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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The problem with the history of news?

Early modern news networks: workshop in Venice.

A couple of weeks ago, I went to a fascinating workshop on early modern news networks. If you’re wondering what ‘news networks’ actually means, or you’re interested in news history and are annoyed you weren’t there, read on and I’ll try to give a sense of (in this post) one of the discussions that filled the three days.[1]

The workshop was part of the Leverhulme Trust-funded project ‘News Networks in Early Modern Europe’, which has brought together five leading scholars from around Europe, and many other guests and associates, in order to re-think the history of news. The project will result in co-authored volumes of essays, and is culminating in a 3-day symposium in London in July.

I’m actually going to start in the middle, with the final paper of the second day, because this paper goes some way to explaining the larger project; why it’s needed and what it’s trying to achieve. Professor Joad Raymond delivered this one, entitled: ‘News Networks: putting the ‘news’ and the ‘networks’ back in’ – so you can see why it’s a good place to start.

What the Victorians did to us[2]

Taking a British (or rather English/Welsh) perspective, Professor Raymond first discussed how we got to where we got to where we are, historiographically, by taking us through the legacy left to us by Victorian historians. He suggested that ever since, this narrative has only ever been expanded on and added to in terms of detail; the shape of it hasn’t really been questioned, let alone rewritten. It is this rewriting of the whole narrative that Joad wanted to spur us to think about.

He qualified this with the recognition that some of the Victorian ideas of newspaper history not only still stand but remain significant and valuable. Further, he stressed that of course much important and influential work has been done to add to and affect the development of this narrative of the history of news; it’s just that he sees this as still being held within the grand Victorian narrative.
He listed some of these key influences (though you’ll have to forgive the imperfection of memory):

  • great bibliographic resources that have supported the historiography. He was primarily referring to the Wing STC, which makes life so much easier for British historians.
  • Roger Chartier, and theories of books and texts
  • microeconomics
  • the history of reading, as a field. Here he was thinking about the analysis of material marks, and attention to demography and literacy rates, replacing the assumption of an implied reader.
  • the growth in interdisciplinary research. Thinking about history, bibliography, politics, literature, sociology, manuscript studies, the linguistic turn, social history and orality, anthropology, even maths…

The point is that despite all this great work and new influence, we still haven’t moved past the Victorian legacy. A big part of the blinkered-ness of the current picture is that it is at its core nationalistic – and this problem is not confined to the British perspective, rather it is persistent in the writing of the history of news everywhere. The perseverance of ‘residual national interests’ is something that the News Networks in Early Modern Europe project explicitly works to overcome. National interest and national focus are often so deeply rooted that they silently constrain the rewriting of this history; a pan-European perspective could change this.

But, he offered, how do you know when you need a whole new narrative? And, if the grand nation-based story is replaced with an appreciation of the many details of different histories, can you ever form an encompassing narrative: or put another way, how many case studies make a big picture?

Network Theory

Those were two big questions. For now, however, Joad was going to spend an hour or two shaking the Victorian narrative up with a little maths and IT from the 21st century. My maths AS-level reared up in my memory, ready to screw its brow and try to remember that graphs and equations are not the enemy. This was Network Theory.[3]

Kevin Bacon - centre of the universe

Kevin Bacon – centre of the universe

Networks have become rather fashionable in history and early modern studies of late. And as with any sexy new idea, there have been variations in what it is understood to mean, accusations of misuse, and accusations that it’s just another fancy word for something we essentially did before. In this context, as well as being a way to describe a connected bunch of people, the term network also has more complex theoretical and mathematical meanings, and this is what Joad wanted to recognise in his paper.

Network theory can show us when a group of connections is not random, as it might first appear, but actually is organised. Nodes, points in the network, have connections, or edges, and if a node has many connections it is a hub, i.e. a key point through which many others are connected (the Kevin Bacon of the network theory world). When a small number of nodes in a network have many of the connections, and a large number have very few, the pattern displayed is something called a ‘power law’. This is that all important sign of self-organisation, rather than randomness; and guess what – early modern news networks would seem to present this pattern.

Power Law distribution

Power Law distribution

So, the implication is that early modern news networks are self-organising. A key aspect of this is the importance of hubs in the networks of postal routes: places like the economic and mercantile centre of Antwerp, a city connected to so many others by virtue of this status. Hubs, being helpful connectors, make the world smaller: connectivity is the thing that means that letters can travel more quickly, even to the extent that the connections in the postal network(s) can be more important than geographical distance in determining how fast a letter could travel from A to B. Mapping the routes by which a letter could travel across early modern Europe, and the connections between all these places, can give us fresh insight into the history of news: it can identify hubs, and can respond to and reflect the changes in the relationships between different cities and countries.

This way of viewing Europe, as a series of interconnected points in a network, can be useful, but one could question how far people on the ground actually abided by the logic of the network that they’re part of; by its nature they can’t see the whole structure and so may not perceive the most direct route. It would appear, however, that skilled and experienced individuals (as the writers of newsletters were) often did seem to navigate the network with impressive ability and knowledge.

Joad suggested that network theory can defamiliarise our evidence, so we can look at the world anew: we can finally see the wood for the trees.

This was an important gain in the context of his earlier comments. He questioned the approach that he saw much recent research undertaking, that is, a case studies approach, asking what we needed to do with the case studies we had in order to create the bigger picture. Can they be joined up, or compared, or used as representative of something beyond themselves: at the end of the day, will they add up to what we want them to?

In the question time afterward, the case study was defended: Professor Carmen Espejo commented that one should see the approach as microhistory rather than ‘case study’, and that the aim was to find symptoms rather than singularities. Discussion moved to what modern technology could offer, with Professor Paul Arblaster commenting on the potential that large data sets present – historians and large archival projects often have the data; what we need to do is utilise the technology in order to reveal the patterns.

