That Mail You Got

Recently, I’ve come across several people’s lament about the dying art of lettering writing. There seems to be a concern that digital technology such as texting, email, and Skype has come to replaced a unique art that existed since the ancient Greeks. Take a look at some of these articles: Newsweek‘s “The Good Word” and Morning Call’s “Lamenting the Lack of Letter Writing”. I also recently found a YouTube video advocating for more letter writing:

The decline in the number of letters being written nowadays is a reflection of a shift in literacy practices.  We now live in a period that Jay David Bolter calls “the late age of print.” Thus, writing is now about interfacing and speed. Electronic communication channels allow for faster response, sometimes instantaneous communication. This is one of the affordances that technology provides, and I think this reduces the necessity for sending a postal mail.

I have to admit that I don’t like mailing letters at all. In fact, the mail is my last resort for communicating with others because I find it inconvenient to have to buy stamps, find a mail drop box, and then wait for a response from the recipient to be delivered to me by a postal employee. So now I only send a letter when I absolutely have to—that is, when there is no other option. Otherwise, I do all my communication online. I also prefer using electronic correspondences because I often leave town for a lengthy period of time, and when I do, I always have to make arrangements to have someone tend to my mail, making it a chore and a nuisance. Some might say that I am contributing to the decline of the art of letter writing or ars dictaminis, a rhetoric theory and convention that arose during the Middle Ages.

People have been writing to each other long before the medieval period, but it wasn’t until the 11th century AD that letter writing practices would become conventionalized and formalized by a Bennedictine monk named Alberic of Monte Cassino. Alberic taught other monks how to write letters in his abbey, and by the 12th century, it flourished into a subject of study in universities and monasteries in Bologna. The standard medieval letter had five parts:

  1. Salutation: friendly greeting appropriate to the relationship and rank of the sender and receiver
  2. Exordium: securing of the audience’s good will in order to make her/him receptive and well-disposed to the message
  3. Narration: explanation of facts, background, situation
  4. Petition: the reason for writing (to request something, make an announcement, etc.)
  5. Conclusion: short closing

These five components would come to lay the foundation for modern day business writing. Granted many of these components have been changed and omitted, and we don’t necessarily write letters in the same order as Alberic. We might, for example, make petition our very first sentence rather than the exordium, as in when we apply for a job: “I am writing to apply for the academic advisor position advertised on your website.” But many components from medieval ars dictaminis still remain intact in the letters we get. I’m thinking about the credit card offers or political fund raising campaign letters I often receive in the mail on a weekly basis. These letters always begin with a friendly greeting that moves to secure my goodwill and positive emotions, exemplifying the usage of exordium. They also usually contain some kind of narration (background information, statement of facts, explanations), and clearly there is the petition: what the letter writer wants from me. I can see a lot of relevance of medieval ars dictaminis conventions in the mail I get today.

The ars dictaminis convention is not a random creation. It derived from Roman rhetoric theory, specifically Cicero’s 6 parts of oration, which consist of exordium, narration, division, proof, refutation, and conclusion. Medieval letter writers reappropriated these elements and remixed them to create the art of letter writing. There is actually a rhetoric theory behind the convention and practice.

As letter writing conventions and practice grew in the Middle Ages, several handbooks were available to help people master the art. One notable manual is that of Lawrence of Aguilegia entitled Practica sive usus dictaminis. His book provided already made phrases that people can copy and use in their own correspondence. That is, he offered a “plug-in formula,” leading some to call his approach a “rhetorical dead end.” Lawrence’s work made me think of all the letter templates that come free on Microsoft Word and the ones that are available for purchase online through websites such as WriteExpress.com and Businesslettertemplates.com. The root of all these products can be traced back to the Middle Ages, beginning with Lawrence’s book.

Next time you get a letter in the mail, pay attention to remnants of ars dictaminis. The medieval influence continues to be evident and relevant, even in the 21st century.

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