Cultures of Correspondence in Early Modern Britain

Cultures of Correspondence in Early Modern Britain

Cultures of Correspondence in Early Modern Britain

Cultures of Correspondence in Early Modern Britain


The letter is a powerfully evocative form that has gained in resonance as the habits of personal letter writing have declined in a digital age. But faith in the letter as evidence of the intimate thoughts of individuals underplays the sophisticated ways letters functioned in the past. In Cultures of Correspondence in Early Modern Britain leading scholars approach the letter from a variety of disciplinary perspectives to uncover the habits, forms, and secrets of letter writing. Where material features of the letter have often been ignored by past generations fixated on the text alone, contributors to this volume examine how such elements as handwriting, seals, ink, and the arrangement of words on the manuscript page were significant carriers of meaning alongside epistolary rhetorics. The chapters here also explore the travels of the letter, uncovering the many means through which correspondence reached a reader and the ways in which the delivery of letters preoccupied contemporaries. At the same time, they reveal how other practices, such as the use of cipher and the designs of forgery, threatened to subvert the surveillance and reading of letters.

The anxiety of early modern letter writers over the vulnerability of correspondence is testament to the deep dependence of the culture on the letter. Beyond the letter as a material object, Cultures of Correspondence sheds light on textual habits. Individual chapters study the language of letter writers to reveal that what appears to be a personal and unvarnished expression of the writer's thought is in fact a deliberate, skillful exercise in managing the conventions and expectations of the form. If letters were a prominent and ingrained part of the cultural life of the early modern period, they also enjoyed textual and archival afterlives whose stories are rarely told. Too often studied only in the case of figures already celebrated for their historical or literary significance, the letter in Cultures of Correspondence emerges as the most vital and wide-ranging material, textual form of the early modern period.

Contributors: Nadine Akkerman, Mark Brayshay, Christopher Burlinson, James Daybell, Jonathan Gibson, Andrew Gordon, Arnold Hunt, Lynne Magnusson, Michelle O'Callaghan, Alan Stewart, Andrew Zurcher.


James Daybell and Andrew Gordon

I have accustomed those great persons that know mee, to endure
blotts, blurres, dashes, and botches in my letters.

—Michel de Montaigne, Essayes

For those studying historical cultures, letters seem to promise a unique kind of access to the lives and thoughts of the past. the letter is a powerfully evocative form that has gained in resonance as the practices of personalized correspondence have declined in a digital age. the labors of scholars over the last two centuries to make available the correspondence of many notable figures have often been guided by a faith in the value of the letter as a primary textual form. As Pliny the Younger put it, “it is one thing to write a letter, another thing to write history, one thing to write to a friend, another to write to everyone” (aliud est enim epistulam aliud historiam, aliud amico aliud omnibus scribere). If Pliny’s claim for a distinction between letters and history, between the private sphere of the personal letter and the public scope of historical writing is recognizable, it is nonetheless deeply disingenuous. Not least because the source of this apothegm is itself one of the most celebrated of all letters of antiquity, in which Pliny provides his famous account of the death of his uncle in the violence of Vesuvius’s eruption in 79 A.D. We know of it precisely because this letter, addressed to the historian Tacitus, was included in the collection of his correspondence compiled by the author—in a rhetorical trope with which readers of Renaissance prefaces will be familiar, Pliny tells us that he did so in response to the repeated requests of others. It has . . .

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