The Material Letter In Early Modern England
by James Daybell

Reviewed by Jeanette Tran


Published by Palgrave Macmillan, 2012   |   357 pages

In a time when archival materials are increasingly made available to scholars online in digital formats, what sort of case can be made for visiting the physical archive and handling the materials in person? The lure of the archive surely inspires romantic arguments, the most compelling being the possibility that one could serendipitously encounter something previously undiscovered and yet rich with historical importance.  In his study The Material Letter in Early Modern England, historian James Daybell takes a more grounded position and argues that there are kinds of knowledge that one simply cannot access without encountering the physical materials of history. Daybell’s argument that “social and cultural meaning was encoded into the very fabric of the letters” depends upon the careful attention he pays to the physical features of early modern correspondence, which are largely lost through reproduction. His studymakes a strong case for why relying on modern printed or electronic editions of archival material is inadequate for the study of early modern letters.

The Material Letter in Early Modern England is the first full-length study of the cultural and social practices of letter-writing of early modern England. The study begins in 1512, the year when Sir Brian Tuke became Henry VIII’s Master of Posts and inaugurated the Tudor postal system; it ends in 1635, the year Charles I opened up the royal mail system for public use. Daybell’s book is not a history of the social and cultural pressures that contributed to the development of the Royal Mail. It is instead an exhaustive analysis of the technical and material aspects of letter-writing. His discussion considers the letters’s physical characteristics; he comments on the paper type, their size, and how they are folded; he considers the watermark and how the letter might be sealed (envelopes were not yet in common use). Daybell argues, persuasively, that in focusing our studies solely on the content of these letters, valuable information about the historical conditions under which they were written is lost.

For example, Daybell’s material reading of how the letter-writer makes use, or doesn’t make use, of the paper’s margins sheds light on the relationship between consumption habits and class. Because paper was expensive, the generous use of blank space becomes a sign of the letter-writer’s social status. In a chapter on the materials and tools of letter-writing, we learn that the price of writing materials alone ensured that letter writing was primarily an elite practice. Letter-writing required numerous expensive commodities, including paper, pens, penknives for cutting quills, ink, an inkpot, an inkhorn, a sand box or pounce pot for sprinkling sand onto a letter to blot the wet ink, and wax, string or ribbons for sealing the letter. And of course, unless one had a secretary, one had to be educated in letter-writing as well. In a chapter on epistolary writing technologies, we learn that letter-writing training could begin at home and often extended to the formal classroom. Letter-writing was considered an important social, professional and political skill. The social value of letter-writing was what allowed girls, who were otherwise excluded from grammar schools, university and publishing, to practice their Latin and English grammar, orthography, punctuation, rhetoric and composition skills, a non-trivial step towards the education of women. Letter-writing schooled boys and girls in social conventions by teaching them behavioral and social codes as well. To master the conventions of letter-writing, students studied Cicero’s Letters, Horace’s Epistles, and worked through Erasmus’s De conscribendis epistolis (On the Writing of Letters – 1522). This textbook was reprinted over 100 times in the 16th century.

The Material Letter In Early Modern England is clearly geared toward an academic audience, but it incorporates an appropriate amount of intrigue to interest the non-specialist as well. There is an entire chapter on “secret letters” that discusses the lengths at which letter-writers would go to try to protect their privacy. Because mail delivery was erratic and unreliable, and the number of hands a letter might pass through unpredictable, there was no guarantee of privacy for one’s letter. Ambassadors, agents, conspirators and spies alike developed covert and concealed forms of letter-writing in the attempt to communicate information securely. These letter-writers would use invisible ink, write their letters in code, or direct their reader to burn the letter upon reading it. An early example of code was to replace each letter of the alphabet with another, chosen at random though agreed upon in advance with the party to whom the communication is to be sent. A flaw with this approach, known since antiquity, is that the frequency distribution of the substituted letters will remain the same, which vastly simplifies the task of cracking the code. More advanced techniques were developed. While the use of cryptography is often associated with official statecraft, secret writing has always been far more widespread: a means for maintaining trade, as well as personal and religious—especially Catholic, in early-Modern Europe—privacy.

In The Material Letter In Early Modern England, letter-writing emerges as a complex, sometimes collaborative and oftentimes risky activity that defies our conceptions of it as an intrinsically intimate and private exchange between two individuals. Though communication delivery systems today are almost miraculously reliable and efficient, the recent rise of big data mining and revelations about the NSA have attuned us once again to the dangers we may face when we expose our thoughts and behaviors to the communications network. Just as technological advances in the 20th century have reshaped the world in which we live, Daybell reminds us that material letters themselves were a kind of “technology” that “restructured thought.” The act of addressing another person formally on paper forced the letter-writer to “compose a self” clearly informed by his or her own gender, age and social class. As aspects of one’s subjectivity were socially coded into the formal process of letter writing, the proliferation of letter-writing in the early-Modern period marked the beginning of a new era of self-investigation, self-fashioning and self-expression. It also marks a means by which future generations of readers and scholars may gain greater insight into the life of an otherwise historically and culturally distant age.

Jeanette Tran is a scholar of early modern literature who also enjoys reading contemporary American fiction. She currently resides in Iowa.

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