The century of letters and friendship

A guest post this week: Dr Marie Isabel Matthews-Schlinzig explains the special place writing letters had for German-speakers in the eighteenth century…

Since ancient times, letter writing and friendship have been intimately connected in people’s imagination. For centuries, letters were even defined specifically as ‘a mutual conversation between absent friends’ (to quote from Erasmus’s treatise on letter writing, Opus de conscribendis epistolis, 1522). Correspondence between friends also came to be associated with a distinct epistolary type: the letter of friendship. Such letters were usually characterized by a familiar tone and a level of intimacy not found in other types of letters, e.g. official communication sent from a public institution to a citizen.

In German cultural and literary history, letters of friendship flourished particularly in the eighteenth century. In this period, which has been called both the ‘century of letters’ and the ‘century of friendship’, people began to celebrate personal friendships in new ways. Letters played a key role in creating and/or sustaining these friendships – sometimes over long distances and periods of time. The language correspondents used was often very sentimental: friends would, for instance, write at length about exchanging hugs and kisses to ensure each other of their mutual affection.

Gleimhaus-Freundschaftstempel.jpg
Gleim’s Temple of Friendship (Photo: Ulrich)

One of the historical persons who exemplify this particular culture of friendship is the German author Johann Wilhelm Ludwig Gleim (1719–1803). Not only was he a prolific (and published) letter writer; he also had a Freundschaftstempel (Temple of Friendship) in his house in Halberstadt. The Temple consisted of several rooms whose walls were covered with portraits of his friends (and can still be seen today in the Gleimhaus). Gleim also had a special writing chair made, which he would move around his temple in order to position himself in front of the portrait of the friend to whom he wanted to write a letter – or whose letter to himself he was about to open and read.

Title Page Rode Briefwechsel einiger Kinder-min
Title page of Rode’s book (Universitäts- und Landesbibliothek Sachsen-Anhalt)

Letters of friendship were not the preserve of adults. On the contrary: letters were among the first types of text children learnt about. Entering a correspondence was part of their education as it helped them practise a range of skills, including their spelling and grammar, handwriting, understanding of social conventions – and also their knowledge of foreign languages. We can see aspects of this practice reflected in what may be the earliest German book of fictional children’s correspondence – August Rode’s Briefwechsel einiger Kinder (1776). Among others, it includes the letters exchanged between a group of boys: Carl, Albert, Casimir, Heinrich, and Hamilton. They correspond about all kinds of topics, including their relatives, new experiences, and games played. Since Hamilton is writing in his native French – a language which all the other boys are learning – Carl also uses it in his replies.

Ultimately, Rode’s book is just one example of many which illustrate that friendship, letter writing, and learning go well hand in hand – and that is as true today as it was in the eighteenth century!

About the author:

Marie Isabel Matthews-Schlinzig is a freelance author, editor, scholar, and translator. Together with Caroline Socha, she runs the blog whatisaletter; their their most recent publication is the bilingual collection Was ist ein Brief? Aufsätze zu epistolarer Theorie und Kultur – What is a letter? Essays on epistolary theory and culture (2018).

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