The letter in the 18. Century

Letter from Karoline Luise von Baden to Gottlieb Heinrich Treuer dated 11. October 1762, (Source: Landesarchiv BW, GLAK FA 5 A Corr 37, 19)

Definition of the source genre

Archival lore has struggled with a definition of the term ‘letter’. All attempts of an assignment have in common that a letter could be a written communication between an issuer and a recipient. At the same time, attempts were made to distinguish the medium ‘letter’ from administrative records by introducing categories such as ‘business’ versus ‘private’ or ‘official’ versus ‘private. In the last decades, many archivists and auxiliary scholars in their publications have insisted on giving letters with private content alone the character of a letter. On the other hand, one should speak of ‘letters’ as soon as there is an official, business or even manorial relationship between the issuer and the recipient. In the same breath, documents addressed to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) are readily mentioned as examples of a letter. However, addressing the recipient as Privy Councillor alone illustrates the dilemma: Goethe is addressed by his official title, which at the same time could indicate a difference in rank – i.e., also a lordly dimension. This example is representative of many comparable ones and makes it clear that in practice a clear categorical separation is not possible.

Therefore, at this point the minimal consensus will suffice as a definition, which includes the written exchange of information between recipient and issuer as a hard criterion. The soft criteria are that the letter usually contains a salutation, a conclusion and a signature, that it does not contain any binding legal content, that it usually lacks a ceremonial character – in contrast to a deed – and that it is usually sent in sealed form. In view of the above, the terms ‘letter’ and ‘writing’ will be used synonymously in the following.

Historical development, structure and content

Letter from Karoline Luise von Baden to Gottlieb Heinrich Treuer from 11. October 1762, reverse side, (Source: Landesarchiv BW, GLAK FA 5 A Corr 37, 19)

The letters of the Baroque era were characterized by a strong formulaicity. A practical guide to writing these letters was offered by the so-called letter writers. In these books, besides the principles of style, a complex scheme of disposition was given. The individual components of the letter ceremony, for example salutatio (greeting), exordium (entrance), narratio (Narrative), confirmatio (confirmation), refutatio (rebuttal), petitio (request), conclusio (conclusion), subscriptio (signature), inscriptio (address) could vary according to the respective letter writer and be supplemented by further elements.

The language primarily used at the beginning of the 18. French was the language of the eighteenth century; especially among scholars, Latin continued to be used in correspondence as well. The use of French and the predominant style of chancery were remarkably often overridden by women. An outstanding example is Liselotte of the Palatinate (1652-1722), who, with Louis XIV’s brother. of France (1638-1715), sent countless letters in German to her relatives in the Holy Roman Empire. Last but not least, it was a woman who, in the course of the 18. This is the letter that gave a decisive impulse to the reform of the epistolary style at the end of the nineteenth century: the pen pal and later wife of Johann Christoph Gottsched (1700-1766), Luise Kulmus (1713-1762). Even if Pietism and Empfindsamkeit had provided the breeding ground, it was not least Luise Kulmus who inspired her learned friend to various language-reforming writings. Gottsched wrote letters at the same time as Christian Furchtegott Gellert (1715-1769) around the middle of the 18th century. In the mid-nineteenth century, Gottsched moved towards a lighter and more natural epistolary style. The conversation between two people should serve as a model for the letter writer. These demands found open ears. The protocol quickly disappeared from the letters, only the salutation, the conclusion and the signature remained. A climax of this emancipation movement can be found in the ‘Sturm und Drang’, when finally also these remaining conventions could be dropped and linguistically the acting out of feelings was given free rein. Even business and administrative letters were not unaffected by these changes. The commercial and curial style of letter writing was suppressed; the latter even by means of an imperial decree in 1783, which came into force in the Habsburg lands.

Letter from the Empress Maria Theresa to Karoline Luise von Baden dated 13. August 1767, GLA Karlsruhe, (Source: Landesarchiv BW, GLAK FA 5 A Corr 5, 10)

With the protocol, the French language increasingly gave way as well. The rising bourgeoisie, as the driving force behind the new writing fashion, now communicated primarily in its own language, as did merchants and the administration, and even scholars increasingly followed this model. Diplomatic communication was still conducted in French, even in princely circles this remained true – aristocrats below the princely class, however, increasingly tended to use German.

The subjects of communication were extremely varied. People exchanged news, communicated political, scientific, business, personal or official information. The intensity of letter culture, especially in bourgeois circles, led to the 18. and 19. In retrospect, the seal was referred to as the secula of letters in the sixteenth century.

Letters were written on paper. The predominant formats were folio and quarto, which means that letters were written on paper between 34 and 33 cm high and 21 and 20 cm wide (folio) or between 24 and 23 cm high and 19 and 18 cm wide (quarto). After writing, the sheets were folded, the last, usually fourth page was usually left blank, so that after folding there was space for the address. Finally, the seal was imposed, which served less as a means of authentication, as was the case with deeds, and more as a means of closure and a sign of recognition.

