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Letterwriting in Renaissance England

November 18, 2004–April 2, 2005

John Donne. Signed autograph letter to Sir George More. Manuscript, 2 February 1601/2 (Detail)

It could be argued that the letter was the single most important genre of the Renaissance: not merely one literary form among many (though it was that too) but the very glue that held society together. Letters were the “ligaments” tying the world together—the primary form of non-oral communication for hundreds of years, with the power to inform and influence people over long distances, for better and for worse.


This exhibition devotes itself to the myriad processes of letterwriting: the penning, sending, receiving, reading, circulating, copying, and saving of letters. Examples range from the early sixteenth to the early eighteenth centuries, the period in which the Folger Shakespeare Library has its strongest collections, but also the period in which the culture of letterwriting underwent several massive transformations from the rise of the printed book, popularizing the letterwriting manual, to the growth of a reliable postal system.


The text of a letter provides one part of the story, while its very tangibility—the folds, the grime and fingerprints deposited by the writer, deliverer, and readers, the broken seals, the inkblots, the idiosyncratic spelling, the location of a signature—tells another. An understanding of a letter’s written and unwritten social signals brings into focus a fuller, grittier, and ultimately more convincing picture of everyday life in early modern England.


Alan Stewart, Guest Curator;
Heather Wolfe, Curator of Manuscripts

Jane Skipwith. Letter to Lewis Bagot. Manuscript, 14 April 1610? (Detail)

Exhibition Highlights

Writing Tools

Letterwriting Manuals


Love Letters

Donne's Marriage Letters

Secret Letters

Postal "Systems"

Afterlife of Letters

Related Items

Letterwriting Exhibition
Activities for Kids

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