By Ann-Marie Hansen
In the face of such an extensive collection of correspondence as Sir Hans Sloane’s, one might well ask how a person could establish such a network of contacts in the days before electronic social-media. Each relationship tells its own story, of course, but Sloane communicated with many scholars within what was known as the Republic of Letters. This intellectual community had a set of rules governing the proper way of establishing a written exchange. (For recent commentary on the need for rules in online academic sociability today, see here, here and here!)
One such practice was the epistolary contract, which allows us to understand how such relationships were established. This was a formal agreement between correspondents that determined their respective responsibilities and subsequently formed the basis for all further communication. Such contracts were especially necessary in cases where the correspondents never met and so couldn’t discuss the details in person; as a result we find evidence of several such contracts in Sloane’s correspondence with French scholars.
In the crucial first letters of an exchange a relationship would be offered and, if accepted, the specific terms would be negotiated such that the ensuing “commerce de lettres” would suit both parties. The language used reveals a contractual nature of the proposed exchange, for example referring to conditions and obligation. There is, however, also a hint of the relationship’s commercial nature. The goods and services to be provided by one or both sides were discussed, as well as the fair compensation for these favours. This was ordinarily payment in kind, such as scientific news from France being traded for scientific news from England. This was the case in the exchange proposed by the Abbé Jean-Paul Bignon, who wrote:
My wishes would be fulfilled if […] it would please you to enter into some sort of exchange with me, and from time to time send me news of what is happening in the learned world. […] To make an advance on the dealings that I am proposing, the principal gain from which will be mine, I am sending you literary news which particular reasons keep us from printing in our journals. (Sloane MS 4041, f. 324)
Epistolary contracts sometimes stipulated how often each person had to write, and if either party did not meet these obligations they could expect to be reprimanded for their silence. Sloane himself was scolded in November 1695 for neglecting his recently established correspondence with the journalist Henri Basnage de Beauval. Having heard of Sloane’s recent nuptials with Elizabeth Langley (in May 1695), Basnage admitted that taking a wealthy wife was sufficient reason for having lately been overly occupied, but insisted that Sloane’s new situation did not free him from his prior commitments.
But please, you are not henceforth excused from the obligation to which you committed yourself. It is time that I remind you that you offered me an epistolary exchange, and that is a commitment which I do not accept to have been annulled by the other duties that you have recently taken upon yourself. Be so good then as to fulfill what you promised me, and recognize that it is well that I should ask you to do so. (Sloane MS 4036, f. 219)
Sloane must have replied promptly enough after that, as the two men exchanged news for some years to come. Moreover, given how vast a network of contacts continued to communicate with Sloane, this temporary failing on his part seems to have been a rather rare occurrence. He did only marry the one time after all.
Original French Quotations
(1) Je serois au comble de mes souhaits si […] vous voudrés bien entrer dans quelque sorte de commerce avec moi; et me mander de temps en temps ce qu’il y aura de nouveau par rapport aux Lettres. […] Pour faire des avances du commerce que je vous propose, et dont le principal fruit doit me revenir, je vous envoye les nouvelles Litteraires que des raisons particulieres nous empechent d’imprimer dans nos Journaux.
(2) Mais vous n’etes pas s’il vous plaist dispensé pour toujours de l’obligation oû vous vous estes engagé vous mesme. Il est temps que je vous fasse souvenir que vous m’avez offert un commerce de lettres, et c’est un engagement que je ne pretends point qui soit rompu par les autres soins dont vous venez de vous charger. Ayez donc la bonté d’executer ce que vous m’avez promis, et trouvez bon que je vous en sollicite.