A collaborative sketch of European news networks from a previous meeting – perhaps man and machine together is the way forward!

I don’t have the space here to report all the responses, but invite you to add your own thoughts in the comments section. I think there’s a risk sometimes of the assumption being made too readily that a computerised element can be added to a historical project, that number-crunching is straight-forward or that programming or data analysis just happens. I wonder also whether complicated network analysis, with its time-consuming IT requirements, wouldn’t end up confirming what we as historians and scholars have already determined: isn’t the human element – our ability to assimilate large amounts of data and identify patterns and networks – always going to be better than machine? Saying that, there’s no denying the huge promise of this kind of approach, and personally I think it has an important role and could refresh the larger picture, providing that we don’t see the digital as panacea.

Does network theory offer a way to find a new and encompassing narrative to explain the history of news? I don’t know, but the subject sparked a lot of debate, with champions and sceptics, and that space of debate seemed an excellent place to start.

In the next blog post, I will return to the beginning, and cover some of the papers delivered by other members of the group, ranging from censorship to privileges, manuscript versus print, and Roman cardinals who like a good party.


[1] My post doesn’t aim to be exhaustive, so to see an excellent recap of the day you can check out the official blog of the project, here. Instead of giving a run down of everything, I’m going to pick out one paper in this post, and discuss a few of the others a little more briefly in the next.

[2] If you’re thinking this is a catchy title, you’re right – but I should point out that it isn’t mine: it’s taken from a panel title from CELL’s Permissive Archive conference in November 2012 (see my previous posts), and was thought up by the talented Helen Graham-Matheson (@helenjgm). Thanks, Helen!

[3] Important disclaimer! I’m far from an expert on network theory, so these are my musings rising from scribbled notes during Joad’s paper; any errors are most likely mine, from misunderstanding, misremembering, or misreading aforementioned scribbles.


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St Paul’s Cathedral: preachers and protesters

If you walk by St Paul’s Cathedral tomorrow morning, you’ll see the Occupy camp hanging up duvets and blankets, letting the morning dew dry in time for another night under canvas. Theirs may be more an expression against a situation than a coherent argument for a specific unified revolution, but for now at least their presence will continue to make a statement, even if it’s not always clear what that is.

The space they have chosen holds the footprints of past centuries of politics and preaching, of persuasive rhetoric and impassioned expression. The area is steeped in political argument; this building, this massive symbol of power and authority, is a highly charged location for any political statement, whether in the pulpit or the courtyard, whether made by words or by bodies.

The church have made a U-turn in recent days by dropping the legal bid to have the protesters forcibly evicted, in what would have been a irresistibly ironic reversal of Jesus expelling the money lenders. Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, has spoken out in favour of a Robin Hood tax on financial transactions, adding the long-awaited legitimizing voice of the religious establishment to Occupy London’s emphatic but ‘vague’ expression of anger against the current system.

If the protesters were not camped on its steps, I would at this moment be sequestered within the book-lined walls of the small library that is found tucked behind the south-west tower of this beautiful building. The triforium chamber, designed by architect Christopher Wren during the rebuilding of the cathedral following the Great Fire of London, holds a quarto manuscript containing four sermons by John Donne, which I will be helping to put online as part of the Oxford Edition of the Sermons of John Donne.

Better known in the modern public consciousness as a poet, Donne was, by royal wrangling, the Dean of St Paul’s in the ten years until his death in 1631. His poetry represents only a small proportion of his writing, but has commanded a far larger proportion of academic and lay attention.The Oxford project aims to provide a new and definitive edition of his 160 sermons, replacing the bare bones edition of George R. Potter and Evelyn Simpson (1953-1962). It will run to 16 volumes, with full scholarly apparatus making the sermons accessible to experts and students alike.

Though the voice and power of this role was bound to the royal establishment, obliged to defend for example James I’s unpopular Directions for Preachers and persuade his flock to trust in the king, there may be interesting parallels to be drawn between then and what is happening now on the doorstep of St Paul’s.

Old St Paul’s (sermon at St Paul's Cross), 1616, John Gipkyn

Donne’s was a political position and his sermons inherently so; at times they were direct responses to particular controversies and social or economic change. That he was deeply engaged in public life and public debate can be seen by the fact that, a Londoner himself, he did not preach solely in the pulpit. As well as the royal court and the inns of court, Donne, unusually for the Dean, gave frequent sermons in the open air pulpit at St Paul’s Cross. This represents real engagement with the life of the city, and with the Corporation of the City of London.

The City has always been a place of business, and as spokesperson for the Church of England, Donne’s sermons recognised this fact. Six of Donne’s sermons were published in his lifetime, including one written for a group about to set sail for tobacco plantations in the new world, entitled in manuscript: ‘Preached before the Honourable Company of the Virginian Plantation, November 13, 1622. [Acts 1.8]’.

The Virginia Company of London sought to convert and colonize, and in recent years violent conflict with the native Powhatan Indians had led to many deaths on both sides. Without stretching a metaphor of the destructive power of rampant capitalism past the point of cynicism and into the realm of the ridiculous, this would seem to have little to do with current politics. However, I wonder if some aspects of Donne’s sermons to the entrepreneurial adventurers might be a fitting note to end on.

Donne counseled against greed and against arrogance, and challenged the Company to ‘act as an example of fairness and justice to the other mercantile companies’.[1] Perhaps it is time to revisit these texts, and perhaps it is time to listen again to the voices at the site of St Paul’s Cross.


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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.