n i c o l a u s  -  c l a u d e   f a b r i   d e    p e i r e s c
c o r r e s p o n d e n c e    n e t w o r k

When the ‘Prince of Erudition' died in 1637 he left an unusually large legacy. In addition to vast collections of coins, fossils, and a substantial library, Nicolas- Claude Fabri de Peiresc (1580-1637) left a reported 10,000-14,000 scholarly letters.  In the centuries since his death, Peiresc's reputation as a man of letters has grown to legendary proportions.   Marking the divide between two great ages, he is remembered as a ‘child of the Renaissance' with a passion for the New Science, as a Humanist scholar smitten by the curiosities of Nature.  But the ‘Peiresc legend' is not a recent invention.  The ‘Prince of Erudition' was ‘famous' in his own day.  From his home in the south of France, Peiresc gained an international reputation for universal learning and cosmopolitan taste.  His influence— like his legend— seemed to transcend time and space.

As it happens, Peiresc's fame and influence can be traced to a single source. Peiresc was the most prolific correspondent of his age.  Then as now, he is remembered for taking ‘the helm of learning into hand' and laying a ‘firm foundation for the Republic of Letters.'  Cutting across space and time, his correspondence network defied conventional boundaries of language, discipline, class, and confessional domain.  Not surprisingly, in denying these boundaries, Peiresc confirmed his place as correspondent and intelligencer.  His name continues to mark thresholds and transitions across space, time, and discipline:  the migration of learning from Italy to France; the shift of ‘astronomical activity' from Provence to Paris— and ever more grandly:  the transition from intelligencer to learned journal; from informal societies to state-sponsored science; from érudit to homme de science.  Significantly, Peiresc's legendary status— as humanist, patron, scholar, and amateur of science— stems from the defining feature of his life.  His influence— by legacy and legend— was as a man of letters.

The Scientific Revolution, by tradition, marks a great divide, and indeed, historians and other scholars remain divided in characterizing change that settled over learned Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  Several decades ago, the Annales historian Robert Mandrou labeled this transformation ‘from humanism to science,' or more properly, from ‘humanists to men of science.'   As a general study of European thought, Mandrou's book  provides a solid survey of how the social underpinnings of European thought shifted, how the role of intellectuals, both in and outside of various institutions, shifted over the course of two centuries.

As a general point of interest, Mandrou paid particular attention to questions of ‘place and space,' not only by way of metaphor but by means of simple yet eloquent maps.  These maps displayed the location of universities, printing presses, Jesuit colleges, and correspondence networks.  Of particular interest here, one of the maps represented the correspondence network of Peiresc.  Drawing on archive lists found in Carpentras, Mandrou displayed Peiresc's ‘network of connections' on a map of Europe by plotting the number and geographical distribution of his  correspondents.  Arguably the size, scope, and character of Peiresc's network signaled that a ‘threshold' in the learned community had been crossed.

Mandrou was one of the most highly regarded historians of his day.  A noted member of the Annales tradition, he continues to be identified with the ‘history of mentalities' (mentalité) but seldom with the ‘geography of ideas' (‘Géographie européenne de la vie intellectuelle').  How does one represent a 'geography of ideas'?  Mandrou tried Maps.  Modest in appearance-- at first blush simplistic-- Mandrou's maps of various European ‘institutions of learning' were no less elegant than telling.  One of his several motives was to illustrate how the ‘intellectual geography' of Europe adjusted to religious and political repression.  Letters and correspondence networks— both working beyond public view— provided an obvious vehicle for creating and maintaining an international community in an otherwise harsh intellectual environment.

The principal correspondence networks of the period (for Mandrou, the great networks of Peiresc and Mersenne) ignored boundaries and evaded the more blatant effects of surveillance and censorship.  Although networks provided a strategic means for avoiding repression, Mandrou was equally attuned to their tactical ‘collective work' in maintaining the day-to-day business of learning.  Peiresc's network served as a vehicle to illustrate the ‘geographical and intellectual horizon' of his generation, a generation, Mandrou argued, that marked the final phase of intellectual life linked to ‘clubs of learned men.'

Peiresc's Correspondence Network
A second look
 ...treat of the network and not of what the network describes.'
Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 1922, 6.35

Peiresc's published correspondence, while woefully incomplete, is no less highly impressive in size and scope.  The following survey focuses on Peiresc's published correspondence.  This survey does not include letters known to have been sent but no longer extant.  It does not include known but unpublished manuscript letters.

