OSR: Medieval Correspondence Part 1: "Now I will write him such a letter that, when he reads it, he will die."

The title of this post is taken from the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, chapter 100. I'm cheating a little bit. This post isn't based on that famous and useful work. Instead, it's based on a bundle of letters written between 1200 and 1250.

I recently stumbled across "Lost Letters of Medieval Life: English Society, 1200-1250". Despite the cost, if you're at all interested in medieval history, you should buy this book. All the reviews I've seen agree. The book is a collection of letters on every topic, from wine to forestry to adultery, buttressed by thorough scholarship and explanatory notes. I don't want to spend this entire post praising the book, but I will say that it's the most immediately useful sourcebook on life in the 13th century I have ever read. It's new too - published in 2013.

How can we apply these letters to fiction?

Structure of a Medieval Letter

Structured communication is important. It's often overlooked in game design. A well-crafted message, read to your players, can do more to establish setting and tone than pages of boxed text. It describes the structure of the world and the problems of the people in it. It rewards players for understanding a structure and playing along in their response - a minor reward, but a very satisfying one.

The structure below, like many writing outlines, fits on a sort of bell curve. On the far end, incompetent, unsure, or new letter-writers followed the structure closely, line by line, bullet point by bullet point, like grade-school students writing an essay. In the broad middle, the structure was adapted to the needs of the letter-writer. The Introduction could be dropped, the Body altered to follow a more loose narrative, and or the Petition made as blunt as possible. On the far end of the curve, scrupulous ecclesiastics, masters at colleges, and clerks followed the outline to the minutest detail, introducing subtle and pleasant variation where required.

Letters often employ long, simple sentences and common stock phrases.

Greeting (salutatio)
A formal statement, highly ritualized. The most important person is listed first.
"A King to his Sheriff, greetings."
"To my friend John (a higher-ranked priest), Peter (a lower ranked priest), greetings."
"A priest to a priest, greetings." (both of equal rank)

Introduction (exordium)
A brief summary of the correspondence so far, and/or a religious quote, allegory, or incidental story. Larger petitions require more elaborate introductions.

Body (narratio)
The main bulk of the letter. Usually this is a step-by-step narrative for longer requests, or a short summary for simple requests.

As with many cultures, important people are pluralized. This is easy enough in English when an important person is writing to an inferior "We regret to inform you...", but sadly, the singular you (thee, thou, etc.) has fallen out of use. Don't bring it back. Ye Olde Medieval Writinge can be very trite. Instead, use an honorific. "If my noble lord would care to remember...", "On the last occasion of His Majesty's visit...". It's much more natural.

Petition (petitio)
What the letter is actually asking. Usually starts with, "Therefore..." 

Conclusion (conclusio)
Courteous flattery, blunt commands, or even threats. Usually brief. Could be as simple as "Farewell," or "Your servant,"
Cannot locate the source of this image.

Example Letters

The text speaks for itself here. In the book, each letter is accompanied by a very useful summary essay on the topic (wine, bloodletting, bishops, horses, etc.) and beautiful references. 

Real Example 1: An Archdeacon Sends Word to a Dean About an Impending Visitation by the Bishop
An archdeacon to a dean, greetings. I received yesterday a writ of the lord bishop that I should warn all priests and incumbents in his diocese that each of them, according to their custom, [is to] assemble [to pay] respects to him. For he will come to these parts within six days, and he wishes to stay at first with me, and later with you. Because of this I am cautioning you to be stocked up for his arrival with all sorts of food, so that when he arrives at your house he will find lodging and an appropriate table. And I hope that you will act in a such a way that he will not have an excuse to speak badly of you.
This is a letter of friendly warning, from a superior to an inferior. It also covers medieval hospitality. I really should discuss hospitality at some point. If you thought taxes were unfair, just wait until you find out what you have to do to keep your lord happy, warm, and fed.

