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Artículo interesante: Rethinking the Republic of Letters: Two Perspectives on the Early Modern Learned Community

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Early modern scholars oftentimes emphasised the ideal of sharing knowledge beyond confessional and national borders. But was the learned community of early modern Europe truly as open and accessible as these intellectuals proclaimed? Or did the Republic of Letters in action perhaps comprise a number of “sub-republics” divided along the lines of religion, discipline, region, and/or gender? And how did one enter the Republic of Letters in the first place? Raising these questions and others, SKILLNET, an ERC project based at Utrecht University, aims to historicise the early modern European knowledge society.

In this blog, we, two recent SKILLNET PhDs, present two different, yet complementary historical approaches to the Republic of Letters. Manuel Llano first introduces his large-scale research on scholarly networks. Next, Koen Scholten elaborates on community formation in the Republic of Letters, focusing on the experience and representation of the Republic of Letters by the Dutch seventeenth-century scholar Joannes Kool (1672–1712). We briefly conclude with an assessment of the virtue of combining historical network analysis and close-reading of ego-documents.

The Correspondence Networks of the Republic of Letters
Manuel Llano

The name of the Republic of Letters can be somewhat misleading: in the original Latin, there is a clear distinction between letters (litterae), referring to the realm of learning as a whole, and letters in the sense of written messages (epistolae). Thus the original actor’s term ‘Respublica litteraria” refers in principle strictly to the first meaning, and it is better understood as a commons of learning, not as a society of correspondents. Only when the expression was translated to certain vernaculars the distinction became blurry: both senses are conveyed by the same word in French (lettres) and English (letters), but are different, for instance, in Dutch (letteren/brieven) and Spanish (letras/cartas).

This being said, written letters were, from its inception, the preferred medium of communication and to a large extent a precondition of this European-wide community of scholars. In a time before learned journals and periodical press, letters were the only way to engage with the learned community at large, keep up with recent discoveries, obtain book reviews and, indeed, books themselves when published abroad, seek patronage, disseminate one’s theoretical views, and gain influence. In a nutshell, writing letters was fundamental to advancing one’s career as a scholar. Hence it is not surprising that the two senses of the “Republic of Letters” soon overlapped and merged in some languages, and why it is often taken for granted that epistolary traffic was the backbone of early modern European erudite world: a social trellis holding up the fruits of scholarship.

The digital turn of the last two decades affords a unique opportunity to chart these correspondence networks. Research libraries and online repositories across the world hold a wealth of letter metadata, both in a structured, linked form as well as unstructured and siloed. By metadata I mean item-level descriptions of correspondence furnishing the researcher with basic information such as the names of the sender and the receiver, and the date of the letter and the place of sending and reception. It can also reach a more granular level, encompassing fields as diverse as the language of the letter and physical descriptions of how the letter was sealed. While complete digital editions of correspondence are scarce, cataloguing special collections holdings to make them ready for researchers has created a large pool of metadata. This metadata does not include the content of letters, but is in itself very valuable for the social historian of science. Furthermore, Oxford University’s  Early Modern Letters Online (EMLO) project provides an ever increasing union catalogue of high quality sixteenth-, seventeenth-, and eighteenth-century correspondence, and our own SKILLNET project is devising a crowdsourcing platform to harvest new data from early modern printed editions of letters with the help of volunteers.

