As sources about the past, what types of information can letters give the modern scholar?
Letters are useful to scholars as they often give private information. There are plenty of sources we can use which give an overview of events that have happened in the past, but letters provide something else completely. From them we can gleam the persons thoughts and opinions on an event or series events. History books and accounts of events provide us with a narrative but do not provide us with what people at the time thought of these, only letters between correspondents can do this; this is why they are important. Whyman says that during analysis from a historical point of view they can be put into context using other types of documents (2009: 15). In this essay I will look at how these letters can be useful, what else they can tell us about life in the past and how we can extrapolate information about everyday life. Although these points are true, it is perhaps worth noting that certain authors whose letters have been collected into a work of letters were not originally meant for their work to be sent as an actual correspondence. It is suggested that Seneca and Pliny's letters were meant to be published as a collected work but, at the same time was actually an exercise of propaganda, more than it was a correspondence between confidantes (Campbell, 1969:20).
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Although the majority of letters that survive deal with everyday events there are examples that included information such as other documents. For instance, letters could include birth records, marriage settlements, and wills amongst other things such as journals and diaries. A more recent example of a diary is Anne Frank's Diary of Young Girl. This type of document is also very important as it provides a unique insight into what life was like during one of the world wars. It is an unparalleled example of an honest account of what was happening during the period between 1939 and 1945.
There are certain points that we can pick up about a letter writer just from the fact that the author writes letters. For instance, the fact that they have writtena letter highlights the fact that the person was literate. A large percentage of the population could not read or write up until the twentieth century, so this is an important factor. However, Whyman highlights the idea that it was not just the upper classes who could write letters, she makes the point that people from the middling class, both males and females wrote letters (2009:113). The fact that other documents exist amongst the letters such as account books, genealogical sources and school books allows us to construct ‘mini-biographies of specific letter-writers' (Whyman, 2009: 16). I will include several case studies, for instance, I will look at Alcuin from the medieval period, Cicero, Seneca and Pliny from the classical period and Queen Victoria for a slightly more modern example. These letters will address the common issue which is what they can tell historians, but how they do it differently to each other. The letters will focus on different areas of life, but none are less useful than others in what they can offer scholars and historians. In comparison, Greek letters which still survive are chiefly meant for publication and consisted of mainly addresses and long essays, following the style of Isocrates, ‘But the Roman letter, as it emerges full-grown in the correspondence of Cicero and his friends, is the private letter of genuine intercourse, whether concerned with res domesticae or res publicae' (Sherwin-White, 1966: 1).
Until modern day inventions, such as the telephone, and then later the internet and email became prevalent the only method of long distance communication was by letters. This heightens their importance and explains why so many of them have anxious passages, desperate from a reply from the other party, such as Cicero to his brother in letter 19 (dated 13th June 58). This is the way that news travelled, either about politics, family or general goings on. For instance, Queen Victoria keeps up an extensive communication with her grand-daughter. In one such letter, dated the 14th December 1873, Queen Victoria writes to send her condolences to her grand-daughter on the death of her mother. In this situation we can learn a lot about the relationship between members of the royal family (Hough, 1975: 9). It also demonstrates the dependency her grand-daughter had on her. Princess Victoria was, according to Hough (1975: 47), desperate to know her Grandmother's opinion on her engagement to Prince Louis of Battenburg, but was to be relieved when, on hearing the news, Queen Victoria replied that she thought the Princess had ‘done well to choose only a Husband who is quite of your way of thinking' (Hough, 1975: 48). We also learn her opinion of her son-in-laws second marriage after the death of his first wife, Queen Victoria's daughter Princess Alice. This kind of information would not be available through any other means, and would certainly not have been made public at the time (Letter dated April 26th 1884, 1975: 62); she explains to Princess Victoria that she does not blame Grand Duke Louis IV for remarrying, but her opinion is that he should have waited and his choice of wife is not desirable, as she is not of the same religion and is only recently divorced. She goes on to report that she ‘should say nothing... if he chose to make a morganatic marriage with some nice, quiet, sensible & amiable person' (Hough, 1975: 62). This demonstrates the importance of marrying within the protestant religion and obeying rules put in place in the eighteenth century by the Hanoverian Dynasty, for royalty.
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One of the most important things we can gleam from these sources is the relationships between people. In the letter between Queen Victoria and her Grand-daughter we can see that they had a very close relationship. In Alcuin's letters to his various correspondences we can see that his relationship with his companions was jovial and relatively light hearted, in particular his letters to his friend Arno. Alcuin's letters to Arno are some of the best preserved of his collection (Allott, 1987: 140). These letters also show that although separated by many miles geographically they were in a way very close to each other. This is important because it helps us realise that these letters were very important within their contemporary societies in keeping in touch with each other. Although Queen Victoria does not write her letters in Latin they have been included within this study to highlight the continued importance over time that letters held and the information that can be extracted. The themes, such as relationships are still in the foreground even in more modern letters. Other collections were written in Latin because it was the language of the nobles and ecclesiasts.
Whyman describes that in her research it has been possible to identify how children learnt to write a letter just from the letter itself. She identifies a general progression from ruling lines across the page to a well presented letter. Firstly lines ruled across the page can be identified, the letters are formed separately and they ‘struggled to form even lines' (Whyman, 2009: 30). The progression continues when she identifies that the words were spelt phonetically and the letter was full of words which had been misspelt and crossed out afterwards. It can be seen clearly that letters would have been copied from examples given to them as the layout and content seemed to follow a pattern, commenting on mundane items such as the weather and their health, all of which informs the reader of little (Whyman, 2009: 30). But the skill of being able to write a letter is a ‘valuable skill' passed down from parent to child (Whyman, 2009: 30).
