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The Concept of Conversation

From Cicero's Sermo to the Grand Siècle's Conversation

David Randall

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The first history of early modern conversation in English

In the classical period, conversation referred to real conversations, conducted in the leisure time of noble men, and concerned with indefinite philosophical topics. Christianity inflected conversation with universal aspirations during the medieval centuries and the ars dictaminis, the art of letter writing, increased the importance of this written analogue of conversation. The Renaissance humanists from Petrarch onward further transformed conversation, and its genre analogues of dialogue and letter, by transforming it into a metaphor of increasing scope. This expanded realm of humanist conversation bifurcated in Renaissance and early modern Europe. The Concept of Conversation traces the way the rise of conversation spread out from the history of rhetoric to include the histories of friendship, the court and the salon, the Republic of Letters, periodical press and women. It revises Jürgen Habermas’ history of the emergence of the rational speech of the public sphere as the history of the emergence of rational conversation and puts the emergence of women’s speech at the centre of the intellectual history of early modern Europe.

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1. The Classic Origins of Conversation
2. The Medieval Reformulations of Conversation
3. The Renaissance of Conversation
4. Intimate Friendship
5. Court, Salon, and Republic of Letters
6. Letters
7. Sociabilitas

About the Author

David Randall is Director of Research at the National Association of Scholars. His publications include Credibility in Elizabethan and Early Stuart Military News (2008) and English Military News Pamphlets, 1513-1637 (2011).


This ambitious, wide-ranging, thoughtful and highly readable book offers a fresh approach to a form of communication that is attracting increasing interest, focusing on the changing idea of conversation over the centuries.

- Peter Burke, Emmanuel College Cambridge

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