When we think of newsletters — come on, some of us think of them, right? — we usually picture semi-anonymous emails that show up in our inboxes; or, if we’re feeling old, late 20th-century photocopies mailed straight from an all-night Kinkos that would arrive creased and a little grubby with the rest of the mail. But newsletters didn’t always have a reputation that danced along the edges of junk mail and inbox spam.
In the days just before the revolutionary spirit took hold of Europe and separated many aristocratic heads from their bodies, there was a newsletter that was highly controversial and at the same time very, very exclusive. So exclusive that you had to be a king or queen to get your hands on a copy.
Back in 1753, a German ex-pat living in Paris named Friedrich Melchior (a.k.a. Baron von Grimm) took it upon himself to start a newsletter for royalty. Called the Correspondance Littéraire, Philosophique et Critique, this newsletter wasn’t for mere earls, viscounts, or princesses — it was for the top dogs of European nobility.
Starting with German sovereigns, Grimm gradually expanded his mailing list to include King Gustav III of Sweden, Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II, King of Poland Stanisław II, and Russian Empress Catherine the Great. All told, his secret list of newsletter subscribers numbered somewhere between 16 and 25 heads of state. Grimm mailed out two newsletters a month for two decades, with the last one going out in 1773.
The newsletters weren’t printed, but were instead copied out by hand at a location well outside French soil in order to escape detection by official censors. Newly enrolled royals were strictly cautioned never to make copies of the newsletters with the words, “negligence on this point could have serious consequences.” Given the clandestine production and distribution of the newsletter, you might assume it was about sensitive geopolitical tensions or the analysis of international espionage.
Nope! The Correspondance Littéraire, Philosophique et Critique was about art.
Twice a month, Grimm covered the hottest trends in art, described paintings and sculptures that had just debuted in fashionable salons, summarized new French books, and reviewed the latest plays to hit Parisian stages, all for the benefit of crowned heads who were eager to pass themselves off as cultured. For backwater aristocrats like Catherine the Great, the Correspondance Littéraire, Philosophique et Critique was essential reading. As the Encyclopedia Britannica noted, Grimm “was unbiased in his literary judgments, and time has only served to confirm his criticisms.” That was good news for any monarchs who tried to spout the savoir faire of the newsletter as evidence of their own good taste.
You don’t have to be royalty to get your hands on The Delve Newsletter. You can subscribe right here. It may not be handwritten to avoid the censors, but that’s probably for the best. You don’t want to try to decipher my handwriting, trust me.