For all that, compared to other major ‘intelligencers' of the century, Peiresc's published letters outnumber those of Marin Mersenne three to one.  Though far from complete, Peiresc's published letters alone outnumber the complete published correspondence of Henry Oldenburg.  The following analysis of Peiresc's published letters, however, is not so simple, in part because publication is incomplete and in part because a substantial number of correspondents (and disproportionately smaller number of letters) have not been published.  Hence, a word of caution.  The principal source of published Peiresc letters is the well-known edition of Ph. Tamizey de Larroque, editor of the seven volume Lettres de Peiresc.  Although ten (or eleven) volumes were initially projected Tamizey died before they could be completed.  Significantly for present purposes, the final volumes that did not reach publication were to focus on Peiresc's many smaller exchanges-- a relatively large number of correspondents who sent or received relatively few letters.  These unpublished exchanges are not reflected in the figures below.


Peiresc's Published Letters:  An overview

What can be said about the number, chronological scope, and geographical distribution of Peiresc's published letters?  By way of summary, the various published sources combine to represent some 3,200 letters (letters, drafts, copies) to or from Peiresc for the years 1598-1637 [See fig. below].

The actual distribution of letters shows slightly over 100 cities (not all of the cities have been illustrated on the enclosed map).  The most striking of these figures is that nearly half of the Peiresc's letters involved Paris.  Of these letters, the vast majority involved the Brothers Dupuy—nearly 1500 letters.  Nevertheless, talk about Peiresc's 500 correspondents has not traditionally been qualified by the actual number of letters sent or received by these correspondents.

The vast majority of Peiresc's letters were exchanged with a relatively small circle of correspondents.  Equally clear, his letters were highly concentrated in Paris and in Rome-- which shows a distant but no less dramatic 500 letters. Overall, two-thirds of Peiresc's published letters involved two cities.  Letters from the distant ‘third tier' include Digne, Antwerp, and Aix, and far more distant, Marseilles, London, and half-a-dozen smaller cities in the south of France.  The geographical picture that emerges is different from that first provided by Mandrou.  Clearly the method used here was more tedious but arguably more satisfying.  Mandrou counted the number of correspondents by city.  The present figures come from the number of letters by city.  Brief reflection suggests the practical requirements and theoretical implications of the method.

As a simple distribution over time, the chronological picture holds few surprises.  A steady increase in frequency is evident until the last two years of Peiresc's life.  The greatest frequency is for years 1633-1635.  Although the Brothers Dupuy and Gassendi represent a substantial percentage of these letters, this period also represents one of the most diverse in numbers of correspondents.

To illustrate these rather simple matters of fact, the following map and chart provide a crude picture of Peiresc's correspondence network as reflected in his published letters.  Again, it should be borne in mind that there are other more complete and satisfying ways to display Peiresc's network.  A full tabulation of all known printed, manuscript, and lost letters (known to date) would show a network of  some 5000 letters to or from Peiresc for the years 1598-1637.

For an introductory analysis of the basic particulars of Peiresc's network —and the peculiarities of his manuscript legacy— see 'Peiresc As Correspondent:  The Republic of Letters & the "Geography of Ideas"' in Science unbound, Chap. 4, ed. B. Dolan, Umeå 1998.
But make no mistake.  A complete picture of the surface features of Peiresc's network will require substantial archive work and deeper analysis of Peiresc's patterns of exchange.  Clearly such maps fail to show how Peiresc's ‘network of connections' interfaced with other correspondence networks.  More importantly, they fail to show how individual letters were copied, extracted, forwarded, and re-sent in this, an early modern 'Web Network.' 

Like the earlier effort of Mandrou, the following map fails on a number of counts.  In several respects it represents our inability to locate the 'place' of a letter (whose origin can no doubt be radically situated in space and time) but whose destination was always far from certain.  Arguably, rather than fix boundaries of a ‘geography of ideas' such exercises demonstrate the problematic character of boundaries, most notably the problem of placing outer boundaries on inner workings.  Future cartographers of the Republic of Letters would do well to avoid mapping techniques from 'flatland,' driven as they are by clear and distinct ideas of 'place' and 'simple location'.  The problem is that seventeenth- century authors never knew (nor could they control) the final fate of their missives.  In this sense the Republic of Letters operated much like the present-day electronic web.

Peir-map.JPG (33137 bytes)

The figures above represent Peiresc's published letters (3,200) from all known published sources for the years 1598-1637.  As explained above, these figures do not include known manuscript letters that remain unpublished nor do they include letters known to have been 
sent but are now presumed lost.  Cities with fewer than 5 letters are not represented.

If you have questions or comments contact me at: ufhatch@ufl.edu