Political Communication in Medieval Correspondence


Within the field of medieval communication, the study of correspondencefor the purpose of investigating the composition, etiquette and dynamics of social spheres is a long established, yet not widely applied historical approach (for an early example of the use of medieval letters in constructing cultural historical narratives, see Haskins 1898). Bibliographies of medieval communication (such as Mostert 2012) tend to place a stronger emphasis on non-verbal communication, the production of literature, and the history of written culture more generally than on letter-writing. Literature with a focus on specifically political dimensions (cf. Mair 1984) of medieval correspondence is even sparser despite a rising scholarly interest in textual culture (cf. Briggs 2000, Chartier et al. 1997) and the analysis of specific types of written correspondence (cf. Doumerc 1993, Knight 2002, Nye 1992, Scott 1993, Udovitch 2002, Watt 2004). Yet the vast abundance of epistolary collections in the context of both the European and Chinese High and Later Middle Ages allows for a reconsideration of their value as an historical source, specifically with respect to political history.



The aim of this session is to approach medieval and late medieval (non-official) elite correspondence from a comparative perspective, considering scholarly, clerical and mercantile letters and their respective purpose, wider social and political dimensions as well as their historical significance. Egan’s (1990) study on the epistolary collection of a Sung scholar assesses the potential of small-scale private pieces of correspondence (“notes”) for illuminating the social relationships of their authors.  Haseldine’s (2011) article discusses the letters of Peter the Venerable, abbot of Cluny, one of the most important twelfth century collections of clerical letters. The focus lies on the political dimensions of clerical networks, as the maintenance of (Christian) friendships as well as the communal aspect is critical to this type of source (cf. Haseldine 2001, Smith 2005). In contrast, mercantile correspondence, which in the European context is preserved mainly from the late thirteenth century onwards, represents a personal type of letter that was typically intended to be read by only one recipient. Christ (2005) provides important insights into the characteristics of late medieval Italian merchant letters and specifically their characteristic as a carrier of political news, arguing that newsletter-style correspondence emerged as early as in the fifteenth century and possibly even before that. 

Against this background, we want to consider the following aspects:

  1. Source characteristics: what are the main structural differences between scholarly, mercantile, clerical and other types of elite correspondence? Which type of correspondence is likely to provide relevant information on political events and developments and their reception?
  2. Source criticism: how does their characteristic as either private or public (communal) document affect the historical interpretation of medieval letters (also cf. Grabois 1996)? What, in this respect, is the difference between randomly preserved documents (most mercantile correspondence) and historical epistolary collections (most clerical letters; cf. Garrison 1999, Goldberg 2012, Pattinson 2006)?
  3. Linguistic analysis: what does epistolary etiquette reveal about the social relationships between correspondents (cf. Knight 1997, Rüttermann 2006, Trivellato 2009)?
  4. Analytical methods: is there room for a traditional hermeneutic analysis, such as applied by Egan and Haseldine, in identifying social and political information in letters? Can these be meaningfully complemented e.g. by large-N approaches such as prosopographical questionnaires applied to tabular data (cf. Townsend et al. 1999)?
  5. Social theory: to what extent does the transmission of information necessitate (or generate) a “trust” relationship between sender and recipient (also cf. Guinnane’s 2005 critique)?
  6. Comparative history: which primary networks of communication (e.g. mercantile, inter-communal, religious) can we identify as the primary carriers of political information in the given historical contexts?
  7. Factual history: can the systematic collection of political information in medieval correspondence contribute to improving narratives of political history?

More generally, we want to inquire about the role of written communication in generating and maintaining political relationships, especially in a Euro-Asian comparative perspective. Furthers points of discussion may include the political relevance of correspondence vis-à-vis other types of written communication, the significance of informational networks in sustaining or weakening systems of governance, and the role of private and communal correspondence in fostering wider political awareness (cf. Gellrich 1988).


Core reading:

Christ, Georg: "A Newsletter in 1419? Antonio Morosini's Chronicle in the Light of Commercial Correspondence between Venice and Alexandria", in: Mediterranean Historical Review 20 (2005), No. 1, pp. 35-66.

Egan, Ronald C.: "Su Shih's ‘Notes’ as a Historical and Literary Source", in: Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 50 (Dec., 1990), No. 2, pp. 561-588.

Haseldine, Julian: "Friendship, Intimacy and Corporate Networking in the Twelfth Century: The Politics of Friendship in the Letters of Peter the Venerable", in: The English Historical Review CXXVI (April 2011), No. 519, pp. 251-280.


Recommended further reading:

Briggs, Charles F.: "Literacy, reading, and writing in the medieval West", in: Journal of Medieval History 26 (2000), No. 4, pp. 397–420.

