Circles of Confidence in Correspondences. Confidentiality in seventeenth-century knowledge exchange in networks of letters and drawings

C.M.J.M. van den Heuvel, Scott B Weingart, Nils Spelt, H.J.M. Nellen

Research output: Contribution to journal/periodicalArticleScientificpeer-review

Abstract

Science in the Early Modern World depended on the one hand on openness in scholarly communication, but on the other hand the competition in commerce and trade and the political and religious conflicts required secrecy and confidentiality. This papers analyzes these concepts of confidentiality and secrecy in intellectual and technological knowledge exchange via letters and
drawings. Sharing ideas and content with scholars also implied sharing confidentiality. However, not all letters exchanged between members of seventeenth-century intellectual networks were strictly confidential. The Dutch scholar Hugo Grotius, for instance, wrote letters to his family,
friends, or fellow-politicians that were meant to be read by others as well. On the other hand, Grotius’ correspondence makes clear that it was simply not done to procure a wide audience with access to the information that was exchanged.
Henk Nellen analyzed the role of confidentiality in Grotius’ letters and argued that sensitive information was not only confided to direct relatives, but as well to people who shared similar religious beliefs. Nellen claimed that this might be valid for other correspondences as well. We put that hypothesis to the test in an experiment with the ePistolarium tool, using the dataset of 20.000 letters of the Circulation of Knowledge project. The first results using similarity search based on topic modeling were not completely satisfactory. Here we outline an alternative strategy for understanding confidentiality and secrecy in early modern Europe using a combination of network, prosopographic, and historiographic methods. We argue that instead of trying to explain knowledge exchange in Early Modern Europe by focusing on The Republic of Letters as one entity consisting of scholars, it might be more useful to analyze communication via letters and drawings in multilayered networks that involve other actors as well.
We develop a data model to analyze circles of confidence and cultures of secrecy in correspondences that exchanged intellectual and technological knowledge. Such a model might enhance understanding to which extent confidential material crosses boundaries of religion, politics, and family and answer key questions of confidentiality: How do personal and professional/official relationships interact with confidentiality? What is the impact of exile or religion on confidential
correspondence? Can we infer the extent to which confidential material has disappeared from the historical record?
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)78-106
Number of pages29
JournalNuncius
Volume31
Issue number1
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 2016

Keywords

  • Network analysis
  • circulation and visualisation of knowledge
  • Republic of Letters

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