The Republic of Letters and historical scholarship

This week’s blog looks at the “Republic of Letters” project by Stanford University and its relationship to historical scholarship.  The project contains a number of publications and presentations on various historical topics, but that list is pretty much just a list. You cannot access the publications or presentations from that list, which is unfortunate.  The main part of the site appears to be its “Case Studies” Section. This site has a good variety of case studies, including of people that I hadn’t previously heard of before reading that section. Although most of the case studies involve French figures such as Voltaire and D’Alembert , there are also studies covering figures from a lot of places, such as the Francesco Algarotti from Italy and Athanasius Kircher, whom the site describes as a “Jesuit Polymath” writing from Rome (a polymath is someone who is learned in many fields, not, as I had originally thought, someone who is good at multiple fields of math). Although the site does not say what Kircher’s nationality is, it seems to me that Kircher is German. Kircher looks like a German name, and the picture of Kircher that is shown on the site has the caption “P. Athanasivs Kirchervs Fvldensis” which would mean that Kircher is from Fulda, a region of Germany.

The historical importance of this project by Stanford University is that it depicts the so called “Republic of Letters”, in other words how various intellectual figures throughout the world were interconnected by their letters. It includes graphs and maps showing among other things where these people sent letters to and received letters from as well as which years they were most active in corresponding. These graphical presentations make it easier to understand the information depicted in the maps and graphs than would be possible using text alone. Using this site, people can gain an appreciation of how any given person featured in the site interacted with other people through their writing. As an example, users can view a bunch of pie-charts showing which countries Benjamin Franklin received most of his letters from (those countries being America and England, not surprisingly) or during which years he received a lot of letters from Scotland (as well as other countries such as Ireland or Jamaica). Overall this site is quite informative and interesting.

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