In my research project, I plot correspondence networks and study them from the perspective of formal network analysis during a long time span: 1400–1800. My objective is to find structural patterns in the configuration of these networks in a manner that would be impossible from a close reading approach. In this way I can test certain hypotheses based on case studies that are often taken at face value, such as the possible disruption of epistolary circulation as a consequence of the appearance of learned journals in the second half of the seventeenth century (a thesis defended by K. Pomian and criticised by F. Waquet), the importance of “weak ties,” acquainted on a Grand Tour, in establishing bonds of credibility between local communities such as the Royal Society and widely dispersed and relatively unknown knowledge producers (as defended by D.S. Lux and H.J. Cook), and the preponderance of Huguenot refugees in the learned exchanges (as suggested by H. Bots).[1] In addition, I am working on adding other relationships between scholars, like affiliation, kinship and animosity, as well as some prosopographical information, such as birthplace, gender, and religious beliefs. At the moment, I am busy collecting metadata from different sources and performing tasks such as authority control, standardisation, geocoding and building up a pilot dataset based on the seventeenth century Dutch Republic. As of yet, I have not started analysing my dataset thoroughly. The following example, albeit incomplete, can showcase my approach. The following graph represents the learned sphere around professors Johann Georg Graevius (1632–1703) and Jacobus Gronovius (1645–1716). Both professors were central in an extensive correspondence network that connected the Dutch Republic with places as diverse as Paris, Rome and Stockholm.

Figure 1: Correspondence network around Gronovius and Graevius.

This set has been constructed by “snowball sampling”, that is, taking these two professors as a starting point and mapping with whom they communicated. The following step is to see who is in touch with this second tier, then the third and so forth, until the environs of Gronovius and Graevius are properly represented, based on the correspondence available, which currently amounts to 5,400 letters. These letters were sent by 50 correspondents, engaging in a total of 145 different interactions. Since this network is tentative at best, the number of letters sent has not been taken into consideration. The graph represents unweighted interactions the volume of correspondence, but simply who was in contact with whom. Some connections have been unavoidably lost, however, given that the correspondence has been gathered around central individuals and does not comprise the total letter-writing activity of every single person represented, not even the total of extant letters (see the data overview at the end of the blog for more information).

For the purpose of this study, no temporal division has been made, with the earliest letter being sent in 1609, and the latest in 1745. The intellectual vicinity of Gronovius and Graevius is represented as a unison chord, resonating for more than a century, both before and after their lives. It is possible to distinguish three generations of scholars: the ones on the right hand side of the graph being active during the first half of the century, and the ones to the center-left side during the second. As the SKILLNET dataset increases, especially with the incorporation of metadata from library and archival holdings, the correspondence will be split into fifty years cohorts to account for generational changes, and the bias in the data will decrease.

While the network features a great number of Dutch scholars, there is a strong presence, both in number but also in centrality, of foreigners based in the Netherlands While the network features a great number of Dutch scholars, there is a strong presence, both in number and centrality, of foreigners based in the Netherlands (like Pierre Bayle and Jean Leclerc), and of scholars from Catholic areas (like Athansius Kircher and Antonio Magliabechi), who all maintained relatively strong communicative positions. The average path length is 2.9, meaning that most correspondents were separated by a bit less than three people. Indeed, it is possible to appreciate how relatively minor scholars were separated by only a couple of degrees from the intellectual luminaries of the time. At the same time, it is possible to observe numerous members of dynasties of scholars participating in interlinked coteries (for instance, the Gronovii). As our dataset grows, it will be possible to quantify the data in a meaningful way and apply diverse tools from network theory to address historical questions. For now, I hope that these visualisations showcase the potential of this approach, showing how it is possible to obtain an overview of hidden trends in the scholarly exchanges.


Traveling through the Republic of Letters
Koen Scholten

Currently, I am working on a travelogue written by the Utrecht-born Joannes Kool (1672–1712). In 1698, after receiving his doctorate in law from Utrecht University, Kool ventured to Rome together with doctor in law Lucas van Voorst. In the first page of his 970-page-thick travel journal, Kool informs the reader he had a ‘great desire to see foreign lands’, and after his promotion, ‘settled under God’s blessing to depart in the month of April.’[2] For the next two years, the two young scholars travelled around Europe, spending considerable time in Paris, Florence, and Rome.

Figure 2: Map of the route taken by Joannes Kool in 1698 and 1699. Yellow lines indicate the traveling route, and green lines indicate a small tour. Image linkMap link.

