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Dirk van Miert

The Intricacies of Conceptual History: The 192 Republics of Letters in Latin

I am currently busy drafting an article in which I analyse how early modern letter writers used the phrase ‘Republic of Letters’. As a corpus, I use the 20,020 letters in the wonderful ePistolarium, developed by the Huygens Institute for the History of the Netherlands. These letters comprise the correspondences of a number of important citizens of the Republic of Letters, including Hugo Grotius, Constantijn Huygens, Christiaan Huygens, René Descartes, Caspar Barlaeus, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, and Johannes Swammerdam, as well as two minor collections by Isaac Beeckman and Dirck Rembrantsz van Nierop. These people are only a handful of the hundreds of correspondences available from the 17th century, but they are well studied and generally taken as representative of the ‘Republic of Letters’, since they include scholars, scientists, poets, brokers – important figures and lesser gods – writing in Latin, French and in some other vernaculars.

An obvious first question was of course how often these people invoked the Republic of Letters. Since the corpus is multilingual, I anticipated that my largest problem in charting instances would be to trace the word ‘Republic of Letters’ across different languages, forcing me to translate the word into several vernaculars and negotiate spelling variants, such as Republic(k) with c or k, or differences such as Gelehrtenrepublik and Gelehrte Republik. Indeed, trying out various forms, I ended up with one instance of Republick of Letters and one of Commonwealth of Learning (there are very few English letters in the corpus), 7 times the phrase République des Lettres, and once the Italian Repubblica letteraria. The most surprising thing is the small number of French hits: 26.5 % of the corpus is in French (32.8 in Latin and 37.1 in Dutch, but the Republiek der Letteren does not figure in any of these Dutch letters!).

It turned out, however, that my largest challenge was the phrase in Latin. In fact, it turns out that the Latin expression counts a staggering 192 variations! Let me explain, for this makes it frustratingly complex to deliver on easy promises to conduct a key word analysis.

The best known form of the expression is no doubt respublica literaria (learned republic). Sometimes the variant respublica literarum (republic of letters) is mentioned in secondary literature (this form is common in English, Dutch, Spanish and Italian, but far less so in Latin). As I went along, however, I realised that it would not be surprising if letter writers spoke of a respublica literatorum (republic of the learned) or even a respublica literata (literate republic or republic versed in letters; this variant is suggested by the phrase orbis literatus, the literate world, which also frequently occurs in the letters). Digging into the data, I realised that in any of these, the word respublica can occur separated as res publica or abbreviated as resp.; in each, the radix lit(t)era- can occur with single or double t; and in each the word order can be reversed. To my relief, I have never seen the format res literaria publica or the theoretically possible publica res.

In total there are, then, 192 possible variations; see the tables below. Unfortunately, the Lucene query syntax of the ePistolarium seems unable to cope with combining wildcards and double quotes. The formula

“Re*publica* lit*erar*” OR “lit*erar* re*publica*”

proved too complex, and even

“Re*publica* lit*erar*”

yielded no hits.

In practice, at least in the 20,020 letters of the ePistolarium, the majority take the form respublica lit(t)eraria; the format respublica literatorum is found only once, and the word respublica is never separated, at least not in combinations denoting the Republic of Letters. Surprisingly, the common known variant of Respublica literarum is mentioned only once. The form Republica litterria in fact occurs in two more letters, but those are in Italian, and constitute a spelling variant of Repubblica letteraria (which occurs once, in another Italian letter by the same author). Note that some variants are neutralised by editorial decisions to expand the abbreviation resp. or to standardise the use either of single or of double t.

After easy but burdensome work (which happily seduced me to read many of the letters), it resulted that the phrase occurs only 44 times in all those 20,020 letters. I also realised that the vocabulary can be expanded: permutations of the phrase ‘learned world’ (orbis literarius, -tus, -torum) occur 11 times. The words ‘all the learned men’ (omnes litteratores) were dropped 10 times. But still: on twenty thousand letters, this gives the impression that the Republic of Letters was no big deal for the people we like to style as self-aware citizens of a virtual community.

