Use and social functions of epistolary formulae: exploring letter writing in Renaissance Italy

Start - End 
2021 - 2024 (ongoing)



Private letters have become the genre of choice for exploring language variation and change in the past. Cross-linguistically, discussion has arisen around the role of epistolary formulae, i.e. prefabricated word strings, including, for example, forms of address and health wishes. The function of formulae as aids for less skilled writers has been put forward in studies on the history of Germanic languages, which have shown that writers with little writing experience made great use of formulae. However, formulae could have other functions, related to social roles. This project will examine the interplay between writing experience and group practices by focusing on the use of formulae in early modern Italy. The high literacy rates for the Italian peninsula mean that we have a large quantity of letters by women and by individuals of different status. At the same time, the sixteenth-century printing market was flooded with books of letters and manuals that aimed to teach letter writing. Focusing on sixteenth-century Tuscany, I will analyse the distribution of formulae in relation to status, gender and communities of practice. I will focus on the Buonarroti corpus, produced by c. 200 individuals from different social ranks, and on a corpus of private letters by women. I will then compare usage in private letters with a corpus of sixteenth-century letter manuals and anthologies, to assess the relationship between prescriptive material and actual letter-writing practice.