Civil disorder as critics arrive

Impolite Learning
April 19, 1996

Between the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, European scholars and writers liked to view themselves as citizens of what they called the "commonwealth of learning" or the "republic of letters". But what did Erasmus, say, or Voltaire mean when they used such a phrase? Did the political metaphor have practical consequences? Was it a reality as well as an ideal, and if so, what kind of a reality was it?

In the past few years scholars from a number of different countries have been joining forces to investigate these problems. Anne Goldgar's lively case study, which concentrates on England, France, and the Netherlands between 1680 and 1750 and is based on the unpublished letters of a network of scholars, differs from its predecessors in its emphasis on the twin themes of conduct and community. Her concern is to write a social history or community study of the republic, identifying the laws or at least the etiquette of a society which was clearly hierarchical, despite frequent claims to be egalitarian. Her focus is on the "civility" expected from scholars who claimed also to be gentlemen, since female scholars were rare.

Civility, in the case of scholars, included mutual help, the exchange of information, the gift of books, and an impartiality of judgement that often conflicted with religious and political allegiances. Gilbert Burnet's controversies with his French colleagues over his History of the Reformation read like a continuation of the wars with Louis XIV, even if that monarch seems to have been tempted by a vision of himself as a head of the French church in the style of Henry VIII.

Goldgar's central argument is that her period witnessed major changes in the structure of the republic, changes in professionalisation, institutionalisation, and commercialisation. One of her examples is the rise of the literary agent; another the rise of the literary or learned journal. The big fish continued to receive visits from the small and information was still exchanged by letter, but these personal contacts were increasingly supplemented by print. The new journals were relatively unspecialised, concerned with the latest "news of the republic of letters", and filled with book reviews - a new literary genre invented to allow scholars to find what they wanted among the ever-increasing heaps of new publications.

The new genre did not please everyone. According to one critic, the typical book reviewer "copies the title I takes a few items from the preface; and taking on opening the volume the first things he sees, he judges on these scraps the merit of a work with as much assurance as if he had read it several times". According to another critic, writing in 1698, reviews meant the decline of culture because they encouraged people to read summaries of books in place of the originals. Pierre-Daniel Huet would doubtless be shocked to learn that the book review is still alive and well 300 years later in the pages of The THES and elsewhere.

Peter Burke is reader in cultural history, University of Cambridge.

Impolite Learning: Conduct and Community in the Republic of Letters, 1680-1750

Author - Anne Goldgar
ISBN - 0 300 05359 2
Publisher - Yale University Press
Price - £25.00
Pages - 395

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