The history of letter writing is probably as old and far ranging as writing itself. The monumenta of various languages (i.e., the first written documents) are, besides epigraphic sources, letters that were not meant to survive their age. Even if they were strictly confined to certain subjects, persons, and places, letters reveal a generally accepted structure and approach.
We can assume that there is no single person in a literate society who has never written a letter; the rules of letter writing changed only slightly in time. On the other hand, the explicit and intended learning of letter writing gradually decayed from the institutionalised level of school and handbooks to a personal level of self-improvement. The volume offered by editors Carol Poster and Linda C. Mitchell is useful both from a theoretical standpoint and for practical purposes. The editors considered the study of letter writing (epistolarity) from two different aspects: the study of letters (epistolography) and the study of letter-writing theory and instruction (epistolary theory). The contributions gathered in this volume are mostly concerned with epistolary theory (or dictamen), proceeding in a chronological order from Antiquity to electronic mail. About one third of this volume comprises a highly elaborated bibliography.
Robert G. Sullivan’s “Classical Epistolary Theory and the Letters of Isocrates” opens with the admission that there has been a huge advance in the understanding of Greco-Roman epistolary theory and practice, due to the efforts of classicists, biblical scholars, and historians of rhetoric. The study of early letters awakened less enthusiasm after the spectacular debunking of the epistles of Phalaris (by Richard Bentley) or Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff’s exchange with Friedrich Blass over the authenticity of the Isocratean letters and the controversy over the attribution of the letters of Plato. R. Sullivan’s study centers on the variety of functions accomplished by the Isocratean letters: letters of patronage, of introduction, of counsel or advice, of recommending, and some mixed letters as well. The letters of Isocrates are closely connected to the rest of his works, parts of the whole of his literary career. His position on the letter anticipates late epistolary theorists such as Ps. Libanius and Ps. Demetrius, who saw letters as rhetorical shapes filled with authors’ ideas.
Carol Poster, in “A Conversation Halved: Epistolary Theory in Greco-Roman Antiquity”, studies the evidence for ancient epistolarity (both epistolography and epistolary theory) from the postclassical period. These materials consist in some direct evidence, as letter writing manuals or precepts for letter writing in other types of handbooks, and a large amount of indirect evidence, such as letter themselves, from which the theoretical basis may be detected. The conclusion is that the theories of grammar, epistolarity, philosophical protreptic, and the religious sublime influenced rhetorical theories; rhetoric seen as independent of these gives an extremely limited account of ancient arts of discourse and excludes from our consideration some of the most important materials regarding ancient rhetoric.
The contribution of Malcolm Richardson “The Ars dictaminis, the Formulary, and Medieval Epistolary Practice”, offers a survey of the so-called golden age of European letter writing manuals (the period from approximately the beginning of the twelfth century to end of the fourteenth); during this period, epistolary manuals became central textbooks for the formal study of rhetoric in some prestigious universities and, consequently, central textbooks in medieval learning itself. The most important effects were the development of a tradition of letter writing manuals that has never faltered and the reintroduction into European oratory of Ciceronian rhetoric. Nevertheless, it implied that the circle of literacy, including the literacy of women, began to widen by the end of the Middle Ages.
Martin Camargo, in “If You Can’t Join Them, Beat Them; or, When Grammar Met Business Writing (in Fifteenth-Century Oxford)”, opens with a glimpse over the turf wars that were common in medieval universities (as in their modern descendants). In early fifteenth-century Oxford, the teaching of writing (and letter writing) seems to have been the focus of one such conflict: although the university had issued statutes regulating writing instruction during the fourteenth-century, they applied only to persons teaching in the Latin grammar schools. During the next century, the university asserted its authority and the institutional hegemony arose.
Gideon Burton’s “From Ars dictaminis to Ars conscribendi epistolis [sic]: Renaissance Letter-Writing Manuals in the Context of Humanism” follows the passage from the letters of Antiquity that functioned as models (mostly Cicero’s Epistolae ad Atticum, uncovered by Petrarch in 1345 in Verona, and Ad familiares, uncovered by Coluccio Salutati in 1392) to the revival of ancient literature by humanists. Throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the authentic models were exactly these real letters, and not the formularies from the late Middle Ages.
Lawrence D. Green, “Dictamen in England, 1500-1700” opens with the assessment that the background of this topic is offered by a culture of literacy that was more Latin than English, more Continental than native, more oriented toward manuscript than toward print, having mostly imported imprints. “The bibliography for this period is a story of lost volumes, missing editions and ghost titles” (p. 103).
W. Webster Newbold’s “Letter Writing and Vernacular Literacy in Sixteenth-Century England” focuses on printed letter writing manuals that began to appear in English during the second half of the sixteenth-century; the shift from Latin to English is nevertheless a slight one, as the persons capable of writing letters could have easily managed with existing Latin aids. The vernacular manuals seem to compete with the humanist tradition, offering, at the same time, some practical guidance similar to that supplied by dictaminal formulations.
In “Humanism and the Humanities: Erasmus’s Opus de conscribendis epistolis in Sixteenth-Century Schools”, Judith Rice Henderson proposes the experiment of studying the use that sixteenth-century teachers of letter writing made of Erasmus’s Opus, published by J. Frobenius, in Basle, 1522. The treatise was one of the most influential Renaissance rhetorics, written by the most famous humanist of northern Europe. In this survey the gap between humanist theory and schoolroom practice is obvious; Erasmus’s ideal of immersion in classical literature did not have much chance of implementation in the classroom. The way he tried to set a balance between medieval barbarism and Ciceronianism in grammar, between rules and reading in rhetoric, between Church tradition and reform in theology, was much too complex for ordinary students and teachers.
Linda C. Mitchell, in “Letter-Writing Instruction Manuals in Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century England”, extracts from lesser-known letter writing instruction manuals some information about academic, vocational, and social training in these centuries. The reasons schoolmasters taught letter writing were varied: they could incorporate lessons on Latin and English grammar, spelling, punctuation, rhetoric, and composition, or could prepare students vocationally, or could serve, less directly, as behaviour manuals. The author’s survey indicates that little has changed during the past four hundred years, both in recommendations and in collateral elements involved in letter writing.
John T. Gage, in “Vestiges of Letter Writing in Composition Textbooks, 1850-1914”, uses the resources of a data base containing information about the holdings in nineteenth-century rhetoric of the University of Oregon Library. The author surveyed 193 composition textbooks (all in English) published between 1850 and 1914. The conclusions of this survey refer to both the most conventional uses of letter writing (the norm) and the range of variation found among the books.
Joyce R. Walker’ contribution, “Letter Writing in the Late Age of Print: Electronic Mail and the Ars dictaminis“, is the perfect finis of this volume. Electronic mail represents the reincarnation of epistolary tradition, preserving most of the original characteristics in the new (and still evolving) form. Netiquette guides are the contemporary equivalents of the old letter writing manuals, including practical advice regarding features that may interfere with communication (such as signature files or hyperlinks), discussions on tone, style and the changes that different online environments require, while maintaining a connection to the long tradition of letter writing guides.
The volume closes with seven excellent Appendices (numbered A to
The volume is highly recommended, both from the standpoint of the instruments it offers (bibliographies, information) and of the well balanced corpus of contributions. Some unimportant typing errors do not lessen the value of this book that will certainly be perfect in a second edition.