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9-08-2015, 16:58

The writing body: letters and diaries

As we move from examining the social body to the individual body, we will be increasingly relying on personal documents such as letters, journals, and diaries for our information. Using personal sources requires understanding the contexts in which they were produced, exchanged, and read. In the medieval period, letters were sent through all sorts of channels – traveling acquaintances who passed them along to other travelers, merchants going to fairs, people on pilgrimages, and (for the wealthy and powerful) privately hired messengers. At the beginning of the sixteenth century, the Taxis (or Tassis) family, who had served as couriers for the pope and other Italian rulers, was commissioned to set up a communication system in all the lands under Habsburg rule. This territory stretched from Spain to Bohemia, and slowly regular postal routes were established, which were open to anyone who paid the fee, not simply to specifi c business or government clients. The postal service was a private enterprise, not a branch of the government, and the Taxis company made contracts with rulers beyond the Habsburg lands as well. Postal systems and post offi ces were set up in France, England, and Scandinavia in the fi rst half of the seventeenth century, with mail coaches instead of individual riders handling the increased volume. Postal maps existed for all of Europe by 1700, showing roads, bridges, and post offi ces. The regular delivery of mail is such a normal part of daily life today that we notice only when it is interrupted, but it was a major innovation in early modern Europe. People who could write did not have to rely on private contacts or the whims of travelers to correspond directly with one another, and began to use the post for regular communication. Though most letters from any era have long since disintegrated, so that it is diffi cult to arrive at exact fi gures, the volume of written personal communications increased signifi cantly with the regular postal service. Paper provided letter-writers as well as printers with a cheap surface, and writing letters became a large part of many people’s daily activities. We know that people spent time each day writing letters not only from the letters themselves, but also from journals and diaries that describe this, along with their other activities. Personal journals have survived in numbers that steadily increase throughout the early modern period, mostly from people at the upper end of the social scale, but quite a few from middle-class individuals, such as the German merchant Mattheus Miller, and a few from the laboring classes, such as the English lace-maker’s apprentice Mary Hurll. Explorers such as Columbus, Vespucci, and Pigafetta wrote open letters and kept journals describing their voyages. Men, and a few women, in various occupations kept daily records of their professional activities; the English scientist Robert Boyle (1627–91), for example, kept a diary of his experiments and observations, while the Dutch midwife Catharina van Schrader (1656–1746) kept notebooks of every one of the more than 3,000 births she attended over her long career. Such journals vary from terse and businesslike to rambling and thoughtful. Protestants, especially Calvinists and Quakers, were encouraged to engage in spiritual self-refl ection on a regular basis, and in England and other places where literacy rates were relatively high, many people kept spiritual journals. Catholics were more likely to discuss spiritual matters orally with their priest, but in certain cases they, too, were encouraged to write them down. The confessors of several Spanish holy women (termed beatas ) ordered them to dictate or write about their devotional practices and mystical visions. The most famous of these, Teresa of Avila, edited and refi ned her work over many years, turning it into a full spiritual autobiography. Some writers combined business, religious, and family matters with introspection in ways that reveal a great deal about their personal qualities as well as the society in which they lived. Glickl bas Judah Leib, traditionally known as “Glückel of Hameln” (1646?–1724), was a Jewish woman born in Hamburg who assisted her husband in his growing trade in gold, pearls, jewels, and money. When she was in her early forties, her husband died accidentally, and she continued his business, traveling widely. To help her get over her sorrow, she also began to write her memoirs, which contain much about her family and business life, but also stories drawn from history and tradition through which she sought to understand and explain the events of her life. “In my great grief and for my heart’s ease,” she wrote, “I begin this book … upon the death of your good father, in the hope of distracting my soul from the burdens laid upon it.” Her book would be a long endeavor written over many years, eventually describing the death of her second husband as well as her fi rst. The text survived in two family copies to the nineteenth century, when it was published, fi rst in the Yiddish in which it was written, and then in translation. Glickl’s text provides a detailed look at the economic and social life of central European Jews as a group, as well as information about how one seventeenth-century woman responded to a son and a second husband who disappointed her and to a God who sometimes seemed distant; in recent translations, her memoirs have served as a source of spiritual inspiration as well as historical information. Samuel Pepys (1633–1703) was an English civil servant who worked in several branches of government. He eventually became the top administrator of the navy, a member of the House of Commons, and president of the Royal Society. He kept an extensive diary covering the years 1660 to 1669, including a discussion of the dramatic political events of those years and of the many theatrical and musical performances he attended. He also recorded in great detail his rather fumbling sexual encounters with a number of women – one of which his wife walked in on – coding these in French, Italian, or Spanish words so that they were even more secret than the shorthand he used for the rest of the diary. This shorthand made transcription diffi cult, and the diary was not published until the nineteenth century, when a bowdlerized version omitting anything even vaguely sexual appeared; the full diary was not published until the 1970s, though it is now available in several versions on the web. The diary provides historians of music and drama with information about actors and audiences, and social historians with information about aspects of daily life, such as lice in wigs or excrement piling up in streets and cellars. Pepys also turned his talent for close observation inward, recording his strengths and weaknesses, thoughts and emotions, in what Claire Tomalin, a recent biographer, has termed his contemplation of the “unequalled self.” Both Glickl’s and Pepys’s works are unusual in their personal insights, but they are also unusual in that they seem to have been written only for private or family reading. Today we draw a fairly sharp line between a private diary or letter and a published book of memoirs, but in the early modern period this line was not as clear. Members of the nobility and the educated elite sent letters to friends or colleagues knowing (and indeed, often hoping) that these would be copied, circulated in manuscript, and eventually published. The French noblewoman Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, marquise de Sévigné (1626–96), for example, wrote regularly to her friends and relatives, providing court news, Parisian gossip, and witty commentary; over 1,100 letters have survived. She quickly learned that her letters were being copied and read widely, and so crafted them with this in mind, though she still included her personal feelings. Daily journals,

