Anarchy and Hierarchy, by A. Griscom


The function of the new media in seventeenth-century England

Until recently, historians have assumed that the British masses did not have access to complex media or information about current events because of widespread illiteracy and the physical inaccessibility of the nation's remote regions. On the contrary: more so than ever before, media were ubiquitous aspects of seventeenth-century British society, and there was an unprecedented array of information available to those who wanted it. Unparalleled by any other time in British history before (or relatively speaking, since) the time of the British Civil War, "ordinary people were part of an elaborate network of information" ("Political Discourse in 17th C." 164).

Of course, the transmission of news and propaganda was not instantaneous as it is today. According to Roy Porter in English Society in the Eighteenth Century, the voyage between the nation's two largest cities, Norwich and London, took fifty hours. For news to travel between the English Parliament in Westminster and the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh, it took nine days, weather permitting. There were primitive letter carriers, messengers, and foot-posts, but not enough of them to allow for daily delivery to most parts of the country. Carriers could generally be accessed in front of a town's major inn or alehouse on a specified day every other week. As political ferment grew, townspeople found these inns and alehouses festooned with the pamphlets and broadsides of the government officials and the proletariat alike---delivered to these local venues from around the country.

The common trajectory of a printed tract began in London where the twenty formally licensed printers who, during the time when censorship laws were enforced, were the only authorized publishers of the printed word --- the content and style of which was made to propagate the stability of the reigning power and the acquiescence of its subjects. Of course there were far more than twenty printers in London; by the beginning of the seventeenth century, England's capital housed an estimated several hundred unlicensed printing presses, and by the middle of the century, printing facilities (and even the beginning stages of local weekly newspapers) were available in such cities as Norwich, Bristol, and Exeter. The first printing press came to London in 1476, but it was confined to the walls of Westminster Abbey, producing texts that were no more available to the public than the manuscripts of scribal culture. By 1500 there were only five printers in London; by 1523 there were at least thirty-three printers and booksellers actively engaged in the trade (Siebert 25).

But even up until the early part of the seventeenth century, the high cost of publishing and purchasing printed tracts prevented the printing press from actually serving as a public instrument. Although pamphlets were the cheapest publications available, they were generally only produced and consumed among a "small and intimate" selection of literati until the 1620s when a new, less expensive type-face technologies reduced the cost of production. Just in time for the propagation of revolutionary ferment that began the Civil War. Considering the new availability of the printing press to the masses, it is no coincidence that the media revolution played a significant role in the outbreak of armed conflict. Tim Harris, in "Propaganda and Public Opinion in Seventeenth-Century England" concurs:

It is well known that from the eve of the Civil War there was a sudden and dramatic surge in the output of the press. As censorship controls broke down following the meeting of the Long Parliament in late 1640, there was a great explosion if pamphlet and other printed materials, discussing a wide range of political, constitutional, and religious topics, and it is probably not too controversial to assert that the English Revolution of the mid-seventeenth century was accompanied by a concomitant media revolution. (Harris 52)

Though we are looking specifically at pamphlets, around this time, members of the populace could disseminate their voice through a variety of media: books and newspapers (relegated more to the elite), pamphlets, broadsides, oral communication, woodcut prints, paintings, stage plays, ballads, sermons, official proclamations, petitions, and riots.

The most prolific --- not to mention, democratic --- form of expression on an individual level was undoubtedly the pamphlet. Once it was printed in London, a pamphlet would be sold on street corners or in print shops or carried to more rural locations and sold for next-to-nothing. Some copies were either bought by retailers for resale in the country, carried by their owners on travels away from the capital, or sent by "post" to friends in the countryside. Once a copy reached a village or town it would be posted for greater consumption. A new pamphlet --- whether it contained news, prophesy, or trivia --- was sure to be a crowd pleaser, especially considering the potent rhetoric to which the majority of pamphlets were disposed. We do well to remember that printed material was an innovation among the British masses (especially the countryfolk); naturally, pamphlets and broadsides were the talk of the town. Most pamphlets combined text and images sometimes pretty alarming woodcut prints (see plates at end), which made them accessible to the illiterate.

