On the 29th of November 1641, the London publisher John Thomas released a small quarto pamphlet entitled Head of Several Proceedings. It was a printed version of a weekly manuscript that had been circulating in London for about a year, a manuscript describing proceedings in parliament. In terms of content it was nothing new. In terms of form and social presence it was a profound innovation. It cost perhaps a twelfth (and perhaps less) of what the manuscript cost, and was probably reproduced in greater numbers. And it committed itself to serial publication, with clear dates on the title page: when issue numbers appeared, they acknowledged this as the point of origin, not the start date of the manuscript serial. This was the first newspaper – or newsbook, as it was printed according to the London conventions of quarto pamphlets – in Britain to contain domestic news and the promise of periodicity.
London was tardy in some respects. Newspapers had appeared in numerous other European entrepôts earlier in the century. But Britain was to acquire a distinctive significance and innovatory quality because the first British newspapers appeared on the eve of civil war, and were made vital by political and religious conflict and the relative lack of organised censorship or press control. Advertising, editorials, word puzzles, human interest stories, lost and found notices, followed, together with a mix of local and foreign news.
For three hundred and seventy years we have been without newspapers, during which time the role of the newspaper has continuously shifted. By “we” I mean British, of course, which is a non sequitur, as this blog’s readership is predominantly non-British. But of course even in 1640 London there was (in addition to word of mouth and manuscript news) printed news available – newspapers have always been imported and exported, and not only for expatriate readerships. The parliamentary news of Heads of Several Proceedings was inserted into a broader discourse, not only parliamentary speeches and other occasional pamphlets, but also foreign news publications of the Thirty Years’ War. The votes of MPs were partly so interesting because of news external to the newsbook: the Irish Rebellion, the europe-wide fortunes of Protestantism, the implied (not least in the publishing of the newsbook) challenge to royal prerogative and secrecy. News publishing is never entirely seamless, but it is always elastic, extended and continuous.
The 29th of November is a landmark, but it’s a landmark that speaks as importantly about continuities as it does about change.
[apologies for posting this a couple of days late – it was written on the 29th]