Social Networking in the Scriptorum

If you are a Facebook user, you know what it means to “friend” someone. But how old is this practice? Some might say a decade, and they would be technically correct since Facebook didn’t exist until 2004. But the practice of establishing – what some might call superficial – friendships through written correspondence has a long history that extends beyond the surviving material record. Yet, we do have an abundance of evidence about the history of “friending” preserved in manuscript archives throughout the world, which maintain collections of earlier modes of epistolary exchange, or what we now call “social networking.” While such letter writing stretches back into antiquity, the form and function of such correspondence experienced a revolution in twelfth- and thirteenth-century Italy, when medieval teachers began instructing their students in the rhetorical forms of written persuasion called the artes dictaminis. These treatises, the first of their kind in the western world, survive in manuscripts and early printed books that not only explain the art of establishing social networks through letter writing, but also include marginal glosses written by later readers, which indicate how the practice was evolving over time. Additionally, these manuals were often accompanied by the works of the ancient Roman rhetorician Marcus Tullius Cicero, whose theories about speaking were adapted for written communication throughout the Middle Ages and well into the Renaissance. In particular, the prevalence of his treatise On Friendship indicates that establishing friendships and letter writing were increasingly considered to be complementary activities. The archival record
demonstrates that letter writers were actively “friending” each other to establish social networks beyond the scriptorium. This course will examine the literary, cultural, and material life of written correspondence from the poetic epistle to the snarky tweet. And while we will be reading and analyzing epistolary literature (both fiction and nonfiction) such as Ovid’s Heroides, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Alice Walker’s A Color Purple, we will focus our efforts on “real” letters of writers that are held in the Rare Books Room of the Boston Public Library. The BPL is a treasure trove of such correspondence, ranging from the stately epistles of Queen Elizabeth to the cryptic scribblings of Emily Dickinson. Much of the course will be devoted to handling, describing, and transcribing these fragile texts, all the while characterizing the place of letter writing within the history of the book. As we examine this life of letters, we will consider the rhetorical principles that shape authors and audience over time, as well as their implications for our understanding of the past, present, and future of epistolary friendship. Drawing on the innovative methods of the digital humanities, we will contextualize our archival research within read-write platforms, such as blogs, wikis, Facebook status updates, and Twitter feeds, in order to identify the shifting character and global significance of written correspondence today.