How a changed attitude towards secrecy and the contents of letters helped create the "Republic of Letters" and bring on the modern world

There are few types of literary work for which copyright law has been less relevant than the letter (as in correspondence). How many Kat readers have given legal advice or engaged in a copyright infringement case involving the contents of a letter? [For Kat readers under the age of twenty-five, letters were written contents that one composed and then delivered to a recipient, the medium for distribution being the envelope and the business proposition being the postage stamp.]

This does not mean that high-level principles of protection have been absent. Instead of infringement, however, for more than a millennium, the primary focus has been on secrecy and disclosure. How letters were treated along that continuum of secrecy and disclosure reveals much about their role in various points of history. No more so than the crucial part that letters played during the period of the so-called Republic of Letters (roughly, between the 16th to early 19rh centuries).

Before drilling down on the Republic of Letters, a word about the long tradition of letters and secrecy. No better example was the prohibition announced around the year 1000 by the famous Central European Jewish scholar, Rabbi Gershom Me’or HaGoleh, popularly known as Rabbeinu Gershom, who decreed that it was forbidden to read the contents of a letter mail intended to be read by another person.

This applied to both personal as well as letters for commercial purposes. Nor could the contents be forwarded or disclosed to another person without the permission of the sender. This prohibition was no mere abstract rabbinical decree from on-high. For centuries that followed, people would seal their letters with a string of Hebrew letters, standing for, in English translation, “‘One who breaches a fence – a snake will bite him’ [Ecclesiastes,10:8] of Rabbeinu Gershom.” This prohibitory fence is the decree issued by Rabbeinu Gershom, with sanctions for those who dare breach it.

The power of the prohibition is such that among certain Orthodox Jewish communities, it still carries with it the threat of punishment, presumably including in connection with such modern activities as reading the email of another or eavesdropping. [More on the scope of the prohibition in modern times, here].

What does it tell us about the period in which the prohibition was issued? First, letters were a popular form of written communication; second, a sufficient number of letters were being sent to warrant the intervention of Rabbeinu Gershom; and third, there was a formed notion of secrecy (which was related in some fashion to medieval notions of privacy and the public).

On the other hand, in the pre-print world, prohibition underscored the centrality of personal relationships, even at the commercial level. As well, it added another barrier to the diffusion of contents. Thus, at the more macro level, while the prohibition worked a benefit to the individuals involved (even if the modern notion of "the individual" was still down the road), it offered little in the way of moving society forward from its overly static trajectory.

                                                                       Rabbaeinu Gershom is watching

Fast forward five hundred years and the emergence of the Republic of Letters. Not a "republic" in the sense of a sovereign. Rather, as characterized, here (pp. 5-6) by Michael Madison in his book chapter, "The Republic of Letters and the Origins of Scientific Knowledge Commons", the term refers to—
"a network of correspondents and correspondence that was the first recognizably modern scholarly and scientific research enterprise, in its emphasis on public distribution of and reasoned debate concerning information collected in and about the world".
In the words of the great 15th-16th century Dutch humanist, Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus, it referred to a interwoven set of relationships and emerging institutions where "all the property of friends is held in common” (pp 5-6), knowledge being shared by and among colleagues. Spanning the period between the twilight of the Renaissance in the 16th century and the rise of the Enlightenment in the 18th century, the Republic of Letters involved, as described by Madison (p. 6)—
thousands of experimentalists, observationalists, natural philosophers, and collectors – men of letters, philosophes, savants, a self-identified intellectual aristocracy operating outside the formal boundaries of nation, state, and church – documented their studies in letters and distributed them in far flung correspondence networks.
To be clear: letters did not mean only written correspondence in the sense understood by Rabbeinu Gershom a half-millennium earlier. The printing press was taking hold, which meant that books and other printed matter were also being distributed. But at its heart were letters (per Madison (p. 9) , "[l]etters composed in line with the accepted style" that were being disseminated and shared by the participants to this "republic", in stark contrast to the inward-looking world reinforced by the 11th century prohibition of Rabbeinu Gershom.

This Kat has previously written about norm-based forms of intangible property (e.g., "how French chefs protect their recipes", here). Informal rules and modes of conduct, per Madison (p. 17) based on norms of "civility, and publicness and transnationalism", also had their place in the Republic of Letters. These norms provided the framework by which its "members" sought to navigate between the fruits of their individual labors (as the notion of the "individual" was taking root) and the promotion and cultivation of the collective enterprise for the generation of knowledge.

Personal visits by members with each other would take place, then, as now, but the ultimate power of the Republic of Letters was the dissemination of epistolary contents beyond the range that personal contact might offer. Stated otherwise, the growth of these arrangements for the sharing of resources enabled the creation of networks for the exchange of information and ideas, a trajectory that continues apace into the present, subject to geopolitical constraints.

This did not mean that concerns of secrecy, which had so occupied Rabbeinu Gershom, were absent. Letters were still being sealed, more to assure that the letter reached its intended recipient (p.22), and within the larger context of knowledge transmission among members of the Republic of Letters. Moreover, Madison argues (p. 15-16) that nascent copyright and patent law, with its focus on exclusivity, was excluded from the "boundaries" of the Republic of Letters. Within these boundaries, the focus was on the creation of basic knowledge, unfettered by such legal restrictions.

However, activity was also directed towards "technical advances with industrial applications", i.e., "craft or industrial knowledge". For this form of knowledge, the concern was setting the line between secrecy and disclosure. One can perhaps see in this observation a foundational kernel of the modern notion of trade secret protection. [Still, Merpel cautions against being too enthusiastic about allowing the present to inform the past.]

The Republic of Letters, as such, gave way to the rise of the nation-state and its support for knowledge-generating institutions. Joel Mokyr has characterized the Republic of Letters as “one of the taproots of European technological change” (p. 22), no small accomplishment. The dexterity with which members of the Republic of Letters navigated between secrecy and openness with respect to the creation, dispatch and distribution of letters and their contents was a key factor for this lasting contribution.

Picture on top right is from Helen Hunt Jackson (1830-1885).
Picture in the center middle by Contrafool and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
Picture on lower left by Gerard ter Borch: "A Trumpeter delivering a Letter to a Lady" (1617-1681).

How a changed attitude towards secrecy and the contents of letters helped create the "Republic of Letters" and bring on the modern world How a changed  attitude towards secrecy  and the contents of letters helped create the "Republic of Letters" and bring on the modern world Reviewed by Neil Wilkof on Friday, October 21, 2022 Rating: 5


  1. You asked how many people have advised on copyright in letters. As copyright officer at The National Archives and copyright advisor to archivists in the UK through the Archives and Records Association (now retired), I certainly used to advise on copyright in letters. They are an important part of any archive and, moreover, under UK law if unpublished on 1 August 1989 those created before that date are in copyright until 2039 at the earliest no matter how long ago they were written. For archivists, Pope v Curll remains an important case.

  2. Your mention of Rabbeinu Gershom's decree reminds me of the famous remark by US Secretary of State Henry L Stimson "that gentlemen do not read each other's mail" when he closed down the USA's nascent cryptologic bureau in 1929, at a time when it was having some success in cracking the diplomatic ciphers used by Japan. [quoted the Atlantic]


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