What is a newspaper? What is Europe?
These are thorny, and potentially interlinked questions. We know what a newspaper is in its modern form — though it can be surprisingly hard to articulate the implicit knowledge that shapes our expectations of newspapers and instructs us in how to read them — but the nature and role of printed news in earlier societies is harder to establish.
Harder, because the definitional criteria we use do not always mesh perfectly with the historical facts, or the stories that we tell about early printed news. We might propose, for example, that a transhistorical definition of the newspaper would rely on at least the seven following criteria:
1. regular periodicity (i.e. exact frequency of publication, whether that is daily or weekly)
2. seriality (several issues appearing separately, each intended to follow on from the previous)
3. numbering — seriality has to be indicated typographically to assist in consecutive purchasing and collecting. This also implies:
4. continuity in physical appearance and title
5. a heterogeneity of news, from different sources (perhaps including both foreign and home news)
6. topicality of content
7. publication (i.e. making available to the public, not exclusively by printing).
These criteria for form and content represent one possible, minimal definition of the newspaper. An eighth, possible criterion, though it may be no more than a description of a tendency, is that the newspaper must contain some admixture of three kinds of content: news, advertising, and editorial. These criteria would provide a reasonable basis for a rigorous account of the history of early printed news.
But these bare formal criteria, though (fairly) uncontentious in themselves, begin to come under strain when tested against the sheer breadth and multiplicity of contexts in which early modern newsprint emerged and upon which it acted. The history of news, written by practitioners in various European countries, wrestles with such criteria, and bends them to tell a better story, a story that then begins to twist the evidence in favour of clear milestones. Who wants a history full of qualification and muddy waters?
Historians of news are confronted by problems of scale as well as definition. Thomas Carlyle wrote (in the 1840s) of the superabundance of pamphlets and news and printed evidence that the C17th bequeathed to research libraries: “Dreariest continent of shot-rubbish the eye ever saw. Confusion piled on confusion to your utmost horizon’s edge: obscure, in lurid twilight as the shadow of Death; trackless, without index, without finger-post, or mark of any human foregoer;—where your human footstep, if you are still human, echoes bodeful through the gaunt solitude, peopled only by somnambulent Pedants, Dilettants, and doleful creatures, by Phantasms, errors, inconceivabilities, by Nightmares, pasteboard Norroys, griffins, wiverns, and chimeras dire! There, all vanquished, overwhelmed under such waste lumber-mountains, the wreck and dead ashes of some six unbelieving generations, does the Age of Cromwell and his Puritans lie hidden from us.”
In order to fit with modern historiographical standards the history of news must be written with a keen eye to evidence, not only the evidence of surviving printed items, but printing house practices, distribution methods, the commercial rationale, manuscript news, oral traditions, reading and listening practices, etc. etc. Because printed news touches upon so many elements of society and everyday life, because its history is so interconnected with other histories, it needs to be reconstructed minutely and meticulously. And yet printed news, as it is understood today, plays an important role in the emergence of nations, of the public sphere and public opinion, of national identity, of democracy; and so it needs to be written from a geographically and socially broad perspective, and over the longue durée. Newspaper historians must be both foxes and hedgehogs, in the dichotomy of Archilochus, knowing both many things and one big thing.
The problem is exacerbated from a European perspective. Between 1500 and 1700, European countries developed new means of producing and distributing news. These news media depended on communication that crossed linguistic, religious and geopolitical boundaries. Emergent forms of news were crucial to the modernization of European states, the appearance of modern politics, the evolution of discrete identities, and the development of national consciousness. Histories of news have almost exclusively been written from national perspectives; yet the emergence of news media took place across Europe, and in every nation the news media was closely intertwined with pan-European channels of communication, international trade networks, and war. Newspaper historians must recognize the inter- and transnational nature of newspapers; yet to do so, and to do so with the necessary scholarly intensity and evidentiary integrity lies beyond the capacity of an individual.
The Early Modern News Networks project — based at the University of East Anglia, but involving scholars from across Europe, and funded by the generous support of the Leverhulme Trust — seeks to resolve some of these issues of history and method. We seek to explore ways of writing this history collectively and collaboratively. The network of scholars will examine the movement of news across Europe, the forms it took, the routes it followed and the speed and accuracy of transmission, and how it was transformed as it moved between cultures, languages and religions, and by doing so pursue methods for understanding news and news networks in a pan-European context. In this blog we will look at some of the issues, present some of our findings, discuss topical issues through the perspective of the past, ask questions about the nature of news and of Europe, and hope to stimulate discussion of the role of news in early-modern Europe. Let us know if there is anything you would like to see.
It is a pressing project. Just as Europe made news networks, news networks made Europe. Europe was an idea, shaped by war, trade, languages, religions, and by communication. Today Europe — in the distinctive shape and nature that it has assumed since the Second World War — is imperilled. The increasingly formalised economic and legal ties that began with the creation of the European Economic Community and resulted in monetary union are threatened by the actions of a number of under-regulated financial institutions and individuals. Yet beyond these economic and legal frameworks, Europe has an identity that lies in the communicative networks that began centuries before Immanuel Kant’s Perpetual Peace (1795) and the League of Nations (1920): one answer to the question ‘What is Europe?’ lies in the history of news.