde & a gentil awnswereâ.
Lady Margett had good reason to be angry. The schoolmaster was not the âhonest playne breastedâ man she thought he was, but a âdissembling sycophant.â Her good opinion of him had blinded her to the fact that several others (including the âCountesse of Kâ) had made him âtaste of the sower as well as the sweeteâ after discovering that he was âvnfitt âŠ to take charge of there children.â Her guilt at committing her âpoore lambe to a woolues keepingâ was compounded by the slurs he had made on her reputation for generosity. For him to claim that he was poorly paid for teaching was an âympudent lyeâ, since she had always âallowed the woorkman his hyerâ. Clearly, he would rather lose a friend than the âliberty of a licentous petulant toungeâ.
The second page of Lady Margett's admonishing letter: Add MS 15891, f. 195v
The schoolmasterâs decision not to sign his letter provided Lady Margett with further ammunition. Drily observing that she could not understand such dishonesty unless he had burned his hand and vowed never to sign anything with it again, she could still recognise his style as âa pigg of the sowe of your muse & a ragg of youre owne dunghillâ. Despite these insults, she characterised herself as acting from the best of motives. She sternly reminded him to âtake heede of libellingâ, lest the same disgraceful fate befall him as had a fellow schoolmaster, whose love of ârayling Rhetorickâ meant that he now had âno more cares left hym on his headeâ. Doling out further sententious wisdom, she counselled him that he had no right to feel aggrieved: âsuch a blowe as the asse geueth agaynst the wall, such a one he receauethâ. Signing off as his âplayne frend without flateryâ, she prayed that God would forgive his âfoule mouthe & venymous lippes this & all other such wycked woordes of maliceâ.
The subscription to the letter: Add MS 15891, f. 195v
Alhough very few of us may take up our pens the next time someone offends us, the schoolmaster and Lady Margettâs world of honour culture and social credit still resonates. As she showed in this letter, you can take the moral high ground and still get your own back.
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