Social distancing in 17th-century letters

A blog post by Laurianne Bremond.

Laurianne is a member of the LERMA, and recently successfully defended her PhD dissertation entitled “Pour ma Chère Chère Soeur” : édition critique et traduction de la correspondance entre Charles II et Henriette-Anne, duchesse d’Orléans. In this post, she analyses the materiality of letters and correspondence to show how social conventions were translated onto paper not only int he words used but also in the formal presentation of thoseintimate documents.

Social distancing has been part of our daily lives and vocabulary for the last two years. Yet, the expression can also be used when talking about the 17th century. Nothing to do with safety measures to fight the numerous epidemics that plagued Europe at that time, though. This phenomenon can be observed… in letters.

In the Middle Ages, the epistle was a complex exercise following strict rules, which demanded high intellectual level and Latin proficiency. It was thus reserved for an elite. In the early modern era, letters were considered the best way to keep in touch and communicate with someone who was not physically present. Correspondence even thrived as literacy rate grew and postal services improved. According to Roger Duchêne, “the developing of epistolary practice, and especially the female epistolary practice, created a new state of mind, more attentive to spontaneity than to perfection, to the truth of a letter genuinely sent rather than its technical achievement[1]”. Yet did this evolution between the medieval epistle and the early modern letter imply the utter deregulation of epistolary writing?

If correspondence is said to be a “conversation between absentees”, it should be considered as a conversation between civil people, well aware of the rules that govern the relationship between men and women, members of the family or inferiors and superiors within the social hierarchy. In the 17th century, social conventions were still paramount, especially in Court. There was no spontaneity in writing to a member of Government or to the sovereign. Quite the contrary: to be sure that their requests would be well received, courtiers could use manuals and even ask professionals to write their letters.

Despite the calls for more spontaneity and truth, writing rules were still in use. Alan Stewart even chose the word “grammar” to name “the physical features of the letter (such as handwriting, paper, seals, postscripts) – and the social practices that animate them (the customs of writing and the rites of delivery)[2]”. Indeed, epistolary and social conventions were intrinsically tied. Deference to a social superior, like a patron or the King himself, should be visible in the content of the text but also in the structure of the letter.

In a report sent to Louis XIV, French Ambassador in London Gaston Jean Baptiste de Comminges, kown as “le comte de Comminges” left a large blank (almost half a page) between the greeting “Sire” and the first line of the text. He did likewise at the end, with a reasonable blank between the last line and the parting “Sire”, his signature pushed even further, into the bottom right corner of the letter. This document is an example of the fastidious implementation of what we could call “social distancing” in epistolarity. Here, “social” is not related to “3. b. a group of people, an organization, etc.: consisting or composed of people associated together for friendly interaction or companionship” but refers to “5. d. a person’s status in society”[3]. The distance that existed between the author and the recipient, who was superior on the social ladder, was illustrated by the visible distance between the body of the text and the opening and ending of the letter. Those blanks could be seen as the epistolary equivalent of bowing and were a mark of humility.

This form of social distancing can also be associated with one of the key rules of Court life: precedence. In that case, distance came with order. It can be observed when the letter is attributed to several authors with different social status. For example, in 1665, Louis XIV sent two envoys extraordinary to his first cousin Charles II. With Comminges, they were supposed to prevent a war between England and the United Provinces. One of them was a diplomat, Honoré Courtin. The other was Henri de Bourbon-Verneuil, duc de Verneuil, legitimate son of King Henri IV of France and therefore uncle to both Louis XIV and Charles II. When this “ambassade extraordinaire” (as it was called) sent reports to the French King, not only the respectful distances were applied when possible (when the text did not cover the last page almost entirely), but the three men signed according to their status: as a Duke and member of the royal family, Henri de Bourbon-Verneuil was the first to sign (“Henry”, the title “duc de Verneuil” was visibly added by the secretary), then came Comminges (“Comenge”), and finally Honoré Courtin (“Courtin”).

Official correspondence was not the only type concerned with respecting the rules. Such proof of humility and discretion can be observed in exchanges between a man and a woman who were not related (in that case, the female writer had to be careful to maintain the distance on paper to preserve her reputation) or between members of the family (children showing their respect to their parents and expecting their own children to do likewise).

The apparent failure to respect such rules can either be due to ignorance, which could have unfortunate consequences, or to a will to bridge the gap between the correspondents, sometimes despite their differences. The correspondence between King Charles II and his youngest sister Henriette-Anne, known as “Madame”, is remarkable. Conventionally, Madame should address her brother with reverence, as a King and the head of the Stuart family. That is why, at the very beginning of their correspondence (the first letter of the corpus dates from 1659) the 15-year-old princess repeatedly called him “your Majesty”. But Charles II clearly asked her not to be so formal (“I beg of you not to treat me with such ceremony”). From that moment, the letters were written with a complete lack of structural formality. When we observe the surviving documents, we can see that the text is very compact and often cover whole pages. Moreover, there are no greetings and their respective parting sentences (“I am yours” and “I am your humble servant”) are directly included in the last lines of the text. Madame does not even use a signature while the King uses a mark that could be a stylized “C”, coming just after the end of the text and, sometimes, on the same line as the last words.

Social distancing can be observed in letters because they are the literal reflection of the social relationships which were, in the early modern era, extremely hierarchical, especially at Court. The spontaneity promoted was actually ruled by social conventions, which became epistolary conventions. However, those conventions were not limited to the text per se. For scholars, its structure and even the materiality of the letter are highly informative on the relationship between the correspondents. A carefully built text with significant blanks can be proof of formality and social distance. On the contrary, a text that does seem spontaneous in its content and structure can convey a sense of familiarity.

Such observations should encourage us not to limit letters to their literary content but to zoom out and have a broader view on the epistolary process, which could give precious information on the author’s social self-awareness.

[1] Roger Duchêne, Comme une lettre à la poste. Les progrès de l’écriture personnelle sous Louis XIV (Paris : Fayard, 2006), p. 128.

[2] James Daybell et Andrew Gordon, « Introduction: The Early Modern Letter Opener » dans James Daybell et Andrew Gordon (eds), Cultures of Correspondence in Early Modern Britain (Philadelphie : University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016), p. 1-26 (p. 12).

[3] OED online.

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