News & Sociability

In the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century news and and political commentary circulated through a variety of printed, manuscript and performative media, ranging from earliest English newspapers through sermons, songs and theatrical performances to oral gossip.  As the national center of the printing industry, the home of the royal court and the kingdom's biggest city, the metropolis was far and away the largest source of news and controversy for the rest of the kingdom.

Among print genres, pamphlets were already common well before the beginning of our period, while the earliest news sheets, called corantoes, appeared around 1620. Until the Civil War these were restricted by law to foreign news but the collapse of censorship in 1640 produced an explosion of print culture related to politics, including the first "news books,"  summaries of news items in pamphlet form that were issued periodically, often once a week. Despite the re-imposition of censorship in 1660, political news and commentary continued to circulate in print.  The Exclusion Crisis of 1679-81 and the intense competition between Whigs and Tories after 1688 further stimulated the development of political journalism and printed works of controversy.  By the early eighteenth century London had daily as well as weekly newspapers, while the production of pamphlets had also reached new heights. 

But print was by no means the only medium of communication.  The scribal publication of political material in manuscript remained important, especially for particularly explosive or scandalous materials.  In addition this remained a society still heavily reliant on oral and visual communication, partly because so many people were still unable to read but also because even the literate enjoyed discussing news and controversy in social groups.  London and the court had always been centers of gossip about the King and his entourage, but in the early seventeenth century the amount of news being spread through oral means increased rapidly. Courtiers and other gentry developed the habit of gathering at set times in the main nave of St Paul's Cathedral (Paul's Walk) to exchange news and eves drop on others doing so. From the 1650s the main locus of discussion shifted to the coffee houses that began to proliferate in the capital, as in other British cities.  Sermons provided another, more formal, vehicle for political commentary broadcast to an entire congregation or occasionally -- as in Paul's Cross sermons -- to large heterogeneous audiences.  Plays on the London stage also regularly referred to contemporary political issues, although normally through indirect allusions so as to avoid censorship.  At the popular level rituals and street demonstrations allowed London crowds to demonstrate their political views.  Musical forms, especially ballads, were also used to comment on politics.  These oral forms interacted with each other and with print culture.  For example, items carried in a newspaper might help to inspire street demonstrations, which would in turn be reported in the press.  As political life became more partisan, during and after the Civil Wars, certain images and stereotypes became pervasive in both printed and oral culture. We therefore need to consider not only the growth of individual genres of news reporting and commentary but the cumulative effect created by all these cultural forms together, as well as the milieux in which news and controversy were most often transmitted and discussed.  

London clubs, coffee houses and private homes provided alternative locations in which people absorbed and discussed news and controversy in the course of social interactions with friends, casual acquaintances and complete strangers.  Exchanges of views on public issues thereby became integral to social life and part of the new Whig ethos of politeness developing in the eighteenth century.  This concept of politeness gained currency through the development of a new genre of periodical literature, best represented in the early eighteenth century by the Tatler (1709-1711) and Spectator (1711-1714) of Joseph Addison and Richard Steele.  These periodicals claimed to reach 60,000 to 80,000 readers with each issue, an estimate based on the contention that every individual copy was read by as many as twenty people as it passed from hand to hand.  Since coffee houses were subscribers and provincial clubs sprang up to discuss them, this may be plausible.  Addison and Steele followed earlier writers, such as the Tory Roger L'Estrange, in deploring newsmongering and the spread of violent political partisanship.  The two Whigs differed from L'Estrange, however, in seeing the solution to these ills not in tighter government censorship but the intelligence and restraint of "polite" society.  They satirized the cant, foolishness and excessive religious zeal of Tory partisans.  In the environment created by the Sacheverell affair this served as a way of combating a surge of Tory and High Church feeling that threatened to swamp the Whig cause. But as the immediate context receded from memory the ideal of politeness and moderation lost its partisan edge, gaining acceptance across the entire political spectrum.(1)

1.  See Brian Cowan, "Mr. Spectator and the Coffeehouse Public Sphere" in Eighteenth-Century Studies 37 (2004) for a discussion.  

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