Much more about the context and function of ‘invoking the Republic of Letters’ will be said in the actual article, but one thing is clear by now: charting the geographical and spatial distribution of this concept cannot be done with a single formula and should be done largely ‘manually’. It also implies that I from now on I will be more critical about the practical side of projects that promise to do digital conceptual history, at least of compound concepts, and above all Latin ones. Perhaps this is the reason why Google N-gram still has no predefined corpus of Latin texts to select

The 192 permutations of the ‘Republic of Letters’ in Latin

(the numbers, e.g. in the first box, refer to the number of hits in the ePistolarium)

type respublica lit(t)eraria type lit(t)eraria respublica type respublica  lit(t)erarum type lit(t)erarum respublica
respublica literaria 1

reipublicae literariae 9

rempublicam literariam 4

republica literaria 2

respublica litteraria

reipublicae litterariae 5

rempublicam litterariam 2

republica litteraria 4

 

literaria respublica

literariae reipublicae 1

literariam rempublicam

literaria republica

litteraria respublica

litterariae reipublicae

litterariam rempublicam

litteraria republica

 

respublica literarum

reipublicae literarum 1

rempublicam literarum

republica literarum

respublica litterarum

reipublicae litterarum

rempublicam litterarum

republica litterarum

 

literarum respublica

literarum reipublicae

literarum rempublicam

literarum republica

litterarum respublica

litterarum reipublicae

litterarum rempublicam

litterarum republica

 

type res publica lit(t)eraria type lit(t)eraria res publica type res publica lit(t)erarum type lit(t)erarum res publica
res publica literaria

rei publicae literariae

rem publicam literariam

re publica literaria

res publica litteraria

rei publicae litterariae

rem publicam litterariam

re publica litteraria

 

literaria res publica

literariae rei publicae

literariam rem publicam

literaria re publica

litteraria res publica

litterariae rei publicae

litterariam rem publicam

litteraria re publica

 

res publica literarum

rei publicae literarum

rem publicam literarum

re publica literarum

res publica litterarum

rei publicae litterarum

rem publicam litterarum

re publica litterarum

 

literarum res publica

literarum rei publicae

literarum rem publicam

literarum re publica

litterarum res publica

litterarum rei publicae

litterarum rem publicam

litterarum re publica

 

type resp. lit(t)eraria type li(t)teraria resp. type resp. lit(t)erarum type lit(t)erarum resp.
resp. literaria

reip. literariae 4

remp. literariam 1

rep. literaria

resp. litteraria

reip. litterariae

remp. litterariam

rep. litteraria

 

literaria resp.

literariae reip.

literariam remp.

literaria rep.

litteraria resp

litterariae reip.

litterariam remp.

litteraria rep.

 

resp. literarum

reip. literarum

remp. literarum

rep. literarum resp. litterarum

reip. litterarum

remp. litterarum

rep. litterarum

 

literarum resp.

literarum reip.

literarum remp.

literarum rep.

litterarum resp.

litterarum reip.

litterarum remp.

litterarum rep.

 

type respublica lit(t)eratorum type li(t)teratorum respublica type respublica lit(t)erata type lit(t)erata respublica
respublica literatorum

reipublicae literatorum

rempublicam literatorum

republica literatorum

respublica litteratorum

reipublicae litteratorum

rempublicam litteratorum

republica litteratorum

literatorum respublica

literatorum reipublicae

literatorum rempublicam

literatorum republica 1

litteratorum respublica

litteratorum reipublicae

litteratorum rempublicam

litteratorum republica

respublica literata

reipublicae literatae

rempublicam literatam

republica literata

respublica litterata

reipublicae litteratae

rempublicam litteratam

republica litterata

literata respublica

literatae reipublicae

literatam rempublicam

literata republica

litterata respublica

litteratae reipublicae

litteratam rempublicam

litterata republica

type res publica li(t)eratorum tye lit(t)eratorum res publica type res publica lit(t)erata type lit(t)erata res publica
res publica literatorum

rei publicae literatorum

rem publicam literatorum

re publica literatorum

res publica litteratorum

rei publicae litteratorum

rem publicam litteratorum

re publica litteratorum

literatorum res publica

literatorum rei publicae

literatorum rem publicam

literatorum re publica

litteratorum res publica

litteratorum rei publicae

litteratorum rem publicam

litteratorum re publica

res publica literata

rei publicae literatae

rem publicam literatam

re publica literata

res publica litterata

rei publicae litteratae

rem publicam litteratam

re publica litterata

literata res publica

literatae rei publicae

literatam rem publicam

literata re publica

litterata res publica

litteratae rei publicae

litteratam rem publicam

litterata re publica

type resp. li(t)eratorum type lit(t)eratorum resp. type resp. literata type literata resp.
resp. literatorum

reip. literatorum

remp. literatorum

rep. literatorum

resp. litteratorum

reip. litteratorum

remp. litteratorum

rep. litteratorum

literatorum resp.

literatorum reip.

literatorum remp.

literatorum rep.

litteratorum resp.

litteratorum reip.

litteratorum remp.

litteratorum rep.

resp. literata

reip. literatae

remp. literatam

rep. literata

resp. litterata

reip. litteratae

remp. litteratam

rep. litterata

literata resp.

literatae reip.

literatam remp.

literata rep.

litterata resp.

litteratae reip.

litteratam remp.

litterata rep.

 

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