The Medieval Art of Letter Writing: Rhetoric As Institutional Expression

The Medieval Art of Letter Writing: Rhetoric As Institutional Expression

By Les Perelman

Textual Dynamics of the Professions Historical and Contemporary Studies of Writing in Professional Communities, edited by Charles Bazerman and James Paradis (University of Wisconsin Press, 1988)

Introduction: Classical rhetoric, from the early Greek Sophists to Cicero and Quintilian, was solely concerned with oral rather than written discourse. In particular, most rhetorical treatises were almost completely limited to three specific types of speeches, each linked to three respective institutions: deliberative to the public assembly, epideictic to the public ceremony, and forensic to the law courts. Although these three forms accurately reflected the social responsibilities incumbent upon a free male of a Greek polis, they continued to dominate rhetorical theory long after the institutions that created them had either ceased to exist or had under- gone fundamental changes. Thus deliberative rhetoric was taught both in schools and by tutors all during the period of the Roman Empire, even though the function of both the Roman Senate and local assemblies be- came severely limited, possessing relatively little actual power except in some specific local matters. Similarly, forensic rhetoric continued to be taught in Carolingian schools, despite the fact that the imperial law courts for which it was designed had vanished hundreds of years before.

Although the writing of letters was common during the classical period, it never became a formal subject of discussion until its inclusion as a brief appendix in the fourth century A.D. rhetoric of C. Julius Victor. During the Middle Ages, however, the written letter became a central concern of rhetorical theory. Medieval society, in general, and medieval political structure, in particular, were not primarily urban. Consequently, unlike the classical polis , communication could not usually be conducted through oral, face-to-face encounters. Furthermore, as medieval ecclesiastical and secular bureaucracy grew, the earlier medieval collections of official and legal formulae proved insufficient to meet the administrative needs of institutions that functioned primarily through letters.

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