Early Modern Post


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News and the Shape of Europe, 1500-1750

This is a re-blogged conference announcement from the two-year Leverhulme project ‘News Networks in Early Modern Europe’

(aka me/my employer – my project profile can be found here: http://newscom.english.qmul.ac.uk/staff/networkfacilitatorprofilepage.html)

Early Modern News Networks

Conference at Queen Mary, University of London, 26-28th July 2013

Registration open: http://newscom.english.qmul.ac.uk/events/items/83801.html

Join us this July for the final event in the News Networks calendar: a three-day symposium on ‘News and the Shape of Europe, 1500-1750’.  This major news history event will feature 40 speakers from across Europe and the Americas, and will contribute to a new pan-European history of news, which has been the driving force behind and ultimate aim of the Leverhulme international network, News Networks in Early Modern Europe.

How did news cross Europe, and how did news make Europe? News in early modern Europe was a distinctively transnational phenomenon; its topics were international in scope; the forms and terminologies of news, as well as the news itself, crossed national boundaries; practices of news-gathering relied on networks of international agents; it was widely translated; it travelled along commercial routes, or through postal networks that were…

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Trust me, I’m a writer.

I wasn’t going to stay on the subject of the accuracy and objectivity (or not) of reported news, but sometimes you have to go where the story is, and in both recent media and recent reading I’ve been coming across the unashamed inventing of facts. Incidentally, I don’t intend to have all my posts relate old and new (a format done so much better by Lisa Jardine in her radio 4 Point of View pieces), but bear with me.

The excellent article by Charlie Brooker on the coverage of the Norway massacre was Brooker at his best, and articulates much better than I could how shocking, distasteful and racist the reportage was immediately following the event, where somehow, without any evidence whatsoever, the actions of a white, blond Islamaphobe were assumed to be that of an anti-western al-Qaida cell.

English control of Irish lands in 1494, and under Elizabeth I and James I

At the moment, I’m trying to improve my knowledge of 16th century Ireland, and since I don’t have a lot of time for this I’m having to rely on just a few pieces of mainly secondary criticism. What I’m digesting is a particular historical narrative: ‘History’ is a story, it’s a version of events not the events themselves. This is old hat, but easily forgotten, especially when you’re searching for a quick low-down on a subject. Anglo-Irish history is one of those areas that one has to tread even more carefully around, where early and not-so-early sources can contain real bias, and I’m very conscious of getting it ‘right’.

A writer cannot help but approach a subject with a degree of bias; this is the result of being just one individual in a greyscale world of billions. Sometimes, subconsciously you bring your own interests to an interpretation; sometimes, this bias is 100% intentional. Take for example the bill of attainder, or piece of legislation declaring guilt without trial, prepared by the Irish council on the Irish rebel/magnate/king (depending on who you ask) Shane O’Neill after his assassination.

Sir Henry Sidney was Elizabeth I’s chief governor in Ireland from 1566-71 and 1575-78, and began a campaign against O’Neill in 1566; a priority on which the success of Sidney’s deputyship would rest.[1] Despite Sidney’s earlier campaigns going badly, and the actual death of O’Neill being by the hands of his long-term enemies the MacDonnells, the bill of attainder creates a very different impression.

The attainder works to concrete not just an English version of events but one that specifically favours Sidney. The role of Lord Deputy was famously risky in terms of reputation and political standing; at the time of Sidney’s posting, the personalised nature of governance there meant that responsibility for gains and losses fell to this single figurehead. A crown representative abroad, whether Lord Deputy or ambassador, was inherently vulnerable to political attack from his enemies at home, by virtue of his geographical estrangement from the court.

Sidney, for example, had to battle against the negativity and ‘slander’ of his predecessor the earl of Sussex, an enemy of Sidney’s patron the earl of Leicester.[2] Rather than defending themselves by making their presence felt at court, by vocally representing their cause in person, estranged subjects were often forced to defend themselves by pen and ink; inscribing the facts to their own benefit in letters and discourses, trying to literally ‘set’ the record, straight or otherwise.

Sir Henry Sidney (1529–1586), attrib. Arnold Bronckorst, 1573

Something like this is happening in the O’Neill attainder, where Sidney’s failed military campaigns are not mentioned and his predecessor Sussex is excised entirely; it is written instead that the ‘arrogant, undutifull and trayterous’ O’Neill ran amok ‘untill the arrival of Sir Henry Sidney’ – cue Sidney striding onto the narrative stage like some caped crusader.

