When the News Was New
WASHINGTON — The good lady Opinion sits perched in a tree, wearing the weighty towers of the town as her hat, which blinds her eyes. On one of her hands a chameleon sits, doubtless changing its spots to accommodate the surroundings. Held in her other hand is a wand used to shake the tree’s branches, from which leaves fall: leaves of books and papers, which offer not knowledge but libel and foolishness, which “in everie streete, on everie stall you find.”
Such is the cynical vision of the news business put forward by Henry Peacham in 1641 London, as journalism, in its earliest forms, was becoming a major force during some of the most tumultuous decades in England’s history: no wisdom, he finds, just much posturing and gossip.
More than 360 years later, as advance obituaries are being prepared for the very forms of printed journalism born during Peacham’s era, Lady Opinion is on display, alongwith far more reverential examples of news and opinion, at the Folger Shakespeare Library on Capitol Hill in the exhibition “Breaking News: Renaissance Journalism and the Birth of the Newspaper.”
The show, housed in the library’s stunning exhibition hall, will be taken down after Jan. 31, which means that to sample these offerings we are all of us on deadline. The curators — Chris R. Kyle (Syracuse University), Jason Peacey (University College, London) and the library’s own Elizabeth Walsh — have put together a chronicle of chronicles, an account of how information about the wider world in 16th- and 17th-century England, including reports of wonders and horrors, wars and troop movements, murders and merchandise, gradually made its way from private journals or letters reporting on events witnessed, to publicly sold broadsheets and pamphlets.
The show’s effect is understated and must be pieced together slowly, since these documents should be read as well as seen. But the story of how journalism became a public enterprise in Renaissance England is actually the history of how a public itself took shape; how out of a monarchical society in which great poverty and great wealth cohabited, another kind of identity evolved. It was based on slowly increasing literacy and impassioned written argument; it included curiosity about gossip and a taste for exotic tales; and it developed alongside a new commercial world in which written advertising, like the news it accompanied, helped shape taste and expectations.
Look carefully, and it is really the birth of the modern West that we see taking place here: snippets of news and sensation helped define a shared experience of the past and present, as political debates laid the foundations of democratic culture. If the Reformation is often credited with having turned the West toward the Enlightenment, another such force must be the growing taste for news and its multiple retellings. While other cultures were arguing over the interpretations of sacred texts, England’s was arguing over the nature of government in print. We are the beneficiaries.
The exhibition itself could have been much more clear in its chronological and thematic organization, particularly because the knotty politics of 17th-century England — centering on its civil wars — are treated as if they were far more familiar than is the case, but these documents repay the patience of careful reading.
When Sir Walter Raleigh was convicted of treason and executed in 1618, his eloquent speech on the scaffold was reported not by newspapers — which had not yet evolved — but in private written accounts. The real revolution came in the 1620s under the influence of “corantos” imported from Amsterdam, which provided the main news of the week. The corantos (which are still recalled in the names of newspapers, like The Hartford Courant) also inspired opposition from the government over their reports of troop movements during the Thirty Years’ War, leading to censorship and even imprisonment.
But the demand for news — and opinion — increased. Press censorship collapsed with the beginning of the civil wars of the 1640s, but the debates of this era were so intense and so much a part of public consciousness that news publications became instruments in the political battles between monarchists and parliamentarians. Newspapers were counterfeited, imitated, mocked and attacked. Parliament tried to reimpose censorship in 1643, and the poet John Milton wrote his famous speech demanding “Liberty of Unlicenc’d Printing.” But newspapers, complained Sir Roger L’Estrange, an ardent monarchist, make “the multitude too familiar with the actions and counsels of their superiors.” He created The Observator, shown at the Folger — the “pre-eminent Tory journal of its day.”
Coffeehouses also proliferated in which newspapers were read and where, as one 1683 critic put it, “false and seditious news is invented and spread.” The Folger has a modern working reproduction of a Renaissance printing press, which in a kind of mirage, out of the corner of the eye (at least an eye surrounded by these contentious publications), seems a distant relative of the guillotine.
The ultimate impact of all this, though, did not depend on a particular political position. The journalistic enterprise itself led to an expanded sense of the importance of individual opinion and even provided glimpses of something like public opinion. The result was a revolution in the ways citizens thought about themselves and their government.
Mixed in with political argument were other morality tales. There were reports of the skies raining blood in Rome, or, in London, “A True Relation of a most desperate Murder” from 1617. There were accounts of beheadings, bizarre births and conjoined twins (“a Prodigious Monster”).
Advertising evolved alongside such narrative spectacles and urgent political arguments. A 1660 notice heralds “Sir Kenelm Digbies sympatheticall Powder, prepared by Promethian fire, curing all green wounds.”
By the beginning of the 18th century the modern press was emerging. The first issue of the first newspaper published in the New World is here: Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick (Sept. 25, 1690). This was also the last issue; it was closed down by the Governor and Council of Massachusetts for its scandalous tales. The first issue of The Boston News-letter from 1704 is here too, but it must have been more sober: it became the first continuously published newspaper in America.
It is strange to think that the genetic code of modern journalistic culture was laid down four centuries ago in England, mixing hype and high seriousness, incorporating battles over press freedoms, suffused with a spirit of competition and a need for marketing. The newspaper, we also see, evolved as the creator and mirror of its public. Political modernity is almost unimaginable without that relationship.
In our own era this deeply inscribed code can lead to a slightly exaggerated pride and self-importance. That is the approach of the nearby Newseum, devoted to celebrating the press and its importance to democracy. But at this exhibition we see something else.
One aspect of the historic importance of the newspaper arises not from its idea of liberty, or from its presumption to tell truth to power, or from publishing without fear or favor. Its importance derives not out of itself alone, but out of its relationship to an evolving public. Whether published in pixels or ink, it acts at once as that public’s guide and its follower, its critic and its servant, its creator and its voice. That, at any rate, is what it says on the latest leaf that Lady Opinion has knocked out of the tree into this scrivener’s hands.