09.03.10, Poster and Mitchell, eds., Letter-Writing

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Gillian Knight

The Medieval Review baj9928.0903.010


Poster, Carol and Linda C. Mitchell, eds.. Letter-Writing Manuals and Instruction from Antiquity to the Present: Historical and Bibliogaphic Studies. Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 2007. Pp. xi, 346. ISBN: 978-1-57003-651-4 (hb).

Reviewed by:
Gillian Knight
University of Reading

The appearance of this scholarly attempt to chart the development and nature of letter-writing manuals from their earliest beginnings in Western Europe up to the present day is both timely and very welcome. The introduction makes clear the need to lay the groundwork and foundations for a subject-area which has hitherto been inclined to cling to the coat-tails of other disciplines. As letters and letter- collections progressively emerge from a long period of neglect and disregard, it is high time to rescue their big sister, epistolary theory, from the shadows. This stimulating collection of essays starts by building on previous seminal, and more specialized, work relating to antiquity and to the medieval dictamen, and then moves forward to chart the relatively unknown waters of the Renaissance and beyond. The definition of "epistolarity" offered in Carol Poster's introduction, divided here into the study of letters ("epistolography") and the study of letter-writing theory and instruction, may come as an initial shock to those more familiar with recent post-Altman treatments which present the epistolary boundary between "fact" and "fiction" as blurred and ambiguous. It makes, however, an important point. The thrust of this collection is with the progressive democratisation of letter-writing: as stated by Poster, "if people participated in any form of verbal composition at all, they were likely to have written letters or to have had letters written for them." By re-instating the distinction established by Deissmann between "real" letters, practical and pragmatic means of communication and dissemination, and "literary" letters or "epistles", it raises important issues relating to literacy, education and socio- economic mobility.

The first essay by Robert G. Sullivan draws on preceding scholarship, notably that of Malherbe, Stowers, Stirewalt and Koskenniemi, to recuperate the letters of the fourth-century philosopher Isocrates. His analysis reveals the presence of conflicting impulses which will continue to characterize the letter-form: the presence of epistolary formulae, the recognition but conscious violation of epistolary norms and a simultaneous awareness of the advantages and limitations of written communication. Most significantly, Sullivan points towards a self-conscious location of the letter-form within a broader theory of rhetorical composition. The fact that these letters anticipate existing treatises by several centuries offers ample justification for Sullivan's complaint that the potential value of such early collections has been unjustly obscured by debates over authenticity.

Carol Poster's essay offers a thoughtful and comprehensive survey of the surviving Greco-Roman evidence. Unsurprisingly in view of the introduction, she shows a preference for documentary evidence such as manuals and papyri over so-called "literary" letters, summarily dismissed as being too "specific." The avowed aim, as spelled out in the conclusion, is to rescue such treatises from charges of being "uninteresting" and "minimally influential." While the groundwork has largely been laid by Malherbe, as Poster freely acknowledges, there is much of interest here, in particular, the speculation as to potential readership, for example, the suggestion that the absence of business letters from Demetrius' De elocutione points towards the Hellenistic aristocracy, whilst the manual of pseudo-Libanius with its concern with etiquette looks rather towards the "provincial letter- writer" or "new secretary." At the same time, Poster's championing of the value of imitation in the spread and formation of literary habits paves the way effectively for the discussions to follow.

Malcolm Richardson in his brief overview of the "golden age" of medieval epistolography challenges the traditional supremacy of the letter-writing manual, provocatively presented here as an intellectual "cul-de-sac", by pitting it against its "drab" but ultimately more successful near-neighbour, the practical formulary or form- book. Richardson begins by paying tribute to the formative scholarship of Murphy, Constable and Camargo and then moves to call for new approaches and wider-ranging methodologies. In particular, he pinpoints the largely untapped area of bourgeois manuals and customaries as a rich source of social and cultural information ripe for exploitation.

The following essay, Martin Camargo's case-study drawn from fifteenth- century Oxford can be seen as offering an answer to this challenge. Working back from the promulgation of a new statute in 1432, Camargo uncovers the existence of what in modern parlance would be termed a professional and independent "business school," offering instruction in the French vernacular and existing in parallel with the formal instruction in composition and Latin grammar taught by masters appointed by the University. This "turf war" forms a narrative of competition and encroachment which culminates in backlash and the imposition of financial penalties. Ironically, as Camargo points out, changing priorities would quickly consign both victors and challengers to the sidelines of history.

