Alan Farmer, Ohio State University

Forms of News: Printed Newsbooks and the Politics of the Thirty Years’ War in England

Over the past two decades, historians of the news trade in early modern England have repeatedly stressed the cultural and political significance of manuscript news. Circulating in a variety of forms—including weekly newsletters sent by professional writers to a roster of clients for a fee, letters exchanged between diplomats and friends, political separates about parliament, foreign and domestic courts, state trials, etc., that were sold by professional scribes and London stationers—manuscript news, it has been argued, was generally considered superior to printed news pamphlets in early modern England. Manuscript letters and separates were supposedly more plentiful than printed news pamphlets; related information that was more accurate and more timely; candidly discussed domestic political events in ways that would never be allowed in print; and, in the end, were important in shaping the political culture of late Jacobean and Caroline England.

In this talk, I want to reassess many of these arguments about printed news pamphlets and offer a different account of their political, cultural, and literary significance during the 1620s and 1630s. Most of the news publications from this period focused on military and political developments in the Thirty Years’ War, and these pamphlets played a crucial role in shaping the perception of this conflict in England. News pamphlets came in a variety of formats targeted at different types of readers—both inexpensive, short serialized news pamphlets that appeared about once a week and more pricey semiannual news digests that covered several months of the war—and because they were printed in greater numbers, they were able to reach more readers than individual manuscript newsletters could. My talk will explore various reasons that readers were interested in these pamphlets and suggest that the news of the war printed in them was both more timely and more reliable than recent scholarship has supposed. The pamphlets also discussed affairs directly related to England more often than has been assumed and, ultimately, provided more thorough and regular coverage of the Thirty Years’ War than could be found in manuscript sources. Though occasionally described by modern historians as uncontroversial, news pamphlets about the continental war instead helped to create a divided political culture in which, on the one hand, England was thought to be perpetually in danger of attack by dangerous foreign enemies and should come to the aid of its Protestant allies abroad but, on the other, in which its freedom from the horrors of war was a testament to the wisdom of its king. These contrasting responses to the war added a sense of urgency to domestic political and religious events during the 1620s and 1630s and, I want to suggest, helped contribute to the formation of the political and religious ideologies that would divide the country and eventually erupt in the English Civil War.