How Should Early Modern Europe Look?

News Networks in Early Modern Europe has been spending some time recently contemplating the challenges of mapping early modern news (see previous posts).  I’ve looked admiringly at some of the impressive visualisations developed by various projects (ORBIS, the Republic of Letters, and this effort, measuring sites against years of production for the various pre-1500 items – manuscripts as well as incunabula – in the collections of the Houghton Library.)  Some of the hazards and obstacles to early modern news circulation have been predictable – shifting geopolitical boundaries, for instance – while others have come as more of a surprise.  According to E. John B. Allen, for example, French, Spanish and Imperial diplomatic couriers – diplomatic intelligence networks representing, of course, an important subset of early modern news – often tried to avoid the region around Poitiers in the 1560s, which was “notorious, not only for the robbing of foreign couriers, but also because the Huguenots pounced on couriers sent from the French court.”[1] So to the list of phenomena influencing the routes and speeds of early modern news communication, we apparently need to add sectarian banditry.

By 1632, when Nicolas Sanson produced his remarkable map of the post routes of France – recently shown at News Networks’ Viennese workshop by André Belo – Poitiers was an important junction on two major French post roads, to La Rochelle and Bordeaux (the Bordeaux road representing the principal line of land communication between France and Spain.)  If Poitiers and the lands around it had been dangerous to Royal and Imperial couriers in the mid-sixteenth century, it had resumed its place as an important node in the network, following the subjugation of La Rochelle and the largely successful suppression of the Huguenot risings of the early seventeenth century.

In 2004 Patrick Marchand adapted Sanson’s map so that the relations between the network’s most significant points are more readily intelligible.   The resulting map has been cleared of a great deal of clutter but there are some losses; it doesn’t, for example, reflect the striking extent to which French post routes map onto the country’s major rivers.  The Seine, the Rhône, the Marne, the Garonne and the Loire, among others, have post roads following much of their length; and Sanson was notably assiduous in representing, though not labelling, the river systems of France (as well as those of eastern Germany, the southern Netherlands and the south of England).  The reason for this may have less to do with the actual significance of the rivers of France to early modern transportation and more with historic (and pre-historic) patterns of settlement, and the happenstance of France’s having much larger and more navigable rivers than, for instance, Britain (none of whose six principal post roads in the 1630s follows a river for any very significant part of its length); but it is interesting, nonetheless, to note that a Frenchman mapping a national communications network should be at such pains to include rivers in his illustration of it.

Also noticeable on this map – and the broader subject of this post – are the places the roads don’t go.  Virtually the whole of Brittany, as well as what is now Lower Normandy, form a vast blank, with Nantes in Brittany’s southeast the only point of connection to the national network: probably a consequence of Brittany’s status as an independent Dukedom until 1532.  In this instance, a change in the geopolitical map effaces a distinction which the infrastructural map still reflects a hundred years later.  It’s also a reminder of the extent to which Europe’s Celtic periphery remained disconnected; the English postal network extended through Wales only to be able to receive news from Ireland (the Holyhead road was only permanently established from the time of the Irish rebellions of the late 16th century), connected to Scotland through a single route (the Great North Road from London to Edinburgh), and was reliably linked to Cornwall only by the 17th century, and then only by the slow and difficult business of crossing the Tamar estuary, a process which usually added a day or more to the post’s journey.

The shape of the Imperial, French and English postal networks in the late 16th and early 17th centuries plainly reflect the extent to which they exist to service the needs of the monarchies, particularly in the matter of foreign policy – although, as Joad Raymond pointed out at the Vienna workshop, the English crown was not at all interested in funding the post to the necessary level, and the emergence of the post as a viable service formally available to the public was a matter of pure commercial necessity: without the income from public use of a royal service the royal service was absolutely unsustainable, making it an early and perhaps unusually successful instance of Public-Private Partnership in action.  The right of the post to carry what were called ‘bye-letters’ (that is, private letters, as opposed to government packets) was acknowledged by implication from at least 1584 in England,  although the question of accessibility is relevant here.  By the middle of the 17th century there was probably no dwelling in England further than 20 miles from a post-town, but there were still many people who lived inconveniently far away from any connection to the postal network.   Delivery along the main highways might have become considerably quicker but it didn’t herald easy and universal access to the system.

A recent image which considers the effect of some related questions in the modern world appeared on Google’s lat-long blog: a map of the world measuring road density.  It highlights land which is 10km or more from the nearest road.  There is almost no land of this kind anywhere in Europe, and very little in the United States – even in parts of the US that are notoriously sparsely populated, such as the Plains States.  Another version of the algorithm, which considers land isolated that is more than 1km from the nearest road, still makes it clear that even in many of the most mountainous and remote parts of Europe the sense of isolation they produce is really an illusion (as a thought experiment, we might imagine another, and no less interesting map, would measure isolation in Europe as a function of the distance of any given area of land from a commercial airport.)

If we’re to be able to visualise effectively the operation of an early modern European communications network, we need to be able to represent it temporally as well as spatially – to measure the time news took to travel between given locations rather than distance.  The real shape of early modern Europe is in some respects a function of this; and one of the principal challenges of this project is to enable us to see it free of the distortions – which is to say the geographical realities – of modern cartography.  This might produce some eccentricities of its own – one easily imagines a situation whereby London, its position calculated by the time taken to travel to say, Antwerp, Hamburg and Venice respectively, might appear some distance from where we would expect to find it, and in an unusual place relative to Paris – but this is a key characteristic of the Europe we wish to describe.


