The “Republic of Letters” — a term used between ca. 1500-1800 to describe scholarly communities and networks of knowledge — has been described as a lost continent, a country without borders. Enmeshed in trading, diplomatic, and missionary networks, it emerged in the early decades of the printing press, came to full fruition in the era which created learned societies and scholarly journals, and declined when the full-scale professionalization of scholarly life and the rise of the modern nation-state made this trans-national scholarly utopia a dream of the past. Organized around individuals, institutions, and projects, the Republic of Letters was the primary means by which knowledge traveled in this earlier era. While its origins were British and European, the Republic of Letters traveled where Europeans traveled, colonized, and settled, including the colonial Americas.
Digging Into the Enlightenment seeks to discover that lost continent through an exploration of empirical data gleaned from correspondences, publications, and travel records, combined with the interpretive expertise of historians and literary scholars. Mapping the Republic of Letters is an opportunity for a unique collaboration between the humanities and sciences to produce a model of a real world network, using rich and diverse examples from this historical material.
The Republic of Letters expresses a wide range of correlations over time and space such that, on a large scale, it can be viewed as a loose affiliation of individuals based on principals, methods of communication and philosophical ideals over a period spanning hundreds of years. At the other extreme, it is expressed in closely affiliated clusters of individuals sharing ideas either directly in correspondence, in salons, or indirectly through publications and via intermediaries. In every case, there are many conditions and constraints influencing network processes including language, location, social circles, political events, intrigue, religious affiliation, and gender.
Combining the implications of geographic data, historical events, personal relationships, and social data, this is an excellent case study for how the spread of ideas at the global scale relates to the dynamical processes that operate at the local scale. Much of this data has been captured and has already allowed us to begin mapping the physical and virtual topology of the network. The great challenge presented by this project, however, is in resolving the data that has not yet been captured. We want to demonstrate how visual analysis tools can help us to generate new knowledge through methods rooted in humanities scholarship using annotation capabilities and the ability for scholars to insert new data and resolve existing data.
Three teams, two from the United States and one from England, are undertaking this project together. From Stanford University, Dan Edelstein, Paula Findlen and Nicole Coleman. From the University of Oklahoma and the Center for Spatial Analysis, Chris Weaver. And from the Electronic Enlightenment Project at Oxford, Robert McNamee, Mark Rogerson, and Peter Damian-Grint.