Real Example 2: A Lord Responds With Threats to Attacks on His Dependents
A. greets B., as much as he deserves. I marvel and am completely astonished at the impudence that might have motivated you to do harm to my men, since you know that I am a man in full possession of my powers and perfectly secure in my position. But I want you to know that you will have me for a mortal enemy unless you promptly make satisfaction to me for the injury you caused. Therefore, if you are wise, you should see to it that you come to a settlement quickly, so that your offense is not followed by the punishment it deserves. Farewell.
One lord addresses a rival, possibly another lord, in the bluntest possible terms. No formal plurals or titles are used. It's a blunt, "you have fucked up, now pay me, or I'll get medieval on your ass."

Real Example 3: A Steward Write to His Lord About a Gravely Ill Knight Whose Wife and Daughter Have Gone Elsewhere
To his respected lord, W. de. G., his steward [sends] greetings. Let Your Discretion know [that] Sir. R. de B. is seriously ill, and I think he is more likely to die than to live. You should also know for certain that Lady A., his wife, with her daughter E., and a servant, has gone to stay at A. Therefore, send me word what your wishes are concerning that message. Farewell.
This is more than local gossip. The lord could have rights of wardship, our outright reclaim, the knight's property. Wardships could be traded between courtiers and nobles. The Lady A. would also become a valuable and sought-after heiress.

Real Example 4: An Earl Orders His Steward to Send Him a Supply of Wine and Ale
A., earl of Gloucester, to his faithful C., greetings. I order you that, when you have seen these letters, having put aside every argument and delay, you have two barrels of white wine and two flasks of chestnut wine and one tun of filtered ale sent to me by the bearer of this letter. You shall know that I and my countess are having our blood let at N. Therefore, see to it that you do not move us to anger by your negligence. Farewell.
This is a blunt letter of command, the sort of thing the PCs could expect to receive if they are not highly valued servants, or have recently displeased their lord. It is not rude, by the standards of the time, but the Earl does not owe his steward any courtesy.
Messenger, France, 13th century.

Fictional Example 1: A Baron orders a Knight to Make A Full Account of a Dungeon

A baron to a knight, greetings. Because we trusted in your good faith and loyal service, you have evidently been behaving otherwise than you ought.  We have been informed that you have been keeping treasure found in our lands for yourself, and sending us less than the portion agreed upon, and also that you have kept the company of outlaws and bandits. Therefore, we order that on the day after the Feast of Fulvic you are to come to us ready and prepared to render your account. We charge you to also bring with you two wizards, our sworn servants, who will tell us the truth of all the things we have heard. If what is said about you is false, we will give no credit to those who have said such things about you. Farewell.
A PC has been hoarding treasure, and the local Baron has heard about it. The tone of the letter is not hostile, but the use of the formal plural emphasizes that the knight is of lower status. The last portion of the letter assures the knight that they are not doomed already, and that the Baron will hear a full and honest account of whatever has taken place.

Fictional Example 2: A Baron Summons His Knights To Service in Foreign Parts
Edmund, Baron of Bayle, to all his knights and military servants, greetings. We, putting the highest faith in trust in your love, order you that, for the sake of our love, you appear before us with horses, arms, and supplies on St. Galbin's Day. You shall know that the King has also caused us, like many others, to be summoned, and we are to take ship with him with all our men, as we desire his love. Therefore, I trust in you that you will act in such a way that that my love for you will be rewarded.
This is the formal declaration of a muster for war. Rumours would have preceded it for weeks. The Baron would probably send a copy to any battle-wizards in his employ, even if he doesn't name them directly. The knights would then be responsible for sending similar letter to their vassals.

