Between 1550 and 1750, regular exchanges of letters encouraged the formation of virtual communities of people with shared interests in various kinds of knowledge which stretched across the globe. Classical scholars, philologists, antiquaries, patristic scholars, orientalists, theologians, astronomers, botanists, experimental natural philosophers, intelligencers, ‘free-thinkers’, and many more practitioners: all cultivated and sustained their professional, social, intellectual, and cultural lives in and through epistolary systems.

Organised by Rhodri Lewis and Noel Malcolm, and building on the achievements and findings of the research Project Cultures of Knowledge: An Intellectual Geography of the Seventeenth-Century Republic of Letters (of which it is the concluding event), Communities of Knowledge: Epistolary Cultures in the Early Modern World is a three-day conference which brings together seventeen leading authorities to explore and celebrate the ways in which intellectual interests and activities of all kinds were pursued and propagated through the medium of correspondence during the long seventeenth century.


Register Online


Conference Priorities

Focusing on community case studies, the event will prioritize the epistolary experiences of groups and networks over those of particular individuals. Topics of special interest include (but are by no means limited to):

  • The ways in which correspondence coexisted with, supplemented, or competed with print publication in the development of public bodies of knowledge within particular fields.
  • The degree to which some forms of activity were dependent on such networks (e.g. the need of textual scholars for the collation of distant manuscripts, or of astronomers for geographically remote observations).
  • The extent to which some communities of scholars had to be virtual, either because of the sheer specialism of knowledge involved (e.g. specialists in Arabic studies outside Paris, Leiden, or Oxford), or because a more public form of organization was hardly possible (e.g. free-thinkers).
  • The ways in which the intellectual life of some religious groups (e.g. Socinians, or Calvinists in geopolitically threatened areas) was dependent on epistolary links over long distances.

These priorities raise further questions about the structure, function, and deeper meaning of communities of knowledge. Did some bodies of knowledge or belief develop differently because they developed in such conditions? Within these virtual communities, were there hidden barriers to participation? Were international networks fully global, or did they function, rather, as congeries of more closely connected local networks? In many cases, are we really looking at a network in the full sense, or are we looking at a pattern radiating from one key individual? If the latter is the case, is that essentially because of the nature of archival survivals, or does it reflect something deeper about the ways in which these communities worked? And did news-gathering, which may at first sight seem to be the basic model for most of the information-gathering and information-exchanging considered here, itself operate through a network or community?

We hope you will be able to join us in Oxford for collective consideration of these fascinating themes over a leisurely three-day programme (with plenty of opportunities for networking and informal discussion). Find out more about our Speakers, their Topics, and our Schedule, and Register Online today!


Conference Context

The event is the third and concluding international conference of Cultures of Knowledge: An Intellectual Geography of the Seventeenth-Century Republic of Letters, a collaboration between the Humanities Division and the Bodleian Library of the University of Oxford with generous funding from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Previous conferences took place in 2010 and 2011. For full details of our activities, please visit the Project website.

Comments are closed.