A letter rack painted by Cornelis van der Meulen in 1673 (Credit Cornelius van der Meulen via Wikimedia Commons)

A letter rack painted by Cornelis van der Meulen in 1673 (Credit Cornelius van der Meulen via Wikimedia Commons)

In recent years, people across the world have had to endure long periods of loneliness and isolation.
However, a new project will explore how the separation faced by billions during the global pandemic was matched in communities across Europe and the Atlantic World, and East Asia around five centuries ago.
The six-year project, funded by an 18,000,000 Swedish Krona (£1.5 million) grant from the Swedish Research Council, brings together experts from the UK, Sweden and Australia, and an international advisory board of researchers from across Europe, North America and Asia.
They will examine repositories of letters, diaries, poetry and material culture housed in Japan, South Korea, China, France, Germany, the UK, Italy and Scandinavia to explore the historical experiences of separation across the continents.
The project focuses specifically on the 16th and 17th centuries, a period of immense change with technological advances ranging from the print revolution and formalised postal systems to improved ship design and better transportation routes.
All of this contributed to establishing the letter as a tool for mediating perceived distance, with the researchers suggesting that societal and technical changes during this period gave rise to different forms of communicating experiences in the same way that our experiences of COVID-19 ushered in a new culture of digital remote communication.
The project developed from an intergenerational oral history project aimed at combatting loneliness and isolation during lockdown which was initially broadcast on the Histories of the Unexpected podcast.
Professor James Daybell, Professor of Early Modern British History at the University of Plymouth, co-created that podcast series and is leading the new research.
“There are many forms of separation that humans experience as we move through life. Over the last three years, we have all faced unexpected experiences of separation as nations, communities and individuals dealt with the global pandemic. All around the world, nations, communities and individuals are torn apart by war and forced displacement. However, such separation has encouraged – or even required – new forms of communication that in turn have shaped how separation has been experienced.
“Understanding separation helps us to analyse intensely human experiences of belonging and its opposites – isolation, loneliness and withdrawal. This is certainly not a new phenomenon, and we hope to uncover evidence that the way experiences of separation are communicated is grounded in particular social, cultural and political contexts through time.”
James Daybell Plymouth pioneers
Professor James Daybell
For the research, Professor Daybell will be working alongside: Professors Svante Norrhem and Lisa Hellman at the Lund University in Sweden; Professor Susan Broomhall at Australian Catholic University; and Professor Howard Hotson, who leads the Cultures of Knowledge and Early Modern Letters Online Projects at the University of Oxford, which are housed by Oxford’s Bodleian Library.
The project takes a global comparative and multidisciplinary approach to separation, placing the early modern period in the context of medieval and modern developments.
Specifically, the researchers will explore how different life stages shape experiences of separation as a fundamental part of everyday life, and how individuals find themselves and navigate their place within the world.
They will examine how separation was experienced in spatial, geographic, and temporal forms and in turn how it shaped people’s perceptions and realities of space, time, and geography.
They will also study how the separation was shaped by letters, and how it influenced modern letter writing and postal practices during the period and since.
Professor Daybell added:
“In the 16th and 17th centuries, Europe and East Asia entered a period of increased mobility. Increased accessibility of both reading and writing in a range of scripts and languages, and literate cultures in East Asia and Europe, made forms of communication available to a wider population. It was a momentous cultural shift, but one which makes it possible for us to now study experiences of separation that took place up to 400 years ago.”

Histories of the Unexpected

Histories of the Unexpected launched in 2016 and is the brainchild of broadcaster and historian Dr Sam Willis and Professor of Early Modern History, James Daybell. Since it was started, more than 300 episodes have been broadcast, and in 2020 it was complemented with a series of Homeschooling Specials for children, parents and teachers in lockdown.
Histories of the Unexpected podcast

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