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Manuel Llano Martinez MA

PhD candidate


The structure of the networks of the Republic of Letters, 1400-1800

Utrecht University
Project: SKILLNET: Sharing Knowledge in Learned and Literary NETworks. The Republic of Letters as a pan-European Knowledge Society
Promotor(es): Dr Dirk van Miert
Aanstelling: vanaf februari 2018

This project shall study the topological structure of the correspondence networks of the Republic of Letters. The Republic of Letters was a network of correspondents active from the early 15th to the late 18th century that functioned as a self-perceived transnational, transconfessional and interdisciplinary learned community. In the late 18th century the community became increasingly disentangled and by the 19th and 20th centuries the term was used to nostalgically refer to a bygone ideal rather than an actual letter-exchanging community. While the notion of a Republic of Letters was born in the context of Renaissance scholars, by the 17th century it already encompassed all educated letter-writers, both male and female, of different station and extraction.
In recent years there have been several attempts at collecting comprehensive digital data from the extant letters and the already published printed editions. Using the aggregated metadata of different repositories1 (as of January 2018, amounting a total of 226.193 letters), this thesis will map the structure of the Republic of Letters using computational tools from Social Network Analysis (SNA) and theoretical insights drawn from Actor-Network Theory (ANT), such as the role of non-human agents (for instance, institutions) in the understanding of networks. Regarding its subject matter, this project falls within the research focus of constructed communities and performance studies, as demarcated by Burke: the chronological patterns of reciprocity, exclusion, clustering, degrees of separation, geographical distribution, and gender division will be brought to light and contextualised in their cultural, social and material setting.
By doing so, this project shall assess the received qualitative accounts of the constitution, structure and dissolution of the Republic of Letters from a quantitative standpoint, addressing the following questions: does the structure of its network reveal certain clusters which can be associated with discrete disciplines or with certain social groups defined by specific knowledge ideals? Were knowledge boundaries solidified by linguistic barriers? Is it possible to note a separation between science and the humanities, and if so, did this division enlarge over time? What were the boundaries of this imagined community? Was some kind of centre-periphery model in place, or was the fabric of the network much patchier?