In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Letter Writing and Epistolary Culture

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliography, Reference, and Research Tools
  • Dedicatory Letters
  • Materials, Technologies, Circulation
  • Theory

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Renaissance and Reformation Letter Writing and Epistolary Culture
Deanna Shemek
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 March 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 19 March 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0194


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.

General Overviews

Given the formative role of Italy in the modernization of letter-writing culture, Italian sources dominate the primary and secondary literature. The best overview of the subject is Petrucci 2008. Also treating mostly Italy but otherwise wide-ranging are Chemello 1998 and Doglio 2000. Constable 1976 is a rather dry but standard and widely consulted resource. Guillén 1986 is a classic essay and an excellent place to begin research on this topic. Mapping the Republic of Letters is an ongoing project featuring “rich case studies” of individual writers and their correspondence circles. Najemy 1993 offers a succinct and engaging consideration of Renaissance letter culture, particularly in Florence. Vaillancourt 2003 provides an overview in French of Renaissance humanist epistolary practices.

  • Chemello, Adriana, ed. Alla lettera: Teorie e pratiche epistolari dai Greci al Novecento. Milan: Guerini Studio, 1998.

    An ambitious and solid collection that features essays on the ancient Greek “origins” of letter writing, a prehistory of the ars dictaminis, Petrarch, humanist letters, and secretarial handbooks. Several essays treat individual letter writers (e.g., Bernardo Tasso and Sertorio Quattromani).

  • Constable, Giles. Letters and Letter-Collections. Turnhout, Belgium: Èditions Brepols, 1976.

    Discusses the nature and form of the genre and classifies types of letters from Antiquity through the Renaissance, with major attention to medieval letters. A standard point of reference in the scholarship.

  • Doglio, Maria Luisa. L’arte delle lettere: Idea e pratica della scrittura epistolare tra Quattro e Seicento. Bologna, Italy: Mulino, 2000.

    Valuable for the range of letter uses it treats, including the letter as manifesto, report, and novella. Each chapter also focuses on a single writer (Piccolomini, Pontano, Boiardo, Machiavelli, Guazzo, Tasso, F. Testi, Carlo de’ Dottori, and Tesauro).

  • Guillén, Claudio. “Notes toward the Study of the Renaissance Letter.” In Renaissance Genres: Essays on Theory, History, Interpretation. Edited by Barbara K. Lewalski, 70–110. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986.

    Though limited by its exclusive focus on elite writers, a compact and indispensable introduction and overview for students and scholars alike.

  • Mapping the Republic of Letters: Exploring Correspondence and Intellectual Community in the Early Modern Period (1500–1800).

    Umbrella site for separate projects devoted to such early modern figures as Athanasius Kircher, John Lock, Carlos Sigüenza y Gongora, and others. Most regard 17th century or later. Also features innovative mapping tools, some of which require paid subscription for document access.

  • Najemy, John M. “Renaissance Epistolarity.” In Between Friends: Discourses of Power and Desire in the Machiavelli-Vettori Letters of 1513–1515. By John M. Najemy, 18–57. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993.

    Written with uncommon elegance and informed by literary critical interests, this study by a leading historian of Florence is suitable for both scholars and undergraduates as an introduction to the topic.

  • Petrucci, Armando. Scrivere Lettere: Una storia plurimillenaria. Bari, Italy: Laterza, 2008.

    A chronological study by Europe’s most authoritative paleographer and historian of graphic media, written with both scholars and general readers in mind. Includes attention to material and technical aspects of letter production and circulation ranging from intellectuals to the semiliterate. Outstanding.

  • Vaillancourt, Luc. La lettre familière au XVI siècle: Rhétorique humaniste de l’épistolaire. Paris: Honoré Champion Éditeur, 2003.

    Discusses classical and medieval antecedents to humanist letter writing, treating letter-writing manuals and several important single-authored collections of letters. Includes attention to Hélisenne de Crenne, Étienne du Tronchet, Gaspar de Saillans, the dames des Roches, and Étienne Pasquier. Substantial bibliography of primary and critical sources.

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