The Republic of Letters

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Podcast Transcript

Starting in the early Renisanase and going through to the early 19th century an intellectual community developed in Europe and later in the Americas.

This community wasn’t in any particular geographic place, but rather was a network of intellectuals who shared their ideas about philosophy, science, and politics. 

This network was informally known as the Republic of Letters. 

Learn more about the Republic of Letters and the network of Enlightenment thinkers, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

Republic of Letters has no definitive start time, nor does it have any particular end time, and despite its name, it wasn’t even limited to letters. 

The rise in intellectual culture in Europe at the time of the Renaissance is often attributed to the spread of the printing press. There is a lot of truth to that and I don’t want to diminish the role that the printing press played.

However, the printing press was really a broadcast technology. You could print a book, or more likely a pamphlet, and have it widely dispersed so a large number of people could hear about whatever idea was published. 

It served a very important purpose.

However, the vast majority of what most literate people consumed, and even read, was not necessarily in the form of printed material. Very early on, books were still rare and expensive, so someone who owned even a few books could say they had an extensive library.

Most of the reading and writing which people engaged in was in the form of letters. 

Letters were the way of closing the loop with published material. If you published a book, another person who read that book, oftentimes in a different country, could write back to you to start a dialogue about that or another subject. 

Letter writing began well before the Renaissance and the prominence of the printing press. 

The first use of the term “Republic of Letters” came from a letter written by Francesco Barbaro and sent to Poggio Bracciolini in 1417. Both of these men were early Italian Renaissance scholars and humanists. 

The Respublica literaria, as it was known in Latin, was simply all the scholars in their circle of letter writing who they were in contact with. At this point in time, most of the people they would have been in touch with would have been in Italy, but this circle soon spread.

The citizens of the Republic of Letters were known as men of letters. Being a man of letters was not just an indication that you were literate, but also that you had a curious mind and engaged with other men of letters as well. I should also add that at this time, it was pretty much all men. 

The Republic of Letters really developed into a robust network in the 17th century, with the rise of the Enlightenment. 

It was the writing of letters, not the publishing of books or articles, which was at the heart of intellectual life. 

Today, communication is so easy we don’t usually put much thought into the things we write. A tweet, a text message, or an email might be an ephemeral thing that we don’t even bother to save. 

However, in the 17th century, you would have put a great deal of thought and time into every letter you wrote and received. The better part of the day for many scholars might have been the reading and writing of letters. 

Moreover, it was very uncommon to throw letters away. It was the norm to keep and preserve all correspondences, and this is why we still have so many correspondences from leading figures of this period. 

The French philosopher Montesquieu wrote a book in 1721 titled the Persian Letters. In it, he lampoons French society by looking at it through the eyes of two Persian visitors to Paris.

In the book, one of the characters who is an astronomer says, “I have very little contact with people, and among those I do see, there are none that I know. But there is a man in Stockholm, another in Leipzig, and another in London, whom I have never seen, and no doubt shall never see, that I maintain such a regular correspondence that I never fail to write each of them with every mail.”

The international nature of the Republic of Letters starting in the 17th century was one of its defining characteristics. 

In fact, because so many letters from leading intellectuals have survived, a team from Stanford University created a database of all the letters that were held by Oxford Univesity. They had 55,000 letters from 6,400 authors.

They then overlaid this data on a map so you could see exactly who was writing to who, where, and when. 

What they found is that the Republic of Letters was really a connection of smaller, mostly national networks. In a very odd way, the personal letter-writing networks of the Enlightenment eerily mirror the topology of the internet today. 

Voltaire mostly wrote to other people in France. David Hume mostly wrote to other people in Britain

However, the letters sent between countries were often the most important, because that was how ideas would move from one local network to another

The capital of the Republic of Letters would have probably been Paris, but with large nodes in other major European cities such as London, Berlin, Dublin, Stockholm, Leipzig, Geneva, and many others. 

One of the most important items for men of letters would have been their desk. Desks from that period were some of the most elaborate and exquisite pieces of furniture ever designed. 

