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UAB Digital Humanities Network

Presentation of EpiCAT, which collects, studies and disseminates personal letters from the 16th to 19th centuries

19 May 2021
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Researchers from the UAB Department of Modern and Early Modern History have spent four years on the research project EpiCAT.Cartes familiars de Catalunya (segles XVI-XIX)”, 44 historical archives from all over Catalonia in which 2,438 letters were registered, transcribed and analysed. All letters were made available to the scientific community and general population on the open and recently presented web portal EpiCAT (epicat.uab.cat), created in collaboration with the UAB Library Services.


Diferents cartes familiars dels segles XVI al XIX (EpiCAT-Arxius comarcals de l'Alt Empordà i del Vallès Occidental)

A total of 2,438 personal letters from the 16th to 19th centuries were inventoried, registered, transcribed and analysed, which allowed researchers to enter the daily lifes of families and give voice to stories which had been almost invisible until now.

A team of researchers from the UAB Department of Modern and Early Modern History, led by Professor Javier Antón Pelayo,  have spent four years on the research project “EpiCAT.Cartes familiars de Catalunya (segles XVI-XIX)”, 44 historical archives from all over Catalonia in which 2,438 letters were registered, transcribed and analysed. Thanks to the contents of these letters historical interpretations can now be redefined, with direct evidence of facts occurring in that period, constructed with the help of official documents. 

Since January 2017 until today, UAB historians have worked on personal letters found at the National Archive of Catalonia and the Crown of Aragon, the Library of Catalonia, the Provincial Historical Archives in Girona, Lleida and Tarragona, the Municipal Historical Archines of each provincial capital: Barcelona, Girona, Lleida and Tarragona, and the county archives of Catalonia. 

Of these 44 archives researched, in which 138 family property documents were found to contain personal correspondence, formed by 2,438 personal letters. Of these, it is worth noting the amount of letters belonging to the Barraquer family (369 personal letters), the Puig family from Vilaür (245 letters), the Burguès family (204 letters) and the Ventós family (150 letters). But even more important than the amount of letters, historians highlight the content and thematics, which have allowed them to have a new outlook on history.

"Until a few years ago, a letter contained a certain historiographic value. The content was considered to be "trivial" by those who had to decide what to conserve and what to destroy. Social scientists, in general, have considered letters to be trivial, anecdotic and unconnected testimonies. But the intensive analysis of this source of information allows us to get a closer look at the daily lives of families and their universe of emotions, and discover the impressions certain historical events (political, social, climatic, rural and sanitary)”, explains UAB historian Javier Antón Pelayo and main researcher of the project. And he adds that “the analysis of these letters offers historians the opportunity to enter a reserved area and act as "voyeurs" of the intimacy of our ancestors".  


The copying and transcribing of these family letters led to the creation of the digital platform EpiCat (epicat.uab.cat), on which users can consult and search for the 2,438 letters. The website, which was developed with the collaboration of the UAB Library Services, also includes the digitalisation of 250 of these letters in their original format.

On Wednesday 19 May the website was presented in an online event. This tool will allow to redefine and fine tune historical interpretations, constructed particularly with the help of official documents, and therefore contribute to a new interpretation of history. 

What did family letters talk about three centuries ago?  

The fear of bandits, the hail that ruined that year's crops, the uncomfortable journey on a horse cart, the actions of soldiers in battle, the birth of a daughter, the wedding of the oldest son, etc. these are some of the daily themes found in the letters.  

Some other not so common themes were also found, such as the love disguised as friendship between two men (letter dating from 1840, found at the Alt Empordà county archive), and others about violence against a handicap woman (letter about an aggression on a mute girl, 1825, National Archive of Catalonia), as well as on “marriage candidates” (letter from 1804, where a man describes to his brother the characteristics of three women he has chosen for his brother to marry, Vallès Occidental county archive).  

Apothecaries, tradesmen, servants, nuns, farmers, frairs, teachers, soldiers, and many more people are the authors of these letters, addressed to members of their family. A total of 741 correspondents.

Language of the letters

“Catalonia was a country with a significant amount of epistolary activity. The letters served to bring together different members of a family who, for different reasons, were separated”, researcherss els investigadors del projecte EpiCat. 

Of the 2,413 letters registered, 63.8% were written in Spanish and the rest in Catalan. It was detected that Catalan was the predominant language in family letters until the mid 1700s, but slowly gave way to Spanish among families of the Catalan nobility, which became the dominant langauge in the third decade of the 19th century.  

The majority of letters studied by the research group were written during the 18th century and the first half of the 19th century. Researchers concluded that during the Enlightenment, less personal letters were written because the levels of illiteracy were very high, postal service was almost inexistent and the habit of writing letters was less prevalent, but the situation changed drastically in the 18th century.  

A total of 25% of the letters registered were written by women. Children and adolescents also wrote letters, 185 such letters were found: “we found direct evidence of those almost invisible actors, and in their words we see the role societies of the past gave to children”, explains Javier Antón.  

The UAB research team, from the Department of Modern and Early Modern History, is formed by Javier Antón Pelayo (main researcher), Montserrat Jiménez Sureda, Remei Perpinyà Morera, Alfred Mauri Martí, Ramon Alberch Fugueras, Alicia Calvo Burés, Aitana Finestrat Martínez and Sílvia Amor López.

EpiCAT- Family letters from Catalonia (16th to 19th centuries): epicat.uab.cat

Video OF THE EPICAT PROJECT:  https://vimeo.com/544180610