Cicero is an ancient author whose most famous surviving work is his ‘Selected Letters', written between 68 and his death in 43 BC. All letters were published posthumously but they ‘not only contain a first-hand account of social and political life in the upper classes at Rome, but also reflect the changing personal feelings of an emotional and sensitive man' (Introduction by Bailey in Cicero: 1986).
Interestingly Cicero includes general information about issues of health. For instance, ‘For ten days my stomach had been seriously out of order' (Letter 94), the letter goes on to describe his fear of illness, ‘especially dysentery' (Letter 94), but the interesting point is that it describes how he treated himself. This is useful to those historians who are studying ancient medicines and treatment. Cicero treats himself by fasting for a few days. This kind of source is interesting to show the range of ailments and treatments, but also in the study of the development of medicine over the centuries. Seneca also makes reference to illness and the treatment of it (Letter II), ‘nothing hinders a cure so much as frequent changes of treatment (Letter II).
On a different path, Cicero can also provide us with information about the political standing of individuals. Cicero stood as a praetor in 66 BC and consul in 63 BC and therefore stood prominently in Roman politics. He is heavily associated with Pompey. In his letters he is expressive of his political preferences, who he agrees with and who he is against. As a source he is useful because he gives reasons for why he believes what he does. This means we get to understand more about what their actions were at the time, for instance, he provides advice to Brutus on the subject of the Asiatic Corn Commission (Letter 118).In one of his letters from July 65 BC written to Atticus he writes about the elections that are taking place and also describes the judicial system, describing a jury and judge and their roles (Letter 3). In the same letter he describes the candidates and their shortcomings, namely Galba. Similarly Pliny wrote a large number of letters on a number of topics from political, social and economic subjects to what he did in his spare time (Sherwin-White, 1966: vi). We learn about letters of recommendation from Pliny, and we can also learn about friends holding equestrian rank and young senators, we learn the ‘summary accounts of their careers, standing, and qualities' (Sherwin-White, 1966: 12).
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Pliny also provides us with a valuable source for the kinds of activities which would have filled the spare time of people of a certain class within society (Book 1. XV). Some of the letters deal with Pliny's business affairs and domestic arrangements. This is interesting as it can enlighten historians on how households were run at the time and what were concerns with these issues (Book 1, XV). His letters also describe agricultural leases and vintage merchants (Book 4, VI) Society is a topic covered by Seneca in his collection of letters. Seneca was tutor to Nero and his letters survive from the last years of his life. They are all addressed to the same person, Lucilius, and all give information on how to become a better stoic ‘Inwardly everything should be different but our outward face should conform with the crowd' (Letter V). From this information historians can gain knowledge on exactly how this was achieved, this can be very important to historians because it means that they are gaining knowledge about the society at the time and what was required of public figures who wanted favour with leaders. His letters are useful up to a point. No replies to the letters have survived down through the centuries. Therefore this could be evidence of a theory that the letters were always intended to be published and were never sent, a situation mirrored in Pliny's letters. However, in more recent years Monti and Hanslik came to the conclusion that Pliny's letters were being composed over such a length of time and then collected into books (Sherwin-White, 1966: 11). It does mean therefore that information included in the letters needs to be regarded with care. The details could have been written in such a way that they were things that Seneca deemed important enough for us, as readers, to be informed of, or the information could merely be the result of a propaganda campaign (1969: 20). If it is the case with Seneca's letters that they were never mailed then historians have to question what the alternative purpose for them was. One suggestion (Campbell, 1969: 20) is that they were used as a tool in passing down styles of teaching to future generations. The first thirty letters all include quote from the ‘main rival philosophical school, the Epicureans' (Campbell, 1969: 20). As with most other letters described in the case studies Seneca's letters describe personal reflections, but amongst this we, as historians, can learn a bit about what the Roman aristocracy were like, ‘bored and pleasure-seeking', as interpreted by Campbell (1969: 20).
We can also see from Seneca the involvement of culture on everyday life and his thoughts on poetry and styles. We can assume from this type of information that contemporaries would have felt the same way about the same topics; Seneca explains that ‘you should be extending your stay among writers whose genius is unquestionable' (Letter II). Either they were in agreement with him, which he would surely point out or they disagreed with him and his thoughts were revolutionary which he would also probably inform us through his letters.
Throughout this essay a number of case studies have been looked at and analysed. In doing so, certain traits have been identified, but most importantly it has been possible to highlight the items which modern scholars and historians can learn from the letters provided in the case studies. Throughout the ages letters have been a very important way of communicating across vast land expanses and the information contained within them has not lost its meaning. It is possible to learn about relationships, both political and personal, such as is the case in Cicero's letters, but the range does not simply stop there. We can learn about the way in which people were taught to write, and from the anxious tones in several letters the importance that these letters represented. We can learn about the illnesses people suffered from and how these were treated, this is particularly interesting for those historians who specialise in this particular area of history. Political relationships and the ways in which positions were gained and who held favour, all of this information is contained within letters. It should never be underestimated the amount of knowledge that can be gleamed from the understated source of letters which have survived over the centuries.
The thing that we cannot get from the letters is the everyday lives of the lower classes, the illiterate masses of each of the generations. We can only learn a little about them from what is mentioned in the letters, but this is only a passing suggestion, for instance, the writer of a letter may mention members of their staff or something of the same calibre, and this is the only information we will gain. For instance, Pliny mentions his wine merchants and people who worked his land (Book 4, XI). Overall, they provide a vast range of information from many different societies from different countries and time periods.