Fictional Example 3: A Wizard Asks a Colleague To Take Her Son as an Apprentice

To Thomas, Joan sends greetings. Since I have the greatest confidence in your friendship, I send my beloved son to you, asking that, for my love, you receive him into your service, knowing for certain that his of good character, prompt, ready, and loyal. I have trained him in a few of the arts know to our profession, but I ask that, in your good judgement, you complete his training. Therefore, please act in such a way, for the sake of our request, that the bearer may think that our wishes have found favour with you. Farewell.
The end of this letter is a formulaic request. It's a great way to introduce new characters, hirelings, or complications.
Curse of Strahd official art, WotC, taken from here.
Fictional Example 4: Burgomaster Indirovich's Letter
This letter is the first thing given to the players in 5th Edition's Curse of Strahd module. It's a fake, written by Strahd, but it's still a mess. While CofS has always been set firmly in the "Year of the Rat", the tone is aiming for gothic late-model feudalism. Here's the original letter.
Hail to thee of might and valor,
I, a lowly servant of Barovia, send honor to thee.
We plead for thy so desperately needed assistance. The love of my life, Ireena Kolyana, has been afflicted by an evil so deadly that even the good people of our village cannot protect her. She languishes from her wound, and I would have her saved from this menace. There is much wealth in this community. I offer all that might be had to thee and thy fellows if thou shalt but answer my desperate plea. 
Come quickly, for her time is at hand! 
All that I have shall be thine! 
Kolyan Indirovich
Separating the components:
Hail to thee of might and valor,
I, a lowly servant of Barovia, send honor to thee.

We plead for thy so desperately needed assistance. The love of my life, Ireena Kolyana, has been afflicted by an evil so deadly that even the good people of our village cannot protect her. She languishes from her wound, and I would have her saved from this menace. There is much wealth in this community. I offer all that might be had to thee and thy fellows if thou shalt but answer my desperate plea. 
Come quickly, for her time is at hand! 
All that I have shall be thine! 
Kolyan Indirovich
Greeting (salutatio)
Introduction (exordium)
Body (narratio)
Petition (petitio)
Conclusion (conclusio)

There are clearly a few things wrong with this letter (from the point of view of a medieval letter-writer). The greeting is straight out of dinner theater. The petition is put first, which is an grave sin in requests like this, even today. It's fine for commands, but not for begging for help. And there are many, many stylistic errors:

-"We plead for thy so desperately needed assistance" is a turn of phrase that barely makes sense in modern English, let alone a pseudo-medieval formal letter.

-Also, the burgomaster would only use "we" if he's addressing inferiors, and since he's using "thee" and "thy", and begging for help, that's not the case. He's not using "we" to speak for the entire village either. He's a burgomaster! It's his job to speak, in the very feudal singular, for the entire village.

-"love of my life" doesn't work in the feudal structure. Everyone has a place, and that place is not defined by love. The "love" referenced in those earlier letters is more like "trust and obligation". It's the love you feel for your favorite hairdresser, not for your children.

-"an evil so deadly" hasn't killed her, so it's merely dangerous. She could be threatened by a deadly evil, but not afflicted by it, as afflicted implies direct action, and the direct action of a deadly thing is to kill. The letter could be using one of the more archaic (to humble, to harass), but then it's a tautology, like a very minor case of serious brain damage.

"She languishes from her wound, and I would have her saved from this menace." is two separate sentences rolled into one. Under the circumstances, forgivable.

-Burgomaster Indirovich refers to his village incorrectly. He's a burgomaster, so it's not "our village" it's "my village" if he's talking to an inferior or "the village of Barovia" if he's talking to a superior. "Our village" implies he's merely a villager, and what's the point of being a burgomaster if you can't flaunt your status?

-Similarly, "There is much wealth in this community." is a strange sentence that only makes sense in D&D-land. It's not the burgomaster's wealth. It's either the villagers' wealth, in which case he would have to attach their separate petitions, or the Baron's wealth, in which case the burgomaster just said, in writing, "come steal the Baron's stuff." Bad idea.

We can (with the guidance in "Lost Letters of Medieval Life") rewrite it to:
To any friends, Burgomaster Indirovich sends greetings. In these dark times, where can the afflicted turn, save to the kindness of strangers? Beasts surround my village, and a cloud hangs over the sun. My daughter, Ireena Kolyana, is threatened by a great and terrible evil. She has been wounded and I fear she is near death.  I offer all the wealth I possess if anyone who finds this letter will come to my aid, and quickly. Farewell.
This letter is still bizarre, but we can chalk it up to Strahd being an eccentric. He addresses his letter to "any friends" (Karissimo amicis suo, Burgomaster Indirovich salutem.) (pretty sure that's close enough in Latin). In a feudal structure, letters are never sent "to whom it may concern." You always know the person it concerns.