Kool’s travelogue describes his year-long journey around seventeenth-century Europe: its cities, roads, lodges, courts, but more importantly for Kool, its antiquities, music, libraries, books, and learned men. This travel journal stands out from other travel journals. It is well organised, readable, elaborate (970 folios, bound in three volumes, see figure 3), and most importantly, it offers a unique insight into scholarly practices and encounters. Looking at this travel journal from the perspective of the history of science allows us to see how scholars interacted with each other, and represented their local learned spheres. Since my research project focuses on identity and community formation in the Republic of Letters, traveling offers a unique insight.

Figure 3: The first page of Joannes Kool’s travel journal. Image link. Rome, Bibliotheca di Storia dell’Arte, mss. 34 A 1–3, vol. 1, fol. 1r.

Many scholars travelled around Europe in their formative years, generally as part of a aristocratic or scholarly education.[3] It was during this so-called Grand Tour that the Republic of Letters was both represented and experienced. Following ideals set out by exemplary humanists such as Justus Lipsius (1547–1606), a Grand Tour in the humanistic vein would have to balance both voluptas (pleasure) and utilitas (utility). Lipsius argued that ‘anyone can reel and rummage; few research and learn; that is, truly travel.’[4] Joannes Kool took these ideals to heart and spent the majority of his time visiting learned men and exquisite libraries. Traveling offered a way to meet important scholars such as Nicolas Toinard (1629–1706) and Antonio Magliabechi (1633–1714), who could offer Kool access to the Royal Library in Paris and the Laurentian Library in Florence, respectively, and hence to the unique manuscripts these institutions held.[5] Here, I will focus on Joannes Kool’s interactions with Antonio Magliabechi. How did Kool represent himself as a scholar and how did he experience the learned society of Florence?

In his travelogue, Joannes Kool describes that on arrival at Casa Magliabechi he consciously presented himself as a scholar who had studied under Gronovius and Graevius, two highly respected scholars. Kool did this by offering Magliabechi, a scholarly acquaintances of both Gronovius and Graevius, a variety of books in his masters’ names. In his travelogue he described how he approached Magliabechi’s front door:

When we knocked on the door, we made sure to leave the books uncovered, so Magliabechi could see them, to gain easier access. Magliabechi looked through a square grating in the wall, to see whether the people in front of his door were to his liking, yet we were welcome […] we offered him the books, which were all very pleasing. Magliabechi kissed our hands […] When handing over the books, I also presented his Honour my oratio and disputatio, which had the good fortune of being kissed by Magliabechi.[6]

All in all, Magliabechi received five books: One from Graevius (Callimachus), one from Gronovius (Manethonis apotelesmata), one from Toinard (L’Histoire des quatres Gordiens), and two from Kool (Oratio and Disputatio). After a brief exchange of compliments, Magliabechi showed Kool around the house:

[We went] downstairs through several rooms, which are so full of books, you cannot move hand or foot, have to step over books at every turn, …, the stairs are so full of books that it’s almost impossible to go upstairs. There are several more rooms filled with books; that’s where his bedstead is, which is covered with books on which he sleeps.[7]

Magliabechi lived among books like a true scholar and did not allow anybody in his house except for other scholars (since servants allegedly stole his books). In the days following their first encounter, Magliabechi acted as Kool’s host in Florence and arranged access to libraries.

