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.



St Valentine, Patron of copulation

On 14 February 1646 — towards the end of the civil war — the London weekly newspaper The True Informer published the following editorial:

Episcopacy being abolished,* I see no reason why this day in which this book is extant, should be honoured in the commemoration of Bishop Valentine, or by what anomalous power of the Church of Rome, he should be made the Patron of copulation; there is no doubt but he was a Bishop, & I am afraid a very wanton one, for otherwise why should that lusty heat which in this pregnant season, make proud the blood, receive from his not only an allowance, but protection: Surely if his condition were correspondent to his title, everie piece of paper which the petulant youth weare this day in their hats, and every little scroule which the bashfull and conscious Virgins keep more concealed under their cuffe, are all but libells against his Gravity, whatsoever Epitome that custome heretofore have had I do believe the practice idle and unlawfull, yet peradventure as the Swedes will allow none to sell ale, or to keep such houses of hospitality, but unlesse such who serve their Ministers, because that by their neglect of sordid gaine, and the civility of their conversation they should give good examples unto others; so Antiquitie of Superstition, made this Bishop provident of this day, that in the remembrance of the excellence of his continence, and the severity of his life he might correct the fires and distempers of youth, which otherwise would be too unbridled and licentious; but of this enough …

[* the editor was jumping the gun: in fact the English Parliament would not formally abolish the episcopal system of church government by bishops until October 1646]

This facetious commentary on the role of the “Patron of copulation” (a nice phrase) explores a series of ironies. We aren’t really meant to believe that there is much chance of a bishop setting a good example to the youth, so the suggestion that St Valentines’ is a day of licensed licentiousness, which takes the edge off unbridled libidinousness, comments facetiously both on romantic conduct on that day and on the morality of Bishops. I wonder if there’s anything as rich in this morning’s papers.

It is an interesting and instructive example of the use of the newspaper for social commentary in the first half of the seventeenth century and of the simultaneous use of the newspaper for entertainment and humour.

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.