chapter  III
3 Pages

III.11 Letters

ByCAROLYN JAMES

The early modern centuries witnessed a dramatic escalation in letter-writing across Europe, as levels of literacy rose, especially among women, postal infrastructure improved and local vernaculars displaced Latin in all but certain categories of official correspondence. Historians have long been alert to the capacity of letters to document the lived experience of social interactions in the past. However, there is now greater awareness among scholars that even the most ordinary and seemingly pragmatic letters are, in some sense, performances. Rather than offering direct, or unmediated, access to an early modern person’s interiority, epistolary evidence documents the changing degree to which particular emotions figured in letters, the ways in which feelings were conceptualized and articulated, as well as how interpersonal relationships were negotiated by mail.1 Most of the scholarly analysis of these themes has been directed at elite correspondence, which survives abundantly in private family collections and state archives throughout Europe. The voices of humble people are more elusive. Nonetheless, they too participated in early modern epistolary culture. Their petitions to charitable institutions, or to wealthy patrons, for example, are extant in substantial numbers. Whether dictated, or written entirely by a scribe on an illiterate person’s behalf, these letters constitute an important, if underutilized, resource for understanding how the poor and powerless represented themselves and sought to elicit sympathy from those who could help them.2