Publication Spotlight: ‘The Invention of News’

Spanning four centuries and most of Europe, Professor Andrew Pettegree’s new monograph, The Invention of News, tells the story of news before the newspaper. In doing so, Andrew illuminates a lively and previously marginalised culture which sees news moving in a number of ways, including by word of mouth, and through official announcements, sermons and cheap occasional print. Indeed, in this period, news actually travelled far more successfully in these forms than it did in newspapers.

Andrew was initially drawn to this topic through the research he conducted on cheap print for his previous monograph: The Book in the Renaissance. When researching for this work, it became clear to him that much of the dynamism in early print came from cheap books which gave good returns on investments. This had not been recognised before this point, largely because the survival rate of such print was so low. It was these little books which alerted Andrew to the importance of news in this period, and from which The Invention of News was ultimately developed.

At its core, The Invention of News deals with a technological change, that from manuscript to print. This phenomenon is one which ought to be familiar to us, as we are currently undergoing a similar shift, from print to digital platforms. It is not surprise, then, that Andrew’s work in this field has received a lot of attention, especially from journalists. A number of findings from The Invention of News, however, ought to be reassuring.

One of the most unexpected things that Andrew discovered was the persistence of a lively and lucrative manuscript news services throughout the period in question, in spite of a number of false prophecies that manuscript was dead. These were distributed by professional newsmen to a very small circle of paying clients, and were very popular: indeed, they were viewed as indispensable to those in positions of power. This service was regarded as being much more reliable than other sources of news, largely because it was exclusive and reassuringly expensive. Newspapers initially modelled themselves on these manuscript newsletters, but they certainly didn’t kill them, and they persisted and remained vital up until the French Revolution, 350 years after the invention of printing. The persistence of the manuscript newsletter for such a long period reveals a message which Andrew believes to be relevant today: in a period of technological change people do not tend to pick one format or another, but instead pick the best of both worlds.

Prof Pettegree receiving the Goldsmiths award

Prof. Pettegree receiving the Goldsmiths award

A similar finding of the Invention of News, which was equally surprising to Andrew, was how difficult early newspapers found it to make money. Andrews sees many new technologies being propelled by fascination, and not by economic reality, and argues that this was certainly the case for newspapers. Initially they popped up in a number of places, but the economics were dire. An average manuscript newsletter might have had twenty customers, who would each have been charged £10 a years for the service. This resulted in a very decent income for the newsman in question. The same newspapers, however, could only charge around 1 or 2 pence, as they had to match other cheap print. In order to make money, therefore, they would need to sell between 300 and 400 copies, and even then the profit would only be around ¼ of a penny on each copy. Some newspapers subsidised this paltry profit with alternative forms of income, such as advertising. The vast majority, however, survived primarily on government subsidies. This led to prestige for the government, but also meant that the newspapers were very reticent about criticising power!

So what comes next? There is the potential for a sequel, which would continue to look forwards to our digital age and the changes news experienced from the nineteenth century onwards. Returning to the early modern period, Andrew also sees potential for more interest in the ‘multimedia’ transmission of news, and for future studies to focus more on the relationship between print and oral culture. In the meantime, however, congratulations are in order. This work has received attention from quarters other than journalists wondering about their job prospects. At the beginning of March, Andrew travelled to Boston collect the 2015 Goldsmith Book Prize given by the Harvard Kennedy School, Joan Shorenstein Centre on the Press, Politics and Public Policy.

Publication Spotlight: John Wyclif on War and Peace

The cover image of Dr Rory Cox’s John Wyclif on War and Peace is initially surprising. The image is taken from a fifteenth-century French bestiary (The Hague, Museum Meermanno, 10 B 25, fo. 32r) and does not depict a warlike creature, but instead a pelican, who feeds her chicks using blood from her own breast. According to the tale behind the image, the chicks of the pelican attacked their mother, who killed them in retaliation. In order to revivify her young, the mother pecked her own breast and fed her chicks the blood which flowed forth. Pelicans were often represented in this way throughout the Middle Ages as this image was used as an allegory for God’s forgiveness and the resurrection.

Rory’s thesis, that John Wyclif was an “out and out pacifist”, is equally surprising. Wyclif, who died in 1384, was unique among his fourteenth-century contemporaries, and stood in stark contrast to the philosophical and theological traditions he inherited. He was the first to promote pacifism since early Christian thinkers, such as Tertullian and Origen. For much of the Middle Ages, ‘just war’ theory was dominant. This was based on the idea that war could be justified if it was based on three pillars: just cause, proper authority and correct intention. Wyclif completely dismantled this theory throughout his writing, and advocated a theory of pacifism based on a blanket condemnation of all violence, including self-defence. Thus, reflecting the pelican on the cover of the book, a good Christian ought to sacrifice oneself and suffer, in imitation of Christ, for the sake of others.

