How do you get your news today? TV? Radio? Printed newspapers? Online news sites? Social media? Today we seem to be inundated by the news 24/7 and it sometimes takes a conscious effort to step away from the barrage. News consumption habits have changed drastically in the last twenty years. But while the speed at which news reaches us may be at unprecedented levels, the multiplicity of delivery methods for the news is nothing—ahem—new.
In early modern England, even before the introduction of newspapers (in the modern sense), the news could be disseminated in a number of ways.
Orally and in manuscript
The most common way for news to travel was—and still is—by word of mouth. Events of the day, both big and small, would be discussed any time two or more people encountered each other. Some people would then write down these reports, either to be shared with those not present or for reference later.
Noteworthy political news was sometimes compiled in one document, over a period of time, such as in V.b.303. This manuscript is a collection of political and parliamentary documents compiled between about 1550 and 1650. A historical record like this is hugely important: first, it tells us that these events happened; it tells us what events people of the time thought were important enough to record; and it helps us see how news was disseminated.
This page shows a copy of the speech that Sir Walter Raleigh gave before his execution in 1618; this speech circulated widely in manuscript, was translated into other languages, and was subsequently printed in English numerous times. By tracing both print and manuscript versions of the speech, scholars can play an early modern version of the game Telephone, and see how variants to the text were introduced and reproduced.
But these news records weren’t always Serious Business. One of my favorite examples from our collection are these pages from a mid-17th century commonplace book (E.a.6) that record “Strange Accidents” and “Strange Reports”:
In addition to ad hoc collections of news compiled by individuals, officially sanctioned newsletters were issued by the Secretary of State’s office, usually three times a week. These manuscript newsletters covered both domestic and international news. We hold a collection of nearly 4000 such newsletters that were received and collected by the Newdigate family of Warwickshire. The newsletters cover about a forty year period, from 1673/4-1715, and mention most of the major events of that time period.
At the same time as these manuscript sources of the news were circulating, newsbooks—relatively short pamphlets that could be printed quickly (and cheaply)—became popular to report on current events in a timely manner.
These newsbooks had the benefit of being sold in booksellers’ shops, and thus were available to a wider range of readers than the by-prior-arrangement setup of the newsletters. Newsbooks became particularly important leading up to and during the Civil War (1642-1651), with news flying fast and thick and each side wanting to have their say.
During the war, the utility of these quick-to-produce pamphlets became apparent. The royalist produced a serial pamphlet, Mercurius Aulicus, to support their side. (It was printed in Oxford and Bristol, but did manage to circulate in London as well.) The parliamentarians responded with their own series of pamphlets, which were called Mercurius Britannicus.
The first English-language newspaper (a single sheet, printed on both sides) was imported to London from Amsterdam in late 1620. It wasn’t until after the Civil War that a regularly published, English-printed newspaper was really established. The Oxford Gazette (now the London Gazette) is generally credited with being the oldest continuously published newspaper in the England. And it just celebrated its 352 birthday! (November 1665, for those of you who are like me and hate trying to do math in your head.)
But the Gazette was not alone for long. The Daily Courant launched in 1702 as the first daily paper, and by about 1720 there were at least a dozen weekly and daily papers throughout England.
Fortunately for scholars, many of these 18th century newspapers have been preserved in two collections: The Burney Newspapers at the British Library, and the Nichols Newspapers Collection at the Bodleian Library, Oxford. Both of these collections have been commercially digitized and are available to libraries as subscription databases.1
And lest you think that a multiplicity of news sources is the only thing that our news consumption today has with those 300-400 years ago, take a look at this proclamation by Charles II from 1674 (click the image to see the full item):
- The Folger does provide on-site access to both of these databases. Readers (and potential readers) may see a list of subscription databases we provide on-site access to.