How were letters written in Medieval times?
By Medieval times I take you to mean a focus on that area ranging from the Irish Isles to the Vistula, from the Baltic to the Mediterranean Basin and that period from the fall of Rome to the invention of the moveable type printing press by Gutenberg: so, about 1,000 years: ca 440 – 1440 CE
First: wipe away all your understandings of writing and communicating as we know it.
None of that is here in this place and time.
Even literacy is rare.
Writing materials are hard to come by.
Wood pulp paper does not exist.
Those who would write must use vellum (sheepskin), papyrus or parchment (product of wetland cane ) fine linen (a woven fiber ) or bark (northern lands).
Pencils did not exist.
Pens were made of cane, large bird quill, or metal (rare).
The scribe must keep the nib of his pen sharp, so illustrations showing scribes at work showed them with pen and penknife in hand.
(My father had a penknife and could sharpen quill — a now lost art…) The knife is also used to erase mistakes from the medium by scraping.
The scribe must know how to make his (or, rarely, her) own ink.
The best formula from ancient times was a concoction of gum arabic, oak gall, iron sulfate and water.
A cheaper, easier mixture of carbon, gum and water would be discovered in time for moveable type to take advantage of, but for more than a millennia home made ink and hard wrought ‘paper’ was what an would be writer would use.
So we now have all the ingredients we need: literate writer & recipient, common language (Latin), writing material ( ‘paper’, pen & ink) and since it is a letter we wish to write and send, we need some sealing wax and a seal: beeswax and a cast stamping device.
We write , we seal and stamp; now, how to get it there? Roads are terrible and there is no post road service.
If we are of the nobility, and sending it to a nearby county, we might use a servant or traveling merchant or tinker.
If we are of the merchant class, we will send it with our trade goods.
If we deal in woolens and want to communicate with a buyer in London or beyond, we shall send it by boat.
Usually the message would go no faster than the fastest horse or swiftest boat.
If the message was very important, we would use many messengers and two or more writings.
So who wrote letters and why.
Abbots and Abbesses (a la Hildegard von Bingen) wrote to fellow abbeys on matters of mutual concern: ‘would you care to swap your copy of the Gospel of John for our copy of the Septuagint for the time it takes for us to make a copy?’ ‘We have a surplus of (list of abbey made goods) to swap for your (list of abbey made goods) — trade?’
Kings ‘wrote’ laws and decrees (See for example the Capitulare de Villis ca 770 CE by Charlemagne’s Court).
Merchants wrote of shipments and receipts.
Nobles wrote invitations to noble weddings, but one invitation would be carried by one herald to several recipients.
Communications in a world that moved in a much slower pace decreed that planning be done well in advance.