Wyclif’s political ideas, which Rory terms “Christian anarchy”, were every bit as radical. Based on the New Testament, these ideas focused on the essential sinfulness of human government, law and society. Instead, an evangelical state, in which all private property would be held in common, was viewed by Wyclif to be the ideal. Here, traditional secular government would be unnecessary: there would be no sin, so no need to punish crimes; no property, so no need for laws protecting property; and because everything would be communally owned, there would be no need for territorial defences.

The presence of this ideology in Wyclif’s writing has, until now, remained unrecognised. There are a number of reasons for this. Wyclif’s views on the Eucharist, papal authority, the translation of scripture and religious reform have received significantly more attention. In addition, previous scholars have focused primarily on a set of English sermons which, thanks to the work of Prof. Anne Hudson, can no longer be confidently attributed to Wyclif. Rory focuses his research on Wyclif’s lengthier, more complex, and indeed more marginalised Latin writings: his theological, philosophical, political tracts and, importantly, his sermons.

It was in these works, in his MA thesis, that Rory began to notice Wyclif’s unusual views on war. The thesis focused on criticisms of war during the Hundred Years War, and looked at the works of a number of writers, including John Gower and Chaucer. Rory’s supervisor, Prof. David D’Avray, suggested that he look at Wyclif, and quickly Rory saw there was more work to do. It was during his D.Phil that the full extent of Wyclif’s pacifism was explored. Originally the doctorate, completed at Oxford, was to focus on Wyclif’s angelology and the war in heaven, but soon it became apparent that Wyclif’s criticisms of war were both more far reaching and radical than Rory had initially realised. Thus, this topic soon became the focus of the doctoral thesis and, ultimately, the monograph, John Wyclif on War and Peace.

So where does this lead? Rory highlights a numberof remarkable similarities between Wyclif’s ideas and those circulating in Bohemia in Hussite writings of the fifteenth century, and sees this as a fruitful direction for further research. One branch of the Hussite movement – the Taborites – did not oppose violence, and indeed made use of it enthusiastically. However, other Hussite theologians, such as Petr Chelčický, remained peaceful and employed pacifist ideals which were strikingly similar to those put forth by Wyclif. Whilst Wyclif may have stood alone in fourteenth-century England, it is possible that further research will reveal other medieval and early modern pacifists, and see his ideas making an impact beyond the spheres of lollardy and Hussism.

Publication Spotlight: The Apocalypse in the Early Middle Ages

Regular features of the School of History blog are the two ‘Spotlight’ series, which focus on members of staff or postgraduate students. In these posts the research and teaching interests, as well as pursuits beyond academia, of both groups are discussed. In the coming weeks, we will be featuring a number of posts which will shine a spotlight on the varied and fascinating monographs and edited volumes recently published by members of the School of History. To kick this off, Dr James Palmer discusses the process of writing The Apocalypse in the Early Middle Ages.

I wrote The Apocalypse in the Early Middle Ages for a good reason: it was a book I wanted to read, and yet it did not exist.

My interest in the apocalyptic began when I was still teaching at the University of Leicester back in 2006. I had the fanciful idea of writing a cultural history of time in the early Middle Ages, examining the intersections of historiography, theology and ‘computus’ (the science behind Easter calculations). That unwritten study lurks in the background of The Apocalypse and a number of accompanying essays. It meant that my interest in the apocalyptic was not grounded in the fascination with messianic movements and irrationality which defines many other apocalypse scholars.

The ‘apocalypse’ I see in the early Middle Ages is really a discourse about change and reform. The Bible is pretty clear that the end will come, and the timing is left deliberately vague. What do you do about that? Late twentieth-century secularist fashions would encourage us to imagine that no one thought about it because it was ‘irrational’ to believe the world might end. Modern debate about the apocalyptic has often been surprisingly tetchy and defined by scholars arguing either that it was very important everywhere or not important ever. You of course have to take a position somewhere in the middle. Some people thought it was important; some people didn’t. Lots of people thought it was important some of the time but had a lot going on in their lives. What is inescapable is that the apocalyptic frames language and discourse in a significant number of sources, and it is mostly to do with stimulating and directing change urgently. The end might be coming: we’d better put the world right.

This does not lead us to looking at crazy people in the Dark Ages. What we find are strategies for understanding a complex and unsettled world – strategies which often seem familiar to us. The book starts with the example of an earthquake which affected Constantinople in 557. Many people did not know what had happened (the author of our principal source sneered, being a clever lawyer type). Self-proclaimed experts announced that the end was coming. Some people were scared. Some people gave money to the church, while others vowed to live purer lives and even began to do so. Then the crisis passed and everything went back to normal. How familiar does that sound?

Part of the fun was, unsurprisingly, the quest for new material. A good critical synthesis of existing scholarship could happily have filled the gap the book was intended to fill. Yet even a cursory examination of the manuscript traditions of key texts – with time spent in manuscript reading rooms in London, Paris and Berlin – showed that allegedly ‘unorthodox’