Henry Woudhuysen


Writing a Letter in Seventeenth-Century England: Forms and Formats (with commentary from Peter Beal)

2010 Seminar Series / Thursday 20 May, 2010

Professor Henry Woudhuysen (Oxford) examines the material dimensions of epistolary practice. Arguing that the ‘social life’ (or ‘cultural biography’) of the letter-as-object has attracted little sustained scholarly attention (a trend reinforced by the tendency of online repositories of letters to efface their material attributes), Woudhuysen uses a wide range of examples to explore varieties of and markets for paper and ink; handwriting, superscriptions and addresses, salutations, signatures, and ‘significant space’ (those portions of the page left deliberately black for symbolic or practical reasons); the complex relationship between the formatting of letters and economics, in particular in terms of the strategies employed by letter-writers to maximise available space in order to reduce the cost of postage; and different styles of folding and sealing, and their associated connotations.

In his commentary Dr Peter Beal (School of Advanced Study, University of London) discusses (inter alia) the cultural transmission of epistolary styles, casting doubt in particular on the ability of prescriptive letter-writing manuals to shed light on these complex processes; considers the relationship between the formatting of letters and that of the other products of early modern scribal culture (such as petitions); and explores the ways in which letters were stored and filed by their recipients.