At an absolute minimum, 30% of the male population in the countryside could read, while in London, male literacy rates were upwards of 80%. Even in the lowest classes, probably over 20% of husbandmen, nationally, could read (Watt chap. 8). This level of literacy sufficiently allowed the messages of printed pamphlets to spread to all corners of the country. Even if the actual pamphlets could not be read by everyone, the ideas and information were sure to be spread orally.

Before government enforcement of censorship crumbled in early 1641, more or less rigorous censorship laws belied all types of communications. For printed materials , regulations dating from the sixteenth century required an elaborate system of licensing: every prospective publication had to be licensed by a censor and then recorded in the Stationer's register. After 1637 printed materials had to include the name of the person who authorized the publication. Enforcement of these laws went under the jurisdiction of the Star Chamber, a "royal prerogative court" which could punish the offenders with fines, imprisonment, or various kinds of corporal mutilation. In the seventeenth spectacular cases of punishment arose where the Star Chamber ordered the mutilation of Puritans Henry Burton, John Bastwick and William Prynne in 1637 for anti-Protestant rhetoric. The merciless punishment scandalized the nation, and censorship hung as a heavy threat before its 1641 fall as a result of the parliament-royalty upset. Early in 1641 Parliament dissolved Charles I's prerogative courts, including Star Chamber, removing the mechanisms by which censorship and licensing laws had been enforced.

From that point until the Royalist regained control over the press in August of 1642, England witnessed the most effusive public participation in national politics to date. In Freedom of the Press in England, 1476-1776, Frederick Siebert shares some helpful statistics on the quantity of printed output: "An analysis preserved in the Thomason collection in the British Museum shows that although only twenty-two pamphlets were published in 1640, more than 1,000 were issued in each of the succeeding four years. The record number of 1,966 appeared in 1642" (Seibert 180). The voices that found their way onto the walls of alehouses and into the hands of the King himself were febrile, alarming, oftentimes toxic. Pamphleteers for the most part had no economic incentive to publish their work; they were driven, rather, by an earnest commitment to intellectual speculation, to the welfare of the state, and to the piquant power of the printed text. One pamphleteer of the time marveled at the lethal power with which the printing presses of revolutionary England were invested:

To come to the presse is more dangerous, then to be prest to death, for the payne of those Tortures, last but a few minutes, but he that lyes upon the rack in print, hath his flesh torne off by the teeth of Enuy, and Calumny euen when he means no body any hurt in his graue (Elizabethan Pamphleteers 30).

Pamphlets from both sides feature strong religious images --- as the politics of the day were inextricably tangled up in religion --- such as the devil defecating into the mouth of a anti-Royalist pamphleteer, or the pope vomiting demons into the mouths of monopolists, or bitter parodies of the "gracious king" holding hands with Heresy but swearing commitment to Truth:

England's petition, to her gracious King,

That he Arminius, would to ruine bring

Who by His doctrine, priuie plotts and hate

To Verity, doth ruine Church and State (EP 53).

The mud-slinging incited reactions. Many pamphlets were written in response to other pamphlets, bearing such titles as: "A Witty Answer," or "A vindication to a foolish Pamphlet." The interactivity that emerged among pamphleteers resembles on a small scale the interactive, hypertextual network of voices that accounts in large part for the prosperity of the net. One might argue that the spirit of democracy demands this system of checks and balances wherein each individual is capable of attacking, defending, and modifying his and others' statements. Interactivity was tenuous among pamphleteers of the seventeenth century because they could not possibly create a lasting link between the response and its impetus --- a shortcoming of the medium itself that has been amply accounted for by digital technology.

For the most part, the content of pamphlets representing the sentiments of both the Royalists and the Parliamentarians revolved around three points of political tension: (1) the Impeachment of Sir Thomas Wentworth Earl of Strafford, Charles' right-hand man, (2) monopoly privileges for the production of new items, and some already in use, such as soaps, leathers, and wines (the pamphlet response here was overwhelmingly anti-monopolist), and (3) changes in the church, the Irish Rebellion, and suspicion of popish plots which implicated Charles as sympathetic to the Irish-Catholics, colluding in a design to bring down the government and the Church of England.

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