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Sharing Knowledge In Learned and Literary Networks. The Republic of Letters as a Pan-European Knowledge Society

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - SKILLNET (Sharing Knowledge In Learned and Literary Networks. The Republic of Letters as a Pan-European Knowledge Society)

Reporting period: 2019-01-01 to 2020-06-30

The central thesis of this project is that the Republic of Letters was held together by the ideal of sharing knowledge. To support this thesis, SKILLNET theoretically tests to what extent the Republic of Letters can be regarded as a ‘knowledge commons’ and as an ‘imagined community’, through large-scale social network analysis, prosopography, and through text-mining, in combination with qualitative methods of interpretation.

This project is important to society because it yields insight into how transnational scholarly communities deal with the intricacies of Open Science in a historical perspective. It reveals to what extent the Open Science movement of today, as well as of pan-European cooperation, has deep roots reaching back into the early modern period. Moreover, through this project we gain a more realistic view of the actual functioning of this community and of the extent to which the ideals were upheld and implemented by the community as a whole, and not just by the relatively small number of famous scholars and scientist who are hitherto usually taken as representatives of the Republic of Letters. As such, SKILLNET also cautions against easy appropriations of the past in the service of 21st-century agendas.

Overall, then, the objectives are to explain why a transnational scholarly community kept up a particular scholarly and scientific collective identity, independent of the State and the Church. In order to accomplish this, we need to establish to what extent this identity actually applied to the community and how this community was structured.
In the PhD project about the social structure of the learned community, the PhD candidate has numerically confirmed that learned men and women in the Low Countries maintained an equal balance between domestic and foreign contact, supporting the notion that Dutch scholarly culture formed a continuum with other European countries. He has analysed that marriage patterns of university professors were integrated in civic life rather than forming ‘professorial families’, contrary to what the literature suggests. This qualitative and prosopographical socio-cultural study of the Republic of Letters progresses beyond the predominant attention to a limited number of famous scholars towards understanding the social tissue of the world of learning as a whole.

In the PhD project about collective scholarly identity, the PhD candidate has shown that, from the 16th century onwards, scholars considered themselves to be part of a transnational imagined community, to be then appropriated by different countries who nationalized parts of the scholarly community in the 17th century. By publishing collective biographies of scholars, a sense of history and collective identity was shared throughout Europe. When it comes to practice, the paradox is that local actors stressed the learned character of local communities by inscribing themselves into the framework of the larger Republic of Letters. For being identified and accepted as an important scholar in the moral economy of Republic of Letters, innate brilliance was regarded of paramount importance, but it needed to be polished through training by members of the learned community.

In the postdoc project about the terms that reference the ideal of sharing knowledge, the postdoc has discovered, through text mining digitized early modern scholarly letters, through conventional keyword searches and by close reading, that the term ‘Republic of Letters’ seems to have appealed primarily to scholars in precarious and dependent positions as religious minorities. She has also shown that modern historians’ infatuation with the term ‘Republic of Letters’ has overlooked the fact that historical actors used almost as frequently a less emphatic term to denote their commonality, i.e. ‘world of learning’ (orbis literatus). This is one of the phrases that are actually more suitable to use in modern studies: it is less projective and still an actors’ category.

In the postdoc project about the social dynamics between the citizens of the Republic of Letters, the postdoc has shown that personal scholarly networks tend towards balance if that network comprises enemies who resist mutual links. Because the postdoc started only recently, it is too early to draw conclusions from her research.

In his synthesis of the general history of the Republic of Letters, the Principal Investigator has shown, drawing on the case of female participation in the Republic of Letters, that the notion of ‘cultural citizenship’ is productive to analyse inclusivity. Nevertheless, some elements of institutional citizenship such as the role of family, the state, the church, and the market are also relevant in a non-legal context. In this context, the ‘Republic of Letters’ was part of a moral economy shaped by discours of obligation, through which mutual bonds were created and consolidated in order to ask for favours. As such, the rhetoric of the Republic of Letters was both intentional and consequential for enabling the sharing of knowledge.

As planned, we set up the crowdsourcing project CEMROL (Collecting Epistolary Metadata of the Republic of Letters) and collectively managed it.

As a team we have collected some 150k records of metadata of early modern learned letters, comprising 79k epistolary metadata we received from partner projects, 20k newly created individual catalogues, and (beyond the planning) another 50k-60k from the Catalogus Epistularum Neerlandicarum (a catalogue of letters kept in Dutch libraries), as well as some 1,000 records from CEMROL.
Beyond the state of the art, we have collected the largest set of concentrated early modern epistolary metadata. Drawing on successful examples of citizen science, we set up our own crowdsourcing project CEMROL to have the public help us in harvesting epistolary metadata.

We expect to present also by the end of the project an open-source online research environment for at least the metadata in the Catalogus Epistularum Neerlandicarum, and strive to do this for all epistolary metadata that we collected.

We have learned that our view of the Republic of Letters as a whole needs to be adjusted: we conclude that historians have hitherto exaggerated the popularity of the concept of the Republic of Letters and have projected it too often on scholarly networks, reflecting modern scholars’ love of the concept rather than historical actors’ engagement with it. Beyond the state of the art is also our conclusion that the world of learning was larger and more complex than previously assumed, since historians have hitherto ignored the ‘middle classes’ of this community as serious participants in the economy of early modern learning. Furthermore, we have established baselines to measure the level of transnational epistolary contact and we have observed differences in the geographical distribution of virtues ascribed to scholars.

By the end of the project, we expect to have demonstrated the necessity to reconceptualize the Republic of Letters as a stratified social community, bound together by more bonds than letters, including media that strengthened scholarly identities through remembering scholars both well known and not well known. We also expect to have to tune down the cosmopolitan ideals that modern interpreters ascribe to the Republic of Letters, and show that the concept itself was used pragmatically rather than ideologically.
Painting of a letter rack (1675) by Cornelis Norbertus Gysbrechts