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Seminar 5: The Scribal Circulation of Letters

In the fifth paper of our seminar series on Thursday 2 June, Professor James Daybell (University of Plymouth) delivered a fascinating paper entitled ‘The Scribal Circulation of Early Modern Letters’. Debuting material from his forthcoming book on the materiality of the letter, and in a slight change from the advertised title, Daybell provided a sophisticated overview of the ‘complex textual afterlives’ of letters beyond their initial composition, sending, and receipt; a conceptualization which challenges prevailing views of early modern epistolarity as a private, historically anchored exchange between only two individuals. By means of a rich range of political and religious examples from early modern England, Daybell traced several consecutive phases of subsequent manuscript dissemination: the controlled circulation of epistolary separates through private copying within discrete manuscript networks; a less discriminate casting abroad; commercial scribal publication within anthologies and miscellanies (in which copies of letters co-mingled with verse, libels, prose, and other manuscript genres); and finally, in many cases, print publication. Daybell also provided insights into the postal conditions which facilitated scribal transmission in early modern England, a surprisingly makeshift mixture of different delivery methods (ordinary posts, royal posts, messengers, carriers, servants, and chance travellers) until the introduction of a more stable and predictable postal structure with the founding of the post office in 1635. Questions focussed on the role of London and the universities as entrepôts for scribal dissemination; the costs of delivery; the anxieties and self-censorship engendered by the instability and porosity of the early modern postal network; and the distinction between ordinary street copies and scribal separates produced by commercial scriptoria. Seminars take place in the Faculty of History on George Street on Thursdays at 3pm. For future talks in the series, please see the seminar webpage.

Podcast now available on the seminar page!