Letter Writing and Epistolary Culture

Deanna Shemek

in Renaissance and Reformation

ISBN: 9780195399301
Published online March 2013 | | DOI:
Letter Writing and Epistolary Culture

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  • Modern History (1700 to 1945)
  • Medieval and Renaissance Philosophy


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Early modern letter writing spanned literary and nonliterary, public and private, elite and popular culture as no other scriptural practice did. As documents, letters record both historical and linguistic data. In form and function, they bridge to modern journalistic media, and to literary genres like essays, diaries, and novels. The letter is also peculiarly related to oral discourse. The ancients theorized letters in works on rhetoric. Medieval letter writers drew upon theories of oratory, establishing in the late 11th century a standardized, five-part letter structure that endured well into early modernity. And humanists cast letters as conversations between absent friends. An explosive growth in letter writing and a rethinking of epistolary practices took place in Europe between the 14th and the 16th centuries, due to four contributing factors: (1) Banking, industry, and trade networks intensified exchanges of goods and information among increasingly global markets. Merchants’ practical needs spurred a significant rise in literacy (and letter writing), for the first time realized in vernaculars, rather than Latin. (2) Humanists, dedicated to cultural innovation based on the study of Greek and Roman antiquity, adopted the classically styled letter as a signature genre. Notably, both of these groups expanded letter-writing communities to include women: the merchants for practical reasons and the humanists for cultural ones. (3) Beginning in the 12th century, Europe’s increasingly complex political, juridical, and military institutions required greater bureaucratization and new administrative functions. For example, the notary and the secretary emerged as professionals who drafted, organized, and conserved documents, including correspondence; and resident ambassadors took up posts to dispatch letters continuously from abroad. (4) Finally, 16th-century mechanized printing helped to democratize letter writing by disseminating calligraphic manuals and books of model letters; and in publishing letters by prominent cultural figures, the industry marketed the letter as a literary form. The history of letter writing is tied to institutions and cultures but also to technologies. The shift from animal skin parchment to pulp-based paper, and the proliferation of water-powered paper mills in 13th-century Italy, made letter production economical. As notaries and chanceries systematized record keeping, handwriting evolved toward cursive scripts for faster execution. Wider adoption of seals and cipher systems increased security. And courier networks made delivery more frequent and reliable. Owing to all these factors, early moderns adopted the letter as a versatile form for a wide range of uses: personal, intellectual, administrative, diplomatic, commercial, and artistic.

Article.  9773 words. 

Subjects: Modern History (1700 to 1945) ; Medieval and Renaissance Philosophy

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