Here and elsewhere, Kool’s travel journal indicates that the doors to the Republic of Letters — its libraries, learned circles, and correspondence networks — were guarded by all-too-important “gatekeepers” and “weak ties”.[8] To gain access, Kool consciously presented Magliabechi with five books, which functioned as evidence for Kool’s scholarly merit in three ways. Firstly, the books by Gronovius and Graevius (with dedications to Magliabechi) present Kool as a disciple and student of these illustrious men.[9] It mattered that Kool could prove he belonged to a certain humanistic tradition. Secondly, those two books, as well as the book Toinard gave to Magliabechi through Kool, showed that other scholars considered Kool to be part of a learned sphere and regarded him as a scholar. These books thus served as credentials of Kool’s membership of the Republic of Letters.[10] Thirdly, Kool presents his own work, his oratio and disputatio, which serve as credential for his own scholarly diligence and contributions to the learned world. By styling himself foremost as a scholar, and not as a Dutchman or protestant, Kool successfully negotiated access to collections which otherwise remained closed to the political and religious ‘other’ that he embodied. Instead, he made sure that others viewed him as a member of a well-respected Dutch coterie of philologists pur sang.

The small snippets of Kool’s travel journal presented here are just a small fraction of the descriptions of scholarly interactions recorded in the travelogue. By highlighting Kool’s encounter with Antonio Magliabechi, I hope to have illustrated both early modern scholarly practice, as well as the distinct approach taken in this research.

Closing thoughts

Let us consider how scrutinising Kool’s travelogue and surveying correspondence networks complement one another. On the one hand, Kool styled himself as belonging to the school of Gronovius, an old friend of Magliabechi, and Graevius, and emphasised his connections to internationally renowned scholars like Nicolas Toinard. On the other hand, we can see the overlap in the communication networks of the aforementioned scholars, who not only interacted with each other, but also had many common correspondents. In the following graph, these five scholars are presented in red, their direct correspondents in yellow, and people separated by more than one degree in blue.

Figure 4: Correspondence Network around Kool, Gronovius, Graevius, Magliabechi, and Toinard. First degree correspondents indicated in yellow, second degree correspondents indicated in blue.

This creates a subset formed by a continuum of a communication circuit and a territory of influence, where a junior scholar like Kool could capitalise on certain connections to create new ones and consolidate his position. There was, in short, an interplay between the formation of identity and community on the Grand Tour, and the construction of circuits of communication in the Republic of Letters that we seek to explore during our PhD projects. Combining digital humanities with more conventional historical approaches to scholarly practice, our project intends to offer a profound understanding of the extent and workings of the Republic of Letters. Let us therefore end in the spirit of the early modern Republic of Letters: if you have any interest in early modern scholarly communities and their networks of correspondence, do not hesitate to send us an e-mail, although epistles are of course much welcomed too.

Data overview

The metadata used for the previous visualisations has been collected from the following sources.

Digital resources:

Catalogus Epistolarum Neerlandicorum (only accessible within the Netherlands)

CKCC’s ePistolarium <>

Early Modern Letters Online, Bodleian Card Catalogue, <>


Printed editions:

Kemke, Johannes. Patricius Junius (Patrick Young), Bibliothekar Der Könige Jacob I Und Carl I von England : Mitteilungen Aus Seinem Briefwechsel. Leipzig: Spirgatis, 1898.

Stegeman, Saskia. Patronage and Services in the Republic of Letters: The Network of Theodorus Janssonius van Almeloveen (1657–1712). Amsterdam: APA-Holland University Press, 2005.


[1]  Krzystof Pomian, ‘De la lettre au périodique: La circulation des informations dans les milieux des historiens au XVIIe siècle’, Organon, 10 (1974): 25-43, Françoise Waquet. ‘De La Lettre Érudite Au Périodique Savant: Les Faux Semblants d’une Mutation Intellectuelle’. Dix-Septième Siècle 140 (1983): 347–59, David S. Lux and Harold J. Cook. ‘Closed Circles or Open Networks?: Communicating at a Distance during the Scientific Revolution’. History of Science 36 (1998): 179–211, and Hans Bots, op. cit.

[2] Rome, Bibliotheca di Storia dell’Arte, mss. 34 A 1–3, vol. 1, fols. 1r–2r.

