- Cultures of Correspondence in Early Modern Britain ed. by James Daybell and Andrew Gordon
James Daybell and Andrew Gordon's edited collection Cultures of Correspondence in Early Modern Britain joins what the editors recognize as a vibrant scholarly revitalization of epistolary studies, one that emphasizes the physical object of the letter but considers it alongside questions of content, audience, and literary significance. In many ways the volume follows on from Daybell's monograph The Material Letter in Early Modern England: Manuscript Letters and the Culture and Practices of Letter-Writing,1512-1635s (Basingstoke, 2012), as well as the influential work of contributors such as Lynne Magnusson and Alan Stewart, to expand both the time-frame and the range of epistolary elements falling under the heading of the 'material letter'. Foregrounding extensive archival research in every essay, contributors take up not only bibliographical features of paper, folding, and palaeography, but also, as the editors write in the Introduction, 'the social and cultural practices of manuscript letter writing and the material conditions and contexts in which they were produced, disseminated, and consumed' (p. 5). The volume's authors view the letter not as a supplementary element of early modern literature, but rather as one of the period's most influential, dynamic, and widespread textual forms.
The Introduction consolidates contemporary scholarly understandings of early modern letter writing by questioning longstanding assumptions of the letter—in their evocative phrase, 'this most overdetermined of forms' (p. 5)—as a private, individual, and manuscript genre. Who, they ask, counts as the 'author' of a letter that conveys a message from one person in his clerk's handwriting, with a third person adding the signature and seal, and others bearing the letter and adding oral messages? Who the 'recipient' when many if not most letters were read aloud upon receipt and, as Arnold Hunt argues in his essay, when 'the basic unit of early modern correspondence was not the single letter but the packet, which might contain multiple letters, "side papers", and separates' (p. 206)? Eschewing both the humanist metonym of the letter as friendly conversation, and the communications model of the letter as a transmitted message, the authors offer a capacious answer to the question 'what is a letter?': 'By reorienting our approach to consider the material as well as textual aspects, letter writing emerges as a collaborative, mediated, and layered form that could involve successive acts of drafting, editing, review, and copying by different parties' (p. 8). The aim of the book, they add, is not so much analysis as reconstruction of material conditions and practices of letter writing.
To that end, the individual chapters reveal new and detailed aspects of the early modern period's many epistolary cultures, from women's to grammar-school boys' to ironmonger's apprentices' to diplomats' to poets' and others'. Scholars searching for in-depth information on styles of handwriting, postal routes, ciphers, and Ciceronian epistolary education will be amply rewarded, and if only for such updating of the facts of early modern letter-writing practices this volume proves itself invaluable. Mark Brayshay's chapter, 'Conveying Correspondence: Early Modern Letter Bearers, Carriers, and Posts', authoritatively outlines multiple modes of transmission, using a daunting extent of archival research in local record offices and the National Archives to reconstruct the development of postal routes over a 150-year period. A cultural geographer, Brayshay provides a comprehensive view of [End Page 84] the gradually systematizing postal network, filling in the details of the catch-all term 'circulation'.
In the other direction, several authors focus on what seem to be solely material elements of letters, showing how they are in fact part of complex strategies of composition and interpretation. Nadine Akkerman explains that practices of cryptology were often not so much about ensuring the secrecy of communications as about establishing mutual trust and intimacy between correspondents. Examining Elizabeth of Bohemia's use of cyphers, which often deployed...