Sidney is granted agency as the one who ‘did pronounce him a rebell’, and, side-stepping any possible political machinations behind the murder and the lack of personal military success for Sidney, the actual activity of the assassination becomes the climax of an extended tale of ‘quaffing and drinking of wine’, complete with sexual insult and gruesome detail.[3] Sidney glows as ‘prudent, and well disposed…most fit…truly beloved’ and O’Neill meets a fittingly barbarous end: for a piece of legislation the attainder is at times a dramatic read, obscuring less desirable aspects in the sound of its own trumpeting praise.[4]

So, in the absence of facts or where facts are undesirable, the unfettered writer can adhere to the popular narrative and bang their drum, using the trigger event to compose the story they wanted to publicize. The problem is, write something down and it takes on something of fact, even if later disproved; the ire and fear conjured by asserting the Islamic terrorist connection outlasted the claims of al-Qaida responsibility, even leaving aside the bizarre second-wave of fear that blamed Muslims for being a provocation to the mass murderer’s actions. It adds to a wider narrative.

When you approach an unfamiliar subject, you can try to read several accounts, and of course do so critically, but at the end of the day you put trust in what you read; it’s up to the reader to select reliable sources of authority, use critical reading to judge them as such, and the apparent authorities to deserve positive judgment. We can do better.


[1] Ciaran Brady, The chief governors : the rise and fall of reform government in Tudor Ireland, 1536-1588, (New York : Cambridge University Press, 1994) p125

[2] Brady, p115

[3] Brady, p130

[4] James Butler (ed.), The Statutes at large, passed in the Parliaments held in Ireland (Dublin: George Grierson, 1786-1801), vol.1, p326


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The freedom of information

At the time of writing my first blog post, the big story has been the hacking/NoW scandal. Spreading from the ‘one rogue reporter’ line to encompass more than just news-makers, the emergence of yet another story about high-level corruption can make you roll your eyes and worry that we are governed, informed, and patrolled by elite groups that do one thing and say another, whether it be politicians, press or police.

Discussions have centered on cleaning up the relationships between the three; now, we not only want to condemn and punish the illegal hacking of a child’s phone, we want ‘transparency’ in political dealings with the media, we want to see with our own eyes the parliamentary trial of the Murdochs and the schedule diaries of the politicians. Perhaps from this we can aspire to greater objectivity in the press and independence in politics; as Steve Coogan said a while back on Newsnight: ‘Who is Rupert Murdoch to tell me who to vote for?’

Can news ever be objective? Can access to information be democratic? Can information itself ever be independent of interested parties; somehow created and consumed by the wider society rather than by eminently corruptible elites? I’m being slightly facetious here (after all ‘society’ is made up of individuals and interest groups), but recently I’ve been reading about some utopian ideals, and their practical manifestations, that engage these very same issues.

Early engraving of Salomon's House in Bacon's New Atlantis.

Salomon’s House in Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis is an imagined central point where knowledge of the world is brought in by travellers and digested by scholars, a repository for information and learning. Here, reportage must ‘not show any natural work or thing, adorned or swelling; but only pure as it is’: this is a utopia free from corruption; there is no media bias here, just the disinterested pursuit of knowledge. The ‘Office of Publicke Addresse’ envisaged by Samuel Hartlib and John Drury in 1647 builds on this idea of the centralisation of knowledge, where the bodily and spiritual needs of society could be met through the granting of access to information. Discussed in their pamphlet ‘Considerations tending to the happy Accomplishment of Englands Reformation in Church and State‘, the idea is based on a freeing up of information, facilitating the sharing of knowledge and services beyond traditional patronage circles. This both embraced the scholarly focus of Salomon’s House and was conceived as a having a more practical, economic focus, providing access to employment by matching job-seekers to positions or buyers to traders, again without the patronage circles that relied on nepotism and favour. The democratisation of information thus carries with it power, control and something like the ‘transparency’ sought after today.

The idea of such an office had already been implemented by the founder of the first weekly newspaper in France, Theophraste Renaudot, whose ‘Bureau d’Adresse’ opened in 1628. The ‘Bureau’ was involved in the expanding and sharing of knowledge in weekly scientific conferences open to the general public, though its primary aim lay in social welfare; the poor could be helped through the office giving them access to employment, medical and legal advice, and acting as a pawn shop.

This is more than esoteric knowledge collected in an ivory tower; the emphasis is on the dissemination of information, the liberation of both the construction and consumption of knowledge. In this way, the idea is part library and university, part eBay and part social media. Renaudot’s ‘Bureau’ closed in 1644 and though there were other attempts, successful and less so, at opening such public offices, mainly they seem to have functioned like a kind of ‘small ads’ paper, facilitated by the printing press, and providing a useful economic service. Perhaps the grander ideas behind them can find incarnation in that other big technological advance: the Internet.

News connects us; we rely on it to build a sense of who we are in the world. These ‘offices of intelligence’ were attempts to open up the construction and dissemination of knowledge and information, and though I’m certainly not saying we should do away with political and media structure, perhaps through the universal access to information through the internet (at least in this country) we can get a little power back, and hope to hold the elite in society to higher account.