Chartier, Roger, Dauphin, Cécile, Bourreau, Alain: Correspondence: Models of Letter-Writing from the Middle Ages to the Nineteenth Century, Princeton (N.J.): Princeton University Press, 1997.

Doumerc, Bernard: "Par dieu écrivez plus souvent! La lettre d'affaires à Venise à la fin du Moyen Age", in: Actes des congrès de la Société des historiens médiévistes de l'enseignement supérieur public. 24e congrès, Avignon, 1993, pp. 99-109.

Garrison, Mary: "“Send More Socks”: On Mentality and the Preservation Context of Medieval Letters", in: Mostert, Marco, New Approaches to Medieval Communication, Turnhout: Brepols, 1999, pp. 69-99.

Gellrich, Jesse: "Orality, Literacy, and Crisis in the Later Middle Ages", in: Philological Quarterly 67 (Fall 1988), No. 4, pp. 461-473.

Goldberg, Jessica L.: "The use and abuse of commercial letters from the Cairo Geniza", in: Journal of Medieval History 38 (2012), No. 2, pp. 127-154.

Grabois, Aryeh: "The Use of Letters as a Communication Medium Among Medieval European Jewish Communities", in: Menache, Sophia (ed.), Communication in the Jewish Diaspora: The Pre-Modern World, Leiden: Brill, 1996, pp. 93-106.

Guinnane, Timothy W.: "Trust: A Concept Too Many", in: JahrbuchfürWirtschaftsgeschichte 1 (2005), pp. 77-92.

Haseldine, Julian (ed.): The Letters of Peter of Celle, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. [Introduction]

Haskins, Charles H.: "The Life of Medieval Students as Illustrated by their Letters", in: The American Historical Review 3 (Jan., 1898), No. 2, pp. 203-229.

Knight, Gillian R.: The Correspondence between Peter the Venerable and

Bernard of Clairvaux - A Semantic and Structural Analysis, Farnham: Ashgate, 2002. [Chapter 1: Letter-writing and Friendship Reconsidered].

Knight, Gillian R.: "Uses and abuses of amicitia: the correspondence between Peter the Venerable and Hato of Troyes", in: Reading Medieval Studies 23 (1997), pp. 35-67.

Mair, Victor H.: "Li Po's Letters in Pursuit of Political Patronage", in: Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 44 (Jun., 1984), No. 1, pp. 123-153.

Mostert, Marco (ed.): A Bibliography of Works on Medieval Communication, Turnhout: Brepols, 2012.

Nye, Andrea: "A Woman's Thought or a Man's Discipline? The Letters of Abelard and Heloise", in: Hypatia 7 (Summer, 1992), No. 3, pp. 1-22.

Pattinson, David: "The Market for Letter Collections in Seventeenth-Century China", in: Chinese Literature: Essays, Articles, Reviews (CLEAR) 28 (Dec., 2006), pp. 125-157.

Rüttermann, Markus: "'So That We Can Study Letter-Writing': The Concept of Epistolary Etiquette in Premodern Japan", in: Japan Review, 2006, No. 18, pp. 57-128.

Scott, Karen: ""Io Catarina": Ecclesiastical Politics and Oral Culture in the Letters of Catherine of Siena", in: Cherewatuk, Karen, Wiethaus, Ulrike (eds.), Dear Sister - Medieval Women and the Epistolary Genre, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993, pp. 87-121.

Smith, Lesley: "Review: The Correspondence between Peter the Venerable and Bernard of Clairvaux - A Semantic and Structural Analysis by Gillian R. Knight", in: Speculum 80 (Apr., 2005), No. 2, pp. 609-611.

Townsend, Sean, Chappell, Cressida, Struijvé, Oscar: Digitising History: A Guide to Creating Digital Resources from Historical Documents, 1999; part. chapter 3: From Source to Database http://www.iono.noa.gr/hellinomnimon/Books%20and%20Papers/Digitising%20History.pdf

Trivellato, Francesca: The Familiarity of Strangers - The Sephardic Diaspora, Livorno, and Cross-Cultural Trade in the Early Modern Period, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009. Chapter 7: Cross-Cultural Trade and the Etiquette of Merchants’ Letters.

Udovitch, Abraham L: "Alexandria in the 11th and 12th Centuries. Letters and Documents of the Cairo Geniza Merchants: an Interim Balance Sheet", in: Décobert, Christian (ed.), Alexandriemédiévale 2, Cairo: IFAO, 2002, pp. 99-112.

Watt, Diane (ed.): The Paston Women - Selected Letters, Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2004.

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