The scholarly interest in networks and communities established through writing in the early modern world is growing. Epistolary exchange is no longer the exclusive turf of the Scientific Revolution or the Enlightenment. In recent studies of international literary circles, scientific organizations, family life, the “religious republic of letters,” and merchant or business networks, scholars have argued persuasively for the powerful potential of epistolary exchange in forging interpersonal, institutional, or international bonds between friends and strangers alike. As gender is now an indispensible category for historical analysis, the discussion of gender-specific modes of communication in epistolary exchange has also become imperative: women and men appropriated the society’s gender norms and manipulated specific genres of writing to achieve collective goals or to realize personal aspirations. In the investigation of both virtual and actual communities, gender and genre seem to be inseparable from each other.
This session participates in this line of inquiry. And yet, more than simply adding three original researches to enrich our current understanding of how networks and communities were constructed through epistolary exchange in early modern Europe, the papers in this session challenge the analytical framework within which gender and genre have been examined. They explore how, through epistolary exchange, individuals created social networks and consolidated a sense of community, and how social, religious, and gender norms were appropriated in the discursive practice of writing, and how, in turn, individuals came to depend upon a virtual or actual community for their social, political, and spiritual wellbeing. Specifically, the three papers share an interest in deconstructing the close association between gender and specific narrative conventions as well as in re-examining purportedly gender-specific modes of communication in epistolary exchange.
All three panelists argue that it is necessary to look beyond specific narrative conventions, gender roles, and institutional constraints in the study of networks and communities. Through the love letters and general correspondence among five British men and women, the family correspondence of the Spinelli in Florence, and the circular letters of the Visitation nuns in Brussels, the papers in this session contend that familiar conversations had farther-reaching effects than simply cementing relationships within intimate circles. Rather, we argue that an emphasis on love letters hides the true purpose of correspondence, monastic circular letters revealed more than the material struggles or spiritual lives within female convents, and the gossip exchanged by women and men was instrumental to financial or political decision-making in early modern society. Gossip among kinsfolk, letters, amorous or otherwise, or news circulated within a monastic order created networks and a sense of community that ultimately helped individuals to define their communities and find their own places in their social world.