SOURCE 21 Pepys’s diary

In recording his daily activities, Pepys blends comments about family life, routine government operations, major political events, and goings-on in his neighborhood and around London. Here are two diary entries for February 1660, when Parliament was debating restoring Charles II to the throne after his father had been deposed and executed in the English Civil War. At this point Pepys was a clerk in the Exchequer, or treasury department. February 16 In the morning at my lute. Then came Shaw [Pepys’s colleague at the Exchequer] and Hawly [another work colleague, who was also Pepys’s neighbor], and I gave them their morning draft [of ale, a common morning food] at this time at my house. So to my offi ce, where I wrote by the carrier to my Lord [the earl of Sandwich, a distant cousin] and sealed my letter at Will’s [a tavern] and gave it old East [probably a servant] to carry it to the carrier’s, and to take up a box of china oranges and two little barrels of scallops at my house, which Captain Cuttance sent to me for my Lord. Here I met with Osborne and with Shaw and Spicer [two colleagues], and we went to the Sun Tavern in expectation of a dinner, where we had sent us only two trenchers[platters]-full of meat, at which we were very merry, while in came Mr. Wade and his friend Capt. Moyse (who told us of his hopes to get an estate merely for his name’s sake), and here we staid till seven at night, I winning a quart of sack of Shaw that one trencherfull that was sent us was all lamb and he that it was veal. [In other words, they made a bet about what type of meat was on the platter.] I by having but 3 d. in my pocket made shift to spend no more, whereas if I had had more I had spent more as the rest did, so that I see it is an advantage to a man to carry little in his pocket. Home, and after supper, and a little at my fl ute, I went to bed. February 17 In the morning Tom that was my Lord’s footboy came to see me and had 10 s. [shillings] of me of the money which I have to keep of his. So that now I have but 35 s. more of his. Then came Mr. Hills the instrument maker, and I consulted with him about the altering my lute and my viall [violin]. After that I went into my study and did up my accounts, and found that I am about 40 l. [pounds] beforehand in the world, and that is all. So to my offi ce and from thence brought Mr. Hawly home with me to dinner, and after dinner wrote a letter to Mr. Downing [Pepys’s supervisor at the Exchequer] about his business and gave it Hawly, and so went to Mr. Gunning’s [a prominent clergyman] to his weekly fast, and after the sermon … we went and walked in the park till it was dark. I played on my recorder at the Echo, and then drank a cup of ale at Jacob’s. So to Westminster Hall, where I heard that some of the members of the House were gone to meet [about the restoration of King Charles] … Hence we went to White Hall, thinking to hear more news, where I met with Mr. Hunt [a neighbor], who told me … that some of the members of the House had this day laid in fi ring into their lodgings at White Hall for a good while, so that we are at a great stand to think what will become of things … Hence … to Harper’s, and there drank a cup or two to the King, and to his fair sister Frances’ good health, of whom we had much discourse of her not being much the worse for the small pox, which she had this last summer. So home and to bed. This day we are invited to my uncle Fenner’s wedding feast, but went not, this being the 27th year [i.e. his 27th wedding anniversary]. (From The Diary of Samuel Pepys, ed. Henry B. Wheatley [London: G. Bell and Sons, 1924], vol. I, pp. 55–7.) especially those of well-connected people, were often written in the same way, with an eye to their eventual publication. We have already traced the impact of the journals of Columbus, Vespucci, and Pigafetta, but even the journals of less adventurous sorts proved interesting for people to read. The English clergyman John Beadle’s The Journal or Diary of a Thankful Christian (1656), for example, was a best-seller and a model for others. This semi-public nature of many personal documents means that we cannot use them as direct windows into people’s inner thoughts and emotions, for their writers often framed their journal with a wider audience in mind, and were careful to present a persona that would enhance their reputation or at least be acceptable. This is actually true of all personal documents. Letters and diaries, even those that the writer expects will remain private, are written within a specific cultural background in which certain emotions, ideals, and fantasies are regarded as appropriate for people of a specific age, gender, and social class. In the early modern period, for example, anger was generally seen as more appropriate for men and thus masculinized a woman who became extremely angry, whereas intense heterosexual passion was seen as feminizing a man. This did not mean that women never became angry and men never felt passion, but such expectations may have affected how men and women described their feelings, even to themselves. Thus we may think of personal documents as strictly descriptive sources, depictions of reality, when they are actually to some degree also prescriptive sources, reports of what their writers wished were true.