Anyway, when the PCs later receive letters from Strahd or other NPCs, they will follow the same format, with subtle deviations to get the PCs thinking.

(I'm kind of tempted to rewrite CofS as a "straight" feudal module. Chuck out all the vampires, werewolves, and tragi-comic backstory. Leave in wolves, witches (dubious) and a real jerk of a Baron. You know the type: waxing hovels, carrying off defenseless mustaches, burning maidens, that sort of thing. Not capital-E-Evil; just powerful and unrestrained. His oppressed subjects ask the PCs to start a revolt.)


-write letters to your PCs
-use the structure of letters to reinforce the structure of feudalism
-use letters to develop plot points, add hirelings, or chastise wayward PCs
-buy "Lost Letters of Medieval Life" 


  1. I'm not sure if I read that sentence wrong, but I'm pretty sure "you" is in fact the plural, and "thou" the singular...

    But letters are awesome and should be used more. Especially since they seem to have held more weight back then. Now I'm wondering if I should add letters to the treasure table...

    1. Ah, singular-plural confusion, the bane of my life. It was a typo.

      I'm thinking of drafting a Table of Letters too, with slots to add in names of local NPCs, etc.

  2. Hey. Spoilers for CofS, but...

    That letter wasn't actually written by the Burgomaster, it was written by Strahd, who made sure the carrier of the original letter was waylayed. So it sort of makes sense that he'd subconsciously place the plea where you'd place a command, refer to the village as 'our' village (since he doesn't think of the burgomaster as high status), and so on. There's certainly some purple prose in there that I'd modify, and I like your version better. Just a note

    Here's the original letter the burgomaster intended to send:

    Hail thee of might and valor:

    I, the Burgomaster of Barovia, send you honor—with despair. My adopted daughter, the fair Ireena Kolyana, has been these past nights bitten by a vampyr. For over four hundred years, this creature has drained the life blood of my people. Now, my dear Ireena languishes and dies from an unholy wound caused by this vile beast. He has become too powerful to conquer.

    So I say to you, give us up for dead and encircle this land with the symbols of good. Let holy men call upon their power that the devil may be contained within the walls of weeping Barovia. Leave our sorrows to our graves, and save the world from this evil fate of ours.
    There is much wealth entrapped in this community. Return for your reward after we are all departed for a better life.

    Kolyan Indirovich

    1. Well huh! Sorry, I hadn't read that section of the module (only played through it), and I guess it never came up that the letter was a forgery. Although... it seems a touch convoluted. Thanks for putting this in context!

      (I really don't want to write a post on "How to Write a Medieval Letter Like A Lord Pretending To Be Someone Of Lower Status", even if there are existent historical examples.) It would make sense for the Baron to offer his village's wealth... if only to punish thieves for taking the "burgomaster" up on "his" offer.

      Anyway, the "actual" letter is in a much more correct style, aside from the greeting and some of the purple prose.

    2. It's definitely convoluted, but kinda sandbox-y too cuz it's absolutely unnecessary for the players to ever find that out. The only way they'd notice is if they found the original letter (Strahd left the corpse of the messenger just lying around where the PCs might stumble across it cuz that's how he rolls) or if someone noticed the hand writing is different. The handouts use a different font for the different writers, since Strahd didn't need to bother disguising it

      I'm running CofS right now, and I'll definitely use something closer to your version of the letter if I end up using that hook for any of the players. I'll just put some of the Strahd-isms back in :)

    3. My take on content like that could probably fill another post. But anyway, if you want to Strahd-ify it, just
      a) have the Burgomaster refer to himself more contemptuously, emphasizing his weakness, helplessness, foolishness, fearfulness, and complete lack of ability to challenge the Baron
      b) add "beautiful" to Irena or re-add "love of my life"
      Basically, write it like a superior pretending to be an inferior.

  3. Another fantastic post sir. Please do rewrite Curse of Strahd. I'd run it that way.