Often those pages were not archived on which the address of the letter was written, if there was not also text relevant to the content on the same paper. By this measure, a lot of information was lost: Information on which route the letter took, what the cost of transport amounted to, or where the letter was posted.[1] But it is not only questions of transport that can be examined on the basis of the envelope. For example, the recipient sometimes made various notes on the envelope. These sometimes allow us to trace how the latter archived his letters.[2]

These are all aspects that have been rather neglected by researchers, which is of course due to the lack of envelopes.[3] At this point it should be mentioned that not only letterheads were used to protect the letters, but also envelopes, which had been used since the middle of the 17th century. The following can be traced back to the end of the nineteenth century. They were made according to the principle that we are still familiar with today.

Survival situation

Letters are not typical archival material. Nevertheless, the archive user is confronted with them again and again. Although they were gladly attached to files, the bulk of these documents can be found in the estates – if no special collections of letters were created. As a rule, letters have been preserved in the estates of the recipients. Now and then letters were sent back after the death of the issuer. Some people stipulated in their will that all their correspondence should be destroyed after their death – just one reason why many letters have been lost.

Mostly the letters of famous personalities, the upper middle class and the nobility have been preserved. What is on the one hand a mirror of literacy, is on the other hand also a mirror of what earlier generations considered worth keeping, which is why hardly any letters from the lower middle classes or the working rural population have come down to us.

As a rule, the copies have been preserved. A letter was written in the 18. The letters of the nineteenth century were usually written first as a concept. Depending on the importance of the letter, there could also be several concept versions. These concepts have been preserved in a few cases in the archives of the issuer. At all stages of redaction, the author may have wielded the pen himself or dictated the contents to a scribe in the pen. As a rule, the signature alone was placed under the text by the author’s own hand. In such a case, the signature can usually be easily distinguished from the hand of the writer of the main text.[4]

Source criticism and evaluation possibilities

Letters proved to be an immensely important source genre for historians, because they often speak when the legal sources are silent. For example, they provide information about emotions, individual imaginations, or even about very practical questions of communication and mobility. In the end, cultural studies in particular benefited greatly from the informative value of letters.

Hints for use

The archival use of letters from the period discussed here is not limited by any protection periods. The use of these documents has been facilitated by the fact that in recent years more and more letter collections have been made accessible to users on an electronic basis.[5]

History of Research and Editions

Letters have always been consulted as a source in historical research. Not least for this reason, already in the 18. In the nineteenth century, there were printed collections of letters, such as the editions of Voltaire’s letters (1694-1778), which were produced during his lifetime, but which were not yet at the editorial level that we expect of publications of this kind today. Innumerable editions have been added since that time.

The first historiographical work to deal comprehensively with letters in the German-speaking world was Steinhausen’s two-volume monograph Geschichte des deutschen Briefs (History of the German Letter) of 1889/91. Although it must still be called a standard work, it has a pronounced German national and bourgeois perspective, which is sometimes detrimental to the expressiveness of some passages. During the first half of the 20th century. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the letter was finally also examined under the premise of postal history. In the following period, it was primarily linguistic studies that dealt with epistolography and also gave important impulses to historiography. The focus was on epistolary theory as well as stylistic developments. With the renewed focus of historical disciplines on media and communication, the letter has once again come to the attention of researchers in this field in recent decades as well. Also worth mentioning is the question of gender roles, under which important contributions have been published in recent years.



  • Brenneke, Adolf, archival studies. A contribution to the theory and history of European archives, ed. by Wolfgang Leesch, Leipzig 1953 (reprint Munich 1970).
  • Brockmeyer, Rainer, Geschichte des deutschen Briefes von Gottsched bis zum Sturm und Drang, Univ.-Diss., Munster 1961.
  • Furger, Carmen, Letter writers. The medium "letter" in the 17. and early 18. Jahrhundert, Cologne/Weimar/Vienna 2010.
  • Helbig, Joachim, Postvermerke auf Briefen 15.-18. Jahrhundert. New views on the postal history of the early modern period and the city of Nuremberg, Munich 2010.
  • Hochedlinger, Michael, File Theory. Urkunden- und Aktenlehre der Neuzeit (Historical Auxiliary Sciences), Cologne/Weimar/Vienna 2009.
  • Nickisch, Reinard M.G., Letter (Metzler Collection 260), Stuttgart 1991.
  • Meisner, Heinrich Otto, Archival Studies from the 16. Century until 1918, Gottingen 1969.
  • Schmid, Irmtraut, Letters, in: The archival sources. With an introduction to the historical auxiliary sciences, ed. by Friedrich Beck/Eckart Henning, 5. Edition, Cologne/Weimar/Vienna 2012, pp. 125-134.
  • Steinhausen, Georg, History of the German letter. On the Cultural History of the German People, 2 vols., Berlin 1889/91.
  • Vellusig, Robert, Written conversations. Letter culture in the 18. The first edition of Voltaire’s letters from the seventeenth century (Literatur und Leben 54), Vienna/Cologne/Weimar 2000.

Citation notice: Thorsten Huthwelker, The Letter in the 18. Jahrhundert, in: Sudwestdeutsche Archivalkunde, URL: [. ], state: 10.07.2017.

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