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  • How Germany Left the Republic of Letters
  • Kasper Risbjerg Eskildsen

A common culture of scholarship existed across Europe from the Middle Ages to the Enlightenment. This culture possessed its own institutions, traditions, and rituals that connected its members across borders and religious divides. A professor from Lisbon, a librarian from Hanover, and a schoolmaster from Turku would all speak nearly the same language and wear nearly the same clothing. They would share many of the same dreams, celebrate many of the same heroes, and have similar memories from their youth and adult life. They were convinced that they belonged to the same cultural group and were normally willing to make personal and economic sacrifices when called upon by members of this group. Long before the emergence of European nation-states, the community of scholars formed what Benedict Anderson has called an imagined community, united by the forces of language, culture, and writing.1

From around 1500, the community of scholars went by the name respublica litteraria—the Republic of Letters. Italian humanists already used the metaphor in the early fifteenth century, and with Erasmus of Rotterdam's Antibar-barorum liber, it became commonplace within Europe.2 To Erasmus and his [End Page 421] circle the Republic of Letters signified the natural community between all students of creation, divine reason, and Greek and Roman antiquity. It gathered scholars across space and time and set them apart from the hordes of ignorant barbarians. To most early modern scholars, however, respublica litteraria signified much more than a community of reason and knowledge. They used the metaphor to describe every aspect of the culture of scholarship that connected its members and demarcated them from surrounding society. Universities, academies, and secret societies were talked about as parts of the Republic of Letters. Scholarly letters and conversations tête-à-tête, books, lectures and seminars, rituals and traditions were all included. The metaphor demarcated invisible borders between learned and lay, tacitly known to insiders but rarely strictly defined.3

The Republic Challenged

During the last decades of the seventeenth century the metaphor of the Republic of Letters lost much of its force and elasticity. Scholars used and debated the metaphor more than ever before, but these heated and emotional discussions were not necessarily—as is assumed in much of the work on the eighteenth century4 —a sign that the metaphor and the culture it represented had gained ground. The discussions were, much rather, a symptom of crisis. The end of the great religious wars and the emergence of modern centralized states forced scholars to rethink their role in society and their relationship to the new military and administrative elites. Philosophical skepticism and philological criticism threatened established academic teachings and methods.5 Debates about the Republic of Letters reveal the scholars' efforts to answer these political and intellectual challenges. In her studies of learned Huguenots who, after 1685, were spread across Europe, Anne Goldgar has described how the alienated community of scholars at the turn of the eighteenth century came increasingly under pressure.6 The Huguenots felt marginalized in their adopted [End Page 422] homes, lost income and patronage, and suffered a decline in social prestige. According to Goldgar, these external pressures resulted in stronger internal bonds, as exiled scholars rallied around the ideal of the borderless Republic of Letters. But already before Louis XIV's revocation of the Edict of Nantes, Huguenot scholars defined a French version of the republic—La République des Lettres—in strong opposition to the forces suppressing the Protestant minority. In 1684 Pierre Bayle defiantly declared from his Dutch refuge,

It is not a matter of religion, but of science: therefore one should put an end to all boundaries that divide men into different camps, and consider only that which unites them, namely their rank as noblemen in the Republic of Letters. In this sense all scholars should regard themselves as brothers, and consequently one another as family. They should say:

We are all equal We are all relatives     }     as children of Apollo.7

Protestant Northern Europe did not witness the same religious and political conflicts that France did.8 Scholars there were also ridden by crisis at the turn...


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