[1] Post and Courier Service in the Diplomacy of Early Modern Europe (1972), pp. 91-2


When is a news network a network?

The News Networks in Early Modern Europe research network met at the Institute of Austrian Historical Research of the University of Vienna on 13-14 September 2012. First: thanks to our kind hosts, the Institute and Professor Katrin Keller, and Nikolaus Schobesberger and Paola Molino; and to The Leverhulme Trust for funding the workshop as part of our research network.

I’m not going to offer an account of everything that was said, or even synopses of all of the papers (the programme can be viewed in the previous posting). Instead, I’m going to pick out some of the interesting themes and issues, and invite everyone — participants in the workshop and all readers of this blog — to comment and respond.

We began with a collaborative session on postal networks in early modern Europe, in which each participant sketched the various postal services in our areas of geographical specialism. Paul Arblaster began with a survey of the post in the Spanish Netherlands, and its connectivity with other areas in Europe …


Nikolaus Schobesberger followed, looking at the lands of the Holy Roman Empire, and filling in some additional routes …


Then Mario Infelise, André Belo, Carmen Espejo and me, Joad Raymond.


At the end of the session the map looked something like this (it seemed a crime to erase it).


For me this offered more than a brush up on geography or a learning exercise on where the north west European archipelago interconnected with the European mainland: the experience of collaborating on the map made material the complications of moving things around Europe, of finding ways of transporting or communicating objects and news. Collaborating on a map provided a space for accumulating basic information, but also for a good deal more. We found it all the more involving because the postal services — or networks — that functioned in various areas were not straightforwardly commensurate. Different services had to interconnect in different ways: the nodes (or points of connection) were not homogenous. Moreover, there were always alternative routes, and considerations of speed and cost. Yet it was nonetheless an effective network — through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries postal and carrier networks developed in order to get the job done.

We listened to papers by Anton Tantner, Oswald Bauer, Virginia Dillon and Paul Arblaster, all of which considered the geographies of news communication, and the material places and forms through which news communication occurred. And we visited the Austrian National Library, where we saw the famous Fuggerzeitungen in the flesh. These are currently being digitised and indexed by Keller and her team: they will go live soon (and you will hear about it here).





In the concluding roundtable several themes congealed: first, the need for a shared glossary. We are currently working on an article on lexicons of news in the major languages of western Europe. But more than that, we saw we understood by the terms we commonly used (newsletters, newspapers, periodicity) subtly different things, and that the concepts denoted shifted their contours and their relative contours over the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. But worst of all was ‘network’, a term that, it seems to me, has been debased to mean nothing more than a connection between three or more things. When is a network a network? Are there specific rules for the performance of exchanges (such as characterised in Social Network Theory) that define it as a network? Can the connected communication mechanisms across Europe be defined as a network, and if so, does that mean we can describe the limits of the community of Europe through an examination of that network? Or can we only meaningfully talk about particular exchanges, a series of unique cases, in which case a network is an evanescent, non-generalisable phenomenon? This proved a topic of heated disagreement: in a future blog I hope to propose a solution to this.


The European newspaper?

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.


Antwerp Meeting

The Plantin-Moretus Museum in Antwerp will play host to the first meeting of News Networks in Early Modern Europe.  (We’re very grateful to the Museum for making their facilities available to us, and giving us such a fitting backdrop to our research.)  As well as papers from network members, including Carmen Espejo and Paul Arblaster, the workshop will feature contributions from the first of many network associates, including Professor Andrew Pettegree, of the University of St. Andrews, and Dr Helmer Helmers, of the Universities of Leiden and Amsterdam.

This is the first of a series of five workshops to be held over the next eighteen months, thematically organised around a loose progression from the general issues surrounding the histories of news and newspapers in early modern Europe, to particular case studies of specific channels of news transmission, sites of news production, and news events.  The Antwerp meeting will be organised around discussions of media and methods, including questions of definition (what constitutes newsprint in the period?), existing approaches and pitfalls in the history of news, and locality.  More details, and news of additional contributors, to follow…

Early Modern News Networks

Welcome to Early Modern News Networks, a blog featuring events, updates and matters of interest arising from the Leverhulme-funded project “News Networks in Early Modern Europe”.  The project brings together its own network of five leading scholars of early modern news culture from across the continent to establish new approaches to the study of news networks, their formation and their functioning, that will lay the foundations for a methodologically coherent European history of news and newspapers.

Participating in the network are:

Professor Joad Raymond (University of East Anglia)

Dr Paul Arblaster (Zuyd University, Maastricht)

Dr André Belo (Université Rennes 2)

Professor Carmen Espejo (Universidad de Sevilla)

Professor Mario Infelise (Universita Ca’ Foscari Venezia)

The project will also feature contributions from guests and associates at its various meetings over the next two years; the network will hold a series of workshops in five European cities, each an important centre of early modern news production and distribution, culminating in an open symposium in London in the summer of 2013.  The first meeting of the group takes place in Antwerp in November, and the project website is currently under construction.  Watch this space for news and announcements!