[3] On Dutch travellers in the early modern period, see Anna Frank-van Westrienen, De Groote Tour: Tekening van de educatiereis der Nederlanders in de zeventiende eeuw (Amsterdam: Noord-Hollandsche Uitgeversmaatschappij, 1983); Gerrit Verhoeven, Anders Reizen? Evoluties in vroegmoderne reiservaringen van Hollandse en Brabantse elites (1600–1750) (Hilversum: Uitgeverij Verloren, 2009).

[4] ‘… yeder kan wel swieren en snuffelen; weynige ondersoecken en leeren; dat is, recht reisen.’  Our translation from Justus Lipsius, ‘Groot oordeel van dien grooten en uytsteeckenden Justus Lipsius, over het reysen,’ in Wegh-Wyser, Vertoonende de besonderste vremde vermaecklijckheden die in t Reysen door Vranckrijk en eenige aengrensende landen te sien zijn (Amsterdam: Nicolaes van Ravesteyn, 1647); originally published in Latin as Justus Lipsius, Epistola peregrinatione Italica (Leiden: Franciscum Hegerum, 1592).

[5] On the exchange between Nicolas Toinard and Gisbert Cuper, see Harold J. Cook, Assessing the Truth: Correspondence and Information at the End of the Golden Age (Leiden: Primavera Pers, 2013), 30–32. On the centrality of Antonio Magliabechi in the dynamic exchange of books in the Republic of Letters, see Ingeborg van Vugt, ‘Using Multi-Layered Networks to Disclose Books in the Republic of Letters,’ Journal of Historical Network Research, vol. 1 (2017): 25–51.

[6] ‘Als wij aan de deur geklopt hadden, zoo gebruikten wij de voorsichtighijd van de boeken bloot te houden, dat Magliabechi die zien konde, om des te lichter access te krijgen. Magliabechi zag aan de rechter hand van zijn deur door een vierkant gaas, dat in de muur is, om te zien, of de menschen, die voor de deur zijn hem ook aanstaan, dogh wij waaren welkom […] zoo gaaven wij hem de boeken over, die alle zeer aangenaam waren. Magliabechi kuste onse handen […] Wanneer wij de boeken overleeverde zoo offereerde ik zijn Ede ook mijn oratio, en disputatio, die het geluk hadden van Magliabechi gekust te worden.’ Rome, Bibliotheca Archeologia e di Storia dell’Arte, mss. 34 A 1–3, vol. 2, fols. 344r–346r.

[7] ‘… benede door eenige kaamers, die zoo vol boeken leijden, dat men geen voeten kan zetten, telkens moet men over de boeken stappen, men ziet klijne heuvels met boeken, als men de trappen opgaat, zoo leggen de trappen zoo vol boeken dat men ter nauwer not naa boove kan gaan, daar zijn wederom eenige kaamers alle vol boeken, daar staat zijn ledikant, het welk vol boeken lagh en daar sliep hij op.’ Ibid., fol. 347r.

[8] For the importance of weak ties in the Republic of Letters, see David S. Lux and Harold J. Cook, ‘Closed Circles or Open Networks? Communicating at a Distance During the Scientific Revolution,’ History of Science, vol. 36 (1998): 179–211. Gatekeeping is a term often reserved for publishers, see Lewis A. Coser, ‘Publisher as Gatekeepers of Ideas,’ The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, vol. 421:1 (1975): 14–22; Nico Laan, ‘De uitgeverij als poortwachter?,’ Nederlandse Letterkunde, vol. 15:2 (2010): 146–191.

[9] The theme of having studied under a certain professor is important for a scholarly identity. For example, on Erasmus’ obsession with self-fashioning himself as a student of Rudolph Agricola, see Lisa Jardine, Erasmus, Man of Letters: The Construction of Charisma in Print (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993), 83–98.

[10] One could also interpret this as an attempt by Kool to have Magliabechi obliged to him; for the Republic of Letters as a community of obligation, see Anne Goldgar, Impolite Learning: Conduct and Community in the Republic of Letters, 1680–1750 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995), 12–53.

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