The next four chapters, devoted to the Renaissance and beyond, turn on the transformation of European letter-writing theory and practice brought about by the humanists, dominated by the hugely influential Opus de conscribendis epistolis of Erasmus in 1522, which would fruitfully fuse pedagogical instruction with philological interest. Gideon Burton begins by tracing the effects of the initial rediscovery of Cicero's letter-collections Ad Atticum and Ad Familiares in the fourteenth century, argued here to be both positive (their perception as "powerful...flexible...subtle...reflective and personal" presenting a powerful corrective to the rigid formalism of the dictamen) and negative (the drive to uncritical imitation, resulting in fossilization and to be attacked by Erasmus himself.)

Picking up where Burton leaves off, the contribution of Lawrence D. Green moves the focus to England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The opening reformulation of the Ciceronian problem as one of "rhetorical fictions" and "created senses of the human self" offers a glimpse of a more abstract approach to epistolarity. The treatment which follows, however, in keeping with the collection as a whole, has a pragmatic orientation, stressing the significance of economic indicators such as print-runs and book prices to chart a gradual change from an initial reliance on printed imports to the development of a more robust internal market, albeit one still heavily indebted to continental theory and culture.

W. Webster Newbold offers a detailed examination of the state and status of vernacular instruction manuals in sixteenth-century England with a view to establishing their potential readership. Three works are examined in detail: William Fulwood's Enemy of Idleness (1568), Angel Day's The English Secretary (1586), and Abraham Fleming's A Panoply of Epistles (1576). While all three are said to have been aimed at a similar market, up and coming members of the middle and upper-middle class, the first two named were apparently better received. Newbold attributes this to their judicious mix of humanist theory with practical instruction, letters of "familiar people" in "recognizable situations" (including, intriguingly, love- letters).

Judith Rice Henderson probes the perceived gap between humanist theory and schoolroom practice from a different angle. The opening posits the question of whether the study of the "neglected authors" of Renaissance textbooks belongs to the field of social or intellectual history, concluding that the historian needs a foot in both camps. In this vein, her exploration of the reception of Erasmus' Opus de conscribendis epistolis for pedagogical purposes in sixteenth- century Europe reveals a complex picture of adaptation and censorship, attributed by her to a tangled web of social and political factors, fuelled by the problematic nature of the text itself and by the religious conflicts of the Reformation.

Linda C. Mitchell's lively survey of seventeenth- and eighteenth- century England, packed with intriguing examples, similarly focuses on "forgotten" texts. In keeping with Mitchell's stress on the increased need for letter-writing as a practical skill for the "rising classes," the dominant terms here are "utilitarianism" and "communication." Of particular interest as an indicator of shifting readership, she signals the increase in the number of model letters aimed at women, including maidservants, and the appearance of female-authored grammars, for example, Anne Fisher's A New Grammar (1757), exemplifying her closing claim of the value of instruction manuals in relation to the study of social, economic and educational change.

John T. Gage utilizes electronic resources pertaining to the University of Oregon Library to tabulate the fluctuating fortunes of letter-writing instruction as part of composition textbooks in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In defiance of what would eventually prove itself to be a period of decline, Gage pinpoints two periods of spectacular increase, the first, between 1870 and 1879, coinciding with the expansion of public education in America, the second, at the beginning of the century, with the introduction of freshman composition courses. In general, he paints a picture of oversimplification and dissociation, enlivened by momentary responses to changing realities, in the form of letters to editors and responses to advertisements, along with telegrams and naval and military dispatches.

Joyce R. Walker's closing contribution, addressing the late twentieth- century phenomenon of the on-line netiquette manual, both brings the survey bang up to date and, through a series of sharply insightful distillations, serves as a satisfying conclusion to the collection as a whole. Her discussion of the problems and pitfalls associated with emailing and instant messaging offers a resume of the paradoxes inherent in letter-writing from antiquity onwards: a status on the border-line between orality and textuality; an interplay between public and private; an oscillation between formality and informality, while her references to "casual playfulness" and the "fictional impulse" resonate closely with contemporary critical approaches.

The value of this collection extends far beyond the specific points of interest raised in individual contributions, thought-provoking as they are. The previously unattempted chronological sweep opens up a broad spectrum of possibilities and issues a range of challenges for future enquiry. One important aspect, signalled in the introduction, is the provision of a substantial bank of bibliographic material both in a series of appendices and at the end of each essay. The consequence of this split presentation, compounded by a not over-generous index, is some difficulty in tracking down specific works: for example, Janet Gurkin Altman's influential Epistolarity: Approaches to a Form (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1982) is tucked away in appendix E on England 1700-1800. There are also one or two surprising apparent omissions. Patricia Rosenmeyer, for example, is represented by an article rather than by her more substantial Ancient Epistolary Fictions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001) while Catherine Conybeare's Paulinus Noster: Self and Symbol in the Letters of Paulinus of Nola (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000) does not appear to crack a mention. These minor caveats aside, there are riches a-plenty and much to occupy the prospective student of epistolarity.

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Author Biography

Gillian Knight

University of Reading