If Time Had a Smell…

A few weeks ago I was spending time stumbling through the past as usual for more information on my Mom’s family and I stumbled across a very interesting connection. About seventeen generations back, my Mom is related to the Stonor family. At first this meant nothing to me. As I dug a little further I discovered something very interesting.

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Stonor Park – Oxfordshire, England (photo courtesy of Stonor Park website)

The Stonors are only one of three aristocratic families from medieval England to have written correspondence surviving until today. Once I discovered this I set out to learn more and get my hands on a copy of the collection. My first research was disappointing – the closest library to have a copy of the complete collection was in Germany. A little further digging and I was able to locate a two volume used copy online. The copy I ordered was printed in 1919 and was billed by the seller as a first edition. I couldn’t wait for it to arrive. After it finally did, I sat down for a complete inspection.

The outside binding was still in good condition. Obviously this had been part of Occidental College’s library at some point. The inside smelled of a good musty old basement – if time could have a smell, this would be it in my book. For a true book lover, this smell is so good it should be bottled. Both volumes were published in London, ironically at an address in Russell Square – a place near the British Museum that I have visited often and love well.

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Waryn Del Isle, Lord Tieys to Edmund De Stonor, sheriff of Oxford and Berkshire, his brother , 12 April [1378] © The National Archives, Kew (photo courtesy of amdigital.co.uk)

An examination of the letters themselves is where the real fun began. On the fold out genealogy chart I was able to find my ancestor. The letters are mostly between various family members during the years 1290 to 1483. It is interesting to see the progression of the English language through these pages. The very first document in 1290 is a charter for Richard de Stonor. It was a grant from Richard to his son and the latter’s wife. I can hardly read it as it starts out “Sciant presentes et futuri quod ego Ricardus de Stonor dedi, concessi, et hac presenti carta mea confirmavi Ricardo….” – is this some sort of left over Latin?!? It is very foreign to a modern ear and I am amazed people actually used to talk this way – or did they? Maybe this is just legal jargon – but no, the next two documents also use this same derivative of English and one of these is a personal letter from Eleanor le Despenser to John de Stonor.

Flipping along in the first volume it wasn’t until a document in 1424 that I could actually understand the “English” being used. Don’t get me wrong – although the language is a bit of a challenge for a modern day researcher, I bet it was beautiful when spoken all those years ago. I once took a class on Chaucer in college. We had to learn to speak middle English when reading Chaucer’s works out loud. Let me tell you, there is nothing so romantic as middle English being spoken. Something has been lost in our modern vernacular. Remember that scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark when Indiana Jones is teaching his class and all the female students have a glassy eyed stare? Well that was the scene in my Chaucer class when Dr. Hornsby read Chaucer aloud. It put a whole new spin on The Canterbury Tales.

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One thought on “If Time Had a Smell…

  1. Heather, I think that might be straight-up Latin. It was used in formal writing quite a bit, and that sounds as though it's a legal document, which almost surely would have been written in Latin. (I should say that there are more reliable sources of information/verification — I would not suggest that you take my word for it!)

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