Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview

Christa Lundberg on Early Modern Philosophical Letters

by contributing editor Pranav Jain

Christa Lundberg is a PhD candidate in Early Modern History at the University of Cambridge. Her dissertation explores humanist religious scholarship and its critics in early sixteenth-century France. She recently spoke with Pranav Jain about her article “The Making of a Philosopher: The Contemplative Letters of Charles de Bovelles,” which has appeared in the most recent issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas (April, 82.2).

Pranav Jain: In some places, you interpret Bovelles’s letters through silences. In other words, your argument builds both upon what Bovelles says and what he leaves unsaid. What are some of the challenges of interpreting early modern letters in this way and how did you navigate them while reading Bovelles’s correspondence? 

Christa Lund: My interest in Bovelles’s silences began with frustration. We know little about Bovelles’s everyday life or what he did besides writing philosophical treatises. It was therefore especially disappointing to find that his surviving letters provide so little personal detail. One example that I mention in the article is that Bovelles manages to write a letter during a visit to Brussels without indicating what he is doing there, where he plans to go next, or how he experienced the city. As I read the letters more closely, however, my frustration turned into fascination and determination to understand the purpose of these strange letters.

The main challenge of thinking about the ‘unsaid’ in letters is, of course, to explain why anything particular should have been said besides what is on the page. In this case, I had to ask whether it was simply my expectations and desires, as a historian, that created the impression that something was lacking. My strategy was twofold. First, I looked for external comparisons—I compared Bovelles’s letters with those of his contemporaries and thought carefully about the role of genre. Second, I paid close attention to Bovelles’s own statements about what he did not write about in letters. He admitted, even celebrated, a practice of excluding ‘mundane news’ that would ‘soon expire.’ In other words, there were deliberate silences in Bovelles’s letters.

PJ: In the article, you ask whether Bovelles’s letters can be seen as “essays with an added greeting.” Are there any other sixteenth-century thinkers whose letters can be described as such? If so, how do their letters relate to the methods you see at work in Bovelles’s correspondence? 

CL: The accusation that philosophical or scientific letters were not actually letters has been around since antiquity. In some cases, readers might doubt that these texts were actually sent as letters. Of course, this suspicion can be raised against all published epistles. But the problem with philosophical letters appears to be more fundamental: we feel that these texts are not communicative or personal enough to qualify as letters.

Many kinds of essayistic letters were nevertheless published in the sixteenth century. One fascinating example is the collections of medical letters studied by Ian Maclean and Nancy Siraisi. Learned physicians shared their erudition and experience in the form of letters—some of these were clearly intended for publication and could be described as essays. This is a very good parallel with Bovelles’s project of sharing ideas with a wider philosophical community. My impression is that the philosophical letter was a less popular genre than the medical letter. One plausible explanation has to do with the readership of learned books outside the university. While physicians were a well-defined audience for medical letter collections, there was no real equivalent for philosophical books.

The full story of sixteenth-century philosophical letters remains, however, to be written. First of all, we would need an inventory of relevant collections. I have just learned about Camilla Erculiani’s Letters on Natural Philosophy (1584), which will appear in a new edition and English translation this year. While Erculiani’s letters originate in a very different context from those of Bovelles, the two authors seem to share a tendency to move seamlessly between natural philosophy and theology. I look forward to being able to read them side by side!

PJ: Apart from the ones you have already outlined in the article, what might be some other implications of your argument for how we think about the early modern republic of letters? 

CL: First, a disclaimer: Bovelles was not an important player in the early modern republic of letters. He did not exchange letters with Erasmus or other key nodes in the growing international network of scholars. Neither did he express a desire to be part of the kind of community whose ideals are so vividly invoked in Anthony Grafton’s essay “A Sketch Map of a Lost Continent: The Republic of Letters”: the free exchange of ideas and fostering of scholarly and religious tolerance. Nevertheless, I think that Bovelles’s correspondence is useful for thinking about the communities that helped connect and power the republic of letters in the early sixteenth century.

One of my main aims in this article was to illuminate how Bovelles’s letters reflected his education at the Collège de Cardinal Lemoine in Paris. Many of his letters discuss topics picked from the curriculum in Arts philosophy, especially the courses in natural philosophy and mathematics. Furthermore, a large part of Bovelles’s correspondents were alumni of the same educational institution. Together, these factors point toward the central role of the University as the starting point of Bovelles’s epistolary community. In this case, therefore, the University appears as a kind of substrate to one corner of the early modern republic of letters.

After leaving the University of Paris, Bovelles became a canon in the cathedral of Noyon. His correspondence also reflects the role of a growing ecclesiastical and monastic network. Bovelles increasingly exchanged letters with canons, friars, and monks. In the 1530s, the Celestine order assisted Bovelles by carrying messages from him to members of the order, as Jean-Claude Margolin noted in Lettres et poèmes de Charles de Bovelles (2011). The Church and monastic orders helped provide an infrastructure for connectivity.

Bovelles’s community thus offers an occasion to think about the roots of the republic of letters. It suggests that, in early sixteenth-century France, the essentially medieval institutions of the University and the Church still played an important role in shaping scholarly networks.

Pranav Jain is a PhD student at Yale University working on early modern Britain, and a contributing editor at the JHI Blog.

Featured Image: Drawing from Charles de Bovelles, Quae hoc volumine continentur: Liber de intellectu…. de geometricis supplementis (Paris: H. Estienne, 1511), 60v.

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