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Folger Shows Us World Before Web, When News Was New

Right up until the early 1600s, there were no newspapers of any form in England or in Europe, which is somewhat difficult to imagine given that today we have so much news in so many forms that we hardly have time to digest it all.

“Breaking News: Renaissance Journalism and the Birth of the Newspaper” now at the Folger Shakespeare Library is an exploration into the early history of news, or rather the newspaper industry. It’s the history of how news was made, shared, printed, distributed, formatted and debated — a history that is not always pretty, but then again, neither is the Worldwide Web sometimes.

Early news — beginning with the first newspaper, a European import that arrived in England in 1620 — resembled the Internet a bit, with its roughness, energy, and everyone-is-a-writer nature. In fact, these early “journalists” — pamphleteers, newsletter writers, coranto publishers and tale-telling reporters — sounded remarkably like many of today’s online bloggers, those infestation of writers on the Internet, both legitimate and not, who have multiplied the number of journalists in the world a hundred times over.

Before the advent of newspapers, folks relied on letters, whether from relatives or the royal court, avidly reading family gossip or official government proclamations. This did not mean that the news was the truth, of course, but rather that an explanation for events was being offered. Today we call that spinning.

This exhibition traces the rise of newspapers, which subsequently gave rise to a new professional class of journalists, publishers and printers. And although they introduced a whole new world of information to a hungry public, newspapers — much like today — didn’t necessarily provide “news” to that public.

Very often newspapers became the tools of not only governments, but also political parties and opposing forces, especially during the English Civil Wars of the 17th century. During this time, the feuding Parliamentarians and Royalists each had their own “newsbooks” — pamphlets filled with lurid stories detailing murders, natural disasters, sexual deviance and physical abnormalities — such as Mercurius Aulicus for the Royalist side and Mercurius Britannicus for the Parliamentary forces, the latter being rather too sarcastic, acerbic, witty and scurrilous to last for any length of time.

The governments also printed copies of speeches and declarations that covered everything from dying last words uttered by prominent traitors before their executions to news of royal comings and goings. Sir Walter Raleigh’s last words before being beheaded during the reign of James I were apparently a bestseller.

Better yet, you could get the latest gossip about prominent aristocrats from letters written by people like Bess of Hardwick, the Countess of Shrewsbury, who dished about the pregnancy of Queen Anne and the workings of Parliament to her friends, who of course passed everything on.

Things could get quite salacious, even by today’s celebrity-gossip standards. One report for instance circulated that Robert Cecil, the king’s chief minister, died from the “pox” due to the fact that he was conducting affairs with both Lady Walsingham and the Countess of Suffolk.

These were the National Enquirers before there was a National Enquirer.

But newspapers also conveyed serious news, including information on conflicts such as the devastating Thirty Years’ War in Europe — in the process bringing these battles home to London.

Shedding light on unpopular wars didn’t always sit too well with the military brass though. The great military man Oliver Cromwell, for instance, was not exactly friendly to a free and questioning press. But it was the great poet John Milton who opposed censorship in his famous 1644 tome “Areopagitica,” in which he wrote that the authorities might as well “kill a man as kill a good book.”

In fact, much of the story behind early newspapers is really a story about the tensions between journalists and the authorities, and efforts by the latter to control the former.

“The printing press from the early 16th century was a tool which the government both sought to exploit and control,” said exhibit curator Chris R. Kyle.

The rise of political parties like the Whigs and Tories gave rise to party journalism. But the changing political and social scene also made newspapers that challenged party propaganda a permanent staple, and by the turn of the 18th century, London had multiple weeklies as well as a daily newspaper. The exhibition features early copies of some of these publications like the Tatler and London Gazette, which is the world’s longest-running newspaper.

Looking at selections of early publications such as the Moderate Rogue (was there ever such a thing as a moderate rogue?) or Boston’s Publick Occurrence, the first American newspaper, or even the frontispiece to “A True Relation of a Most Desperate Murder” is to feel a kind of thrill. This exhibition about the beginnings of print journalism comes at a time when scholars and pundits predict the very demise of the medium in the 21st century, along with the death of the dailies.

But “Breaking News” shows us that longevity has its uses, and despite today’s birth of the digital era, there’s still something everlasting about the type of news that we can still hold in our hands. Like this one.

Breaking News: Renaissance Journalism and the Birth of the Newspaper through Jan. 31 Folger Shakespeare Library 201 East Capitol Street, SE For more information, please call (202) 544-4600 or visit www.folger.edu.

About the Author

Gary Tischler is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on July 9, 2014