My desk today is nothing more than a flat table where I can put my computer monitors, keyboard, and mouse. Back then, they would have been very elaborate, often standing desks, with sometimes dozens of drawers for filing correspondences. There would often be up to 10 or 20 hidden compartments in some desks to hide correspondences from prying eyes. 

Letter writing also became an essential part of early America. Many of the founding fathers became acquainted with each other before the start of the revolution before they first met in person. 

Corresponding across the Atlantic was much more time-consuming than sending letters within Europe. Correspondences between Americans and Europeans might only be able to occur a few times per year given the distances involved.

One of the greatest letter writers in Early America was Benjamin Franklin who in addition to his domestic network, had extensive personal networks in England and in France. 

While letter writing was obviously central to the Republic of Letters, as I mentioned before, it wasn’t just letters. 

The Republic of Letters was an ill-defined community of scholars and intellectuals. 

The 17the century saw the founding of academies and societies which were sort of in-person, and more official versions of a letters network. The academies I’m talking about are not universities, which date back much earlier. 

These are institutions like the Royal Society of London and the French Academy of Science. 

These began to spring up in the mid to late 17the century and were in most European countries by the early 18th century. 

These societies, almost always headquartered in national capitals or major cities, offered a place where live lectures, experiments, and demonstrations could be held and didn’t require the tedious process of writing letters to everyone individually. 

These societies also would often publish a journal where members could write articles about their work. Again, it was a much more efficient system than writing individual letters. Also, these journals would be sent to other societies in different countries. 

Many journals arose that had no affiliation with any society. They were simply run as businesses, no different than a newspaper.

The other major part of the Republic of Letters in the 17th and 18th centuries were salons. 

Salons were private events held at homes with a select list of invitees. They usually were centered around philosophy, literature, or politics. 

The tradition of salons began back in Italy during the Renaissance when people would gather to exchange and discuss ideas at aristocratic or royal courts. 

Salon culture was probably strongest in France. I mentioned before that most men of letters were in fact men. Salons, however, were almost always hosted by women. 

In addition to the discussion of ideas, there was of course also petty intrigue and gossip which infected most salons as well. 

Salons never really died out completely, and there has been a bit of a revival in recent years as people have looked for an alternative to digital communication. 

There really isn’t that much of a difference between a salon and a party, other than a salon tends to be a lower-key affair, and probably doesn’t have loud music or dancing. 

Parallel to the salon culture was the coffee house culture. Whereas salons were more popular in France, coffeehouses were more popular in German-speaking countries and in England. 

Coffeehouses had the benefit that you could go whenever it was open and it didn’t require an invitation. People went to coffeehouses to hear the latest news and discuss current events. 

Many early newspapers actually got their start in coffeehouses. 

Coffeehouses had several benefits over a pub, in that the lack of alcohol tended to make for better conversations, and of course, fewer fistfights. 

They often had an association or at least a proximity to a university. The first coffeehouse in England was opened in 1650 in Oxford. 

In cities like London, some people, called runners, would run from coffeehouse to coffeehouse with news updates. 

The Republic of Letters is believed to have died out by the middle of the 19th century. It was due to many different social and technical changes.

The rise of the telegraph and improvements in transportation such as the railroad and steam-powered ships made communication much easier. 

Printing became better and cheaper which allowed for news and opinion to be more widely distributed. 

Also, a more formalized academic system of publishing and research, plus the increased complexity of the topics, brought many of the scientific discussions fully under the umbrella of the university. 

I’ve done many episodes where I’ve talked about scientists, scholars, and ideas from this period of time in Europe. Undoubtedly, there were some great and innovative thinkers from the period. However, it wasn’t done in a vacuum. 

There was an exchange of ideas that took place which lead to many of the scientific and social advances of the Enlightenment. This exchange of ideas were conducted over several centuries by the citizens of the Republic of Letters. 


The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

Today’s review comes from listener Kristine Maynard over at Castbox. She writes:

Thanks for all the hard work you put into these. I look forward to each new one.

Thank you, Kristine! It is a lot of work, but just like all of you, it gives me an opportunity to learn new things every day.

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