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.

October 06, 2009

Why I don't do contemporary history

Christopher Andrew has just published an official history of MI5. Professor Andrew has a vast reputation amongst those who know about intelligence history in the UK. However his book has been criticised. As Richard Norton Taylor argues in the Guardian, Professor Andrew had access to a large amount of MI5 material but his history is no doubt skewed both because he cannot tell us what he had access to and because he cannot tell us what he was denied access to. I'd expect almost everyone reading this to have an instant reaction to that sentence: there are two very justifiable opposite feelings, the first is that if you do not know what a history is based upon and cannot follow from text to source, and if the historian cannot tell you about his sources, then you might as well not trust him- he is an establishment stooge. The second is that MI5 cannot release to the general public operational details from the last ten or fifteen or even thirty years without possibly endangering lives. I do not think those questions are easily resolved: the tension is both constant and difficult and one of the reasons that I do not specialise in that type of history is because the moral dilemma facing the historian is so clear. I do not know if Professor Andrew's answer is good enough- I do know that the question is not easy.

October 05, 2009

Religion in Politics

During Book 8, Livy reports an incident that reveals both his intelligence as a historian, his credulity as a beleiver and his insight as an observer of politics. The difficulty for anyone in the modern world reading him is to separate out those three things- or to decide whether they are possibly separated at all. He reports that Annius, a representative of Latium, came to the Roman senate and insulted Rome, the consul Manlius turned to the statue of Jupiter in the senate and asked it to bear witness to the Latin insult. Annius insulted Jupiter himself in the tumult and left the senate. Livy refuses to endorse rumours that he fell down the senate steps, knocking himself unconscious, that as Annius insulted the Senate and the God, a clap of thunder broke in the sky. He mentions these facts but adds the rider that 'such things may well be true, or they may be invented as aptly portraying the wrath of the Gods'. (VIII 4)

Livy reports this, I believe, as is shown by his second sentence to demonstrate part of the art of rule that Roman rumours were part of. These things might have been 'invented' because they would aptly portray the wrath of the Gods- the Gods must be angry and how else could they be but by thunderbolt and bloody nose. But it cannot be an accident that almost immediatly afterwards Torquatus arrives on the scene and announces over Annius's body that the Gods have endorsed a war against Latium. Placing the incidents in the order that Livy writes them and with his expression of doubt, there may be an element of endorsement here for the strategy of using religion, divining the course of events to support the Roman state. On the other hand, Livy's doubt may be a throwaway expression- he does at another moment say these stories are 'almost certain' and Torquatus we are told, without qualification pronounces his sentence over the body of the stunned Annius. In that reading, this is a providential moment in Roman history. Or perhaps the ambiguity is deliberate: Livy wants us to admire the Roman statesmen who divined the act and supported the rumour as well as the Gods who vindicated their own honour.

October 04, 2009

Cultural Property

Mary Beard has written an interesting article for the TLS focussing on cultural theft. She links together two recent books- the first analysing what the ancients thought about cultural plunder, the latter looking at the same issue two thousand years later in the reign of Emperor Napoleon I. She is right to target this as a vexed issue and brings to light many was in which cultural plunder and restoration is not a simple question- there are many types of coercion and many types of exchange, culture itself often ends up being returned not to where it came from but to somewhere else- so Italian monuments returned in the 19th Century did not go back to their old resting places the small churches but to large museums. Also the original owners of property often acquired it through holding wealth based on immoral actions- slaveholding in the ancient world or straightforward feudalism in the modern. Often that injustice could cross what are now national boundaries: who owns an ancient monument, the decendents of those who owned it, or the decendents of those who built it and how could we work out who was who? Property rights here clash with natural justice. There aren't obvious answers to these questions: but there are obvious relevances to the modern world and the febrile politics of cultural reclamation.