Medieval Tips for Modern Letter Writing

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If you need to craft a particularly effective email, say to get your girlfriend to forgive your latest mistake, the best person to help you isn’t Dr. Phil; instead, it’s a medieval monk. Medieval monks devised a superior form of letter writing called ars dictaminis that can help everyone from content writers to boyfriends in the doghouse to craft effective, polite letters or emails for a variety of modern purposes.

Unless you have access to Bill and Ted’s time-traveling phone booth, you cannot go back to medieval times and beseech a monk for aid, which is probably for the best since they wrote mainly in Latin (and, no, driving to the closest Medieval Times location is probably not going to do you any good, either). There is still hope. The monk’s texts still exist and their techniques are easy to learn. Simply follow their basic structure of salutation, capturing of goodwill, narration, petition and conclusion to compose your very own medieval-style letter in the modern tongue.

Don’t believe that any ancient writing style applies in today’s world of email, texting and status updates? Think again. Ars dictaminis is a method applicable to any subject matter, from business letters to letters of a more personal nature, letters that perhaps you would not wish to share with a monk anyway. Ars dictaminis even has its own Facebook page.

The method of prose composition relies on following the same structure to achieve success. The beginning of an ars dictaminis letter is the salutation, or greeting. Starting a letter with “Dear” or “To whomever it may concern” are examples of modern salutations. You will likely be more comfortable with one of these phrases over medieval salutations, such as “Worshipful master, I greet you well.”

Capturing of goodwill is the next step and it is of critical importance. People are less likely to care about the favor you are going to ask of them if you fail to get on their good side first. This is where you compliment the letter’s recipient, perhaps remind him of similar favors he has done in the past and express gratitude and/or try to elicit sympathy for your current situation.

The capturing of goodwill may tie in to the narration portion of the letter. This is where you tell your story or explain the circumstances that set up your petition. The petition is where you ask for help. Perhaps you wish to obtain a job interview or want to set up a meeting to pitch a presentation. For the purpose of seeking a job interview, the narration covers your qualifications and objective. Your petition may be to ask for the interview or the person’s consideration in hiring you.

Finish your letter with a conclusion, such as “I look forward to hearing from you” and perhaps “Sincerely” or the increasingly popular “Best regards.” The conclusion may also express a wish or hope for the recipient. You could say that you hope she gets better if the recipient has been ill or just express a general wish for their health and happiness.

Through using this tried-and-true method, you create organized, well-written letters or emails that make you appear intelligent and deserving of aid.


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