October 10, 2009

Newspapers and Letters

Sir Samuel Luke to Samuel Moore '3 lines of your wise news would have been 100 times more acceptable than your 3 pennyworth of diurnals' quoted in Barbara Donegan War in England 1642-9 p. 112

Thomas Rokeby to Adam Baynes 'I thanke you for your news for Irland; I do rather believe itt from your writings than if itt came from the press' (British Library Additional Manuscripts series MSS 21417 folio 250)

There is a regular debate on the blogosphere about whether to trust online or offline media. It is quite interesting that is not a new debate. At every change in media there has been a discussion about how the new media affects the way that truth is told. In the mid-seventeenth century during the English Civil War, the English printing and publication industry exploded. Jason Peacey in his work on pamphleteering tells a story about the economic basis behind that publishing: how great peers and Parliamentary factions, not to mention Oxford royalists, coordinated with writers like Marchamont Nedham and Henry Parker to produce newspapers and pamphlets. The profusion of these newspapers and pamphlets is most marked when you look at a catalogue of them- such as the Thomason Papers in the British Library- pamphlet after pamphlet, newsbook after newsbook came out during the civil war. Often newspapers survived only for a couple of weeks before folding but the longest surviving- the Perfect Diurnal, Mercurius Pragmaticus, Mercurius Britannicus and others- went on for several years and were influential upon politics and politicians.

However newspapers were not read without the same kinds of anxiety as we see today about the profusion of online media. Both Thomas Rokeby, an officer in the New Model Army, and Sir Samuel Luke, Parliament's intelligence chief, were intelligent observers of British politics and neither of them liked to receive, as their own letters demonstrate, news via the papers. As Barbara Donagan in her interesting War in England demonstrates news travelled by post as much as by newspaper distribution- this was as true after 1649 as it was beforehand. We can see clear evidence of it in the Clarke Papers wherein newsletters sent from London by men like Richard Hatton were preserved and in the Baynes Papers, Baynes seems to have spent a lot of time in London writing to the north about what was going on in the capital. Such practices continued pre-civil war patterns of information distribution: Richard Cust in an important article in the 1980s showed that newsletter writers informed the politics of the 1620s and 1630s by distributing to their county patrons or friends the news of the latest deeds at court and the latest debates in Parliament. Letters were a vital and trusted means of communicating- one of the reasons so many civilians fell afoul of both Parliamentary and royalist networks in the civil war is that they were avid letter writers, communicating news both good and bad for each side into letters to friends on opposite sides of the country.

One of the many reasons for this was the lively print market. Amongst newspapers today it is pretty easy to tell which are trustworthy and which not: in general the Financial Times is probably more scrupulous about its sources than the Daily Star. In the seventeenth century thanks to the profusion of pamphlets and newsbooks it was not quite so clear which to trust and which not to trust: in their advertising newsbooks often carried the ascription 'by authority' as a kind of sign of the faith that their readers should have in them. But modern historians believe that many of them were edited several times after they left the journalist's hand- by printers and patrons- or indeed that the news was filtered through a journalistic prism so that supposed letters from abroad were altered and doctored. One of the signs of the distrust that newspapers were held in is demonstrated by the fact that they frequently borrowed the letter form: so a letter from a place whether in Ireland, Scotland, the regions or indeed overseas would appear in the newspaper. Such letters were often doctored: Blair Worden has argued that at least one letter supposedly from Leiden published in Mercurius Politicus was actually written from London, by a certain Mr John Milton and published as though its author was Dutch (Literature and Politics in Cromwellian England pp 208-13).

It is not impossible to believe that similar things happen on blogs today or will happen in the future. Nor that brands are being at the moment developed around particular authors for reliability. Newspapers went through the same process of becoming more and more trusted and reliable over time. The newsbooks of the seventeenth century were complicated literary productions often with a single group of authors who worked closely with sponsors to produce them- they were not works of fiction but as contemporaries believed were not exact fact. They borrowed from the more trusted forms such as letters in order to substantiate their offerings with the overtone of reliability. But ultimately in a society in which personal contact was privileged over textual contact and a man's reputation fortified his word, letters carrying information were more prized by some than anonymous or pseudynomous newsbooks. Sir Samuel Luke and Thomas Rokeby definitely read newsbooks, they preferred to receive letters.


mercurius politicus said...

Great post. I suppose the other point about any form of new media is that just as there are those who distrust it, there are the early adopters - Nehemiah Wallington is the one who instantly springs to mind, and his battles with a major newsbook addiction. The point where he calls them "so many theeves that had stole away my mony" is heartbreaking - it's like a gambler realising that he's pissed everything away chasing that elusive win.

If Wallington was alive today no doubt he'd be the first to buy every new Apple product and would be battling a major World of Warcraft addiction...

Gracchi said...

Definitely- I've often thought that about Thomason as well, the man with a hundred thousand feeds on his google reader! I think there were newspaper geeks as it were, who sat around and read everything they could get and were addicted to new news.