The News Is Born

By Julianne WerlinJuly 15, 2014

The Invention of News by Andrew Pettegree

IT WAS IN the 1650s that English political theorist James Harrington described the “incomparable Venice” as the most perfectly governed state in history, even suggesting that it had surpassed ancient Rome — the ultimate compliment from a 17th-century humanist.

The city indeed was one of the most modern in Europe. A global network of merchants traded a dazzling array of commodities in its ports, from spices to glassware to finely spun silks, using a complex system of finance and credit. Venetian imperial power extended across the Mediterranean and was admired throughout Europe.

Nor had Venice been slow to adopt what was arguably the most important new technology of the age, the printing press. In the first years of print, at the end of the 15th century, the legendary printer Aldus Manutius had not only pioneered the production of slim, pocket-sized books, but had also invented italic type. One hundred fifty years later, books from the Venetian presses continued to reach a European audience. 

For all its sophistication, Venice lagged behind much of Europe: in one respect: it had no printed newspapers. Residents of many of the cities of northern Europe, from Hamburg, Basel, and Berlin to Antwerp, Amsterdam, and London had been able to purchase news hot — or, depending on where one lived, rather cool — off the press for decades. They had serial newsbooks and a wealth of topical, printed pamphlets. Yet the well-informed citizens of Venice continued to rely on avvisi, the expensive, handwritten newsletters that were in use throughout Italy since early Renaissance. When a Venetian wanted the news, he or she read a sheet or two of paper covered in a cramped, handwritten scrawl.

Why didn’t Venice have any newspapers? In The Invention of News: How the World Came to Know About Itself, a survey of the development of the news industry in Europe and the Atlantic world from 1400 to 1800, the historian Andrew Pettegree provides an answer. It proves to be deceptively simple, lying merely in “the continuing success of existing news media.” Labor was cheap, and it was not difficult to find scribes willing to copy documents by hand. In the densely populated, politically engaged society of early modern Venice, information was a valuable but dangerous currency, which manuscript newsletters could dispense selectively to different readers with a “subtlety and flexibility lost in a public printed document.” 


 Since the Renaissance, making sense of history has generally meant shaping it into a narrative in which each period supplants the last and each set of mores cedes to the next, on and on in a lengthening series of substitutions. In the twenty-first century, in which technological development can seem like the best index of historical change  —  if not, indeed, its dominant cause  —  we often think of history in terms of the rise and fall of successive technologies. The manuscript codex replaces the scroll, and is itself replaced by the printed book, which at last is forced to yield to the e-reader.  For Marshall McLuhan and other media theorists, this parade of technologies explained the development of culture: letters, print, radio, and television transformed the messages they transmitted, and in the process, the men and women who sent and received them. The first generation of Renaissance book historians agreed. In Elizabeth Eisenstein’s important study The Printing Press as an Agent of Change (1979), the press was placed at the very center of Renaissance society, its steady, mechanical action irresistibly reshaping the surrounding world. In such accounts the source of historical change was obvious, and it moved in only one direction. The medium of print was scrupulously reconstructed and brilliantly analyzed, and the result was clear: it was the message.

By way of contrast, Pettegree has devoted his recent work to arguing for a more complex and considerably messier history of media. In The Book in the Renaissance, published four years ago, he synthesized the insights of a new wave of studies that saw print as influenced by, as well as influencing, the society in which it emerged.. “Where Eisenstein asks what print culture itself is,” the book historian Adrian Johns writes, “I ask how printing’s historic role came to be shaped.” In treating print as one variable among others, Pettegree and his fellow historians have produced narratives in which politics, economics, and discrete forms of media interact in surprising ways. The printing press, for example, did not simply supersede manuscript as a form of textual transmission; if anything, it enhanced its popularity.

Pettegree’s own account is anything but simple, moving deftly between countries, centuries, and media. In addition to each era’s lasting innovations, he describes the many false starts and disappointments, ventures that seemed certain at the time but folded quickly, such as Addison and Steele’s two attempts to create a periodical for women, The Female Tatler and The Whisperer. As always, failures outnumbered successes: of more than 300 periodicals founded in England during the flurry of publishing that accompanied the Civil War era and early years of the revolutionary government (1641-1655), for example, 84 percent produced only a few issues. Though patterns emerge, no single thread guides the reader through the occasionally labyrinthine pages of The Invention of News, but this is part of Pettegree’s point. The history of the news is too complicated, too deeply riddled with contingency, to follow a smooth path from the private letters of 15th-century Europe, with which the book opens, to the radical newspapers of the French Revolution, with which it concludes. 

In the Middle Ages, the transmission of news suffered a basic but crippling constraint: there was no mail. If you wanted to send a letter, you had to find someone who happened to be going in the right direction, or else be able to afford a private messenger. Even then, success was far from assured. As commercial routes grew busier and the territorial power of European states grew firmer over the course of the 15th century, it became easier to correspond with distant associates. But the delivery of messages was still expensive, erratic, and above all, maddeningly slow. 

The establishment of postal service across Europe changed all that. In 1490, the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I employed two members of the Tassis family to carry letters regularly from Austria to Brussels, then, 15 years later, to Spain. Elevated to nobility in Germany, the family would become the proprietors of the Thurn and Taxis postal service, as readers of Thomas Pynchon will know — the first, though not the last, Europeans to found a dynasty on a fortune made in communications. Other monarchs followed suit, establishing their own postal systems, until a century and a half later, a reasonably reliable network of interlocking posts linked all the major capitals of Europe. Within a given country, mail could be surprisingly rapid; in 17th-century England, letters could travel from London to anywhere in the country within four and a half days. Until the establishment of the railway network, no further progress in speed could be made. Like so much else in Renaissance Europe, the postal service was a rediscovery rather than an invention: imperial Rome had relied on its well-equipped post to carry instructions and information between the center and the periphery.

As the channels of transmission broadened, it became possible for news to flow quickly and regularly across the continent. Merchants and princes, whose fortunes often hinged on the outcome of current affairs, were naturally among the most eager consumers of news. But they were far from the only ones. From practically the moment Martin Luther pinned his 95 theses to the door of a church in Wittenberg, a rapidly expanding audience read about, and then participated in, the unfolding events. Pettegree, the author of an important study of the dissemination of Reformation ideas, provides a subtle account of the various ways in which theology was transmitted across Europe. The Reformation was, he writes, “Europe’s first mass-media news event,” and the early Protestants took advantage of print to publish their own triumphs and their enemies’ ignominious defeats, artfully blending information and propaganda. With the salvation of each individual soul at stake, suddenly everyone had a reason to follow the news.

The Reformation touched off a century and a half of religious warfare, made particularly brutal by a surge in the size of armies and a growing awareness of the many uses to which gunpowder could be put. Spectacularly bloody battles splintered Europe and captivated the popular imagination; for the first time, a doctor in Portugal or a farmer in Scotland could feel personally invested in the outcome of a struggle between the Spanish and the Dutch, or a religious controversy in Poland. When early reports suggested —falsely — that the Spanish Armada had defeated the English fleet in 1588, there was public rejoicing not only in Madrid, but in Paris, Venice and Prague.

The predominance of foreign news was not, however, merely the result of confessional politics or an expanding geographic imagination. For much of the first three centuries Pettegree covers, there was little else. National governments took elaborate precautions to veil their activities from their subjects, suppressing domestic news with the threat of heavy penalties. For the most part, writers and printers readily complied. “The publishers of newspapers were naturally inclined to caution,” Pettegree observes, “partly because those in authority were their best customers, partly because any overbold diversion into commentary could lead to retribution.” Yet over the course of the 17th century, as literacy rates rose and a growing bourgeoisie acquired an appetite for information, authorities yielded to increasing pressure, and one country after another began to develop a market for domestic news. 

By the start of the 18th century, in many parts of Europe, periodicals were becoming increasingly profitable due to the combined effects of a growing market and the regular inclusion of paid advertisements. For the first time, it was possible to make a living writing the news, and gradually, professional journalists began to replace printers who wrote news on the side and casual correspondents employed primarily in other lines of work. Yet it was still a speculative endeavor whose risks were high and rewards elusive. It is no coincidence that the novelist and journalist Daniel Defoe, one of the heroes of Pettegree’s story, wrote obsessive commentaries on the wanton habits and loose morals of “Lady Credit.” In the last issue of his relatively long-lived periodical, The Review, Defoe confessed to his readers that “writing on trade was the whore I really doted on.” 

As the news business gained commercial power, its political influence grew more formidable. The final episode in The Invention of News is the French Revolution, in which crowds were galvanized by wave after wave of pamphlets and periodicals. As Pettegree points out, “all the major figures of the revolutionary period, including Marat, Danton and Robespierre, were at some point journalists.” The French Revolution was, he argues, “the first European event to which a periodical press was truly indispensible.” At this point the book concludes, at the close of the 18th century, just before the newspaper began to take on its modern form, and the political power of the press became a daily fact rather than a revolutionary exception.

All important inventions come to bear moral and social meaning, but few grow quite so heavy with it as the various forms of media. If the daily newspaper, unlike the book, was never exactly a sacred object, it was at least a powerfully symbolic one. Only a few years after The Invention of News closes, the British Utilitarians, prescient in this as in much else, would identify public opinion as a vital political force and the newspapers as its privileged organ. “The freedom of the press” according to James Mill, “is, in all civilized countries, among all but the advocates of misgovernment, regarded as an indispensible security, and the greatest safeguard of the interests of mankind.” Could Émile Zola himself have said more?

It is no wonder, then, that the decline of the daily newspaper within the last few decades has caused considerable alarm. Pettegree rarely strays beyond his period, but he is clearly aware that the predicaments of contemporary journalism form an important background to his study. “The news media of this era presented every bit as much a multi-media phenomenon as our own,” he concludes. “It is that which gives this period its particular fascination.”

Closing the book and turning to its back cover, the reader will find a blurb by Lord Patten (that is, Chris Patten, former conservative MP and current chairman of the BBC Trust), who might be expected to know a thing or two about the news. Patten begins: “Some people forecast — I think wrongly — the death of newspapers. Andrew Pettegree, in a groundbreaking study, investigates their birth.” Just beneath Patten, the Reformation historian Diarmaid MacCulloch provides an even more optimistic perspective: “At this moment of rapid change in news media, Andrew Pettegree’s learned and wide-ranging survey of four centuries and three continents has an unusually contemporary resonance for a major work of history. His message is cheering: human curiosity is intimately linked to human freedom, and is inclined to get its own way.” Reviewing the volume in The Wall Street Journal, the historian Jeffrey Collins concludes, “The current decline of the newspaper has been accompanied by much gnashing of teeth and rending of garments. An informed citizenry, it is implied, cannot survive the atrophy of this indispensable institution. But Mr. Pettegree reminds us that the hegemony of the daily newspaper was both briefer and less heroic than its present champions may apprehend.”

To the extent that concerns about the demise of newspapers rest on a simplistic account of the rise and fall of media technologies, such a response is very much to the point. The media landscape need not be a zero-sum game; distinct forms of media can and do coexist and complement one another. This very review is a case in point: published online, it discusses a printed book, which itself draws on a wide variety of manuscripts and print ephemera, many of them made available by digitization.

But Pettegree’s subtle, meticulous research might be taken to have another, rather less cheering message for consumers of the news. The Invention of News reveals a past in which news media were intricately enmeshed in their social, political, and economic context. They shaped, but were also shaped by, the powers and interests of the world in which they operated. If the news media were agents of change, as Elizabeth Eisenstein argued in the case of the printing press, they were equally the subjects of it, taking on different methods and functions in the face of the development of the nation state and the emergence of a capitalist economy. Pettegree’s scholarship may, perhaps, ease the worries of anyone who sees journalism as indissolubly linked to newsprint and cheap ink, but it will do little to assuage concerns about the brutal economics, corporate ownership, or political priorities of the contemporary news media. The “quiet, incremental revolution” that made the news an indispensible part of the modern world is unlikely to be reversed. But the content and function of news within society may be as intimately linked to its historical moment in the 21st century as it was in Venice circa 1650. For early-modern Venetians, despite the existence of new media, economics and politics continued to shape the content, readership, and even the form of the news; they do so still.


Julianne Werlin is a fellow at Central European University, where she is completing on a book on early-modern state formation and the influence of bureaucratic techniques on literary style.

LARB Contributor

Julianne Werlin teaches at Duke University, where she is completing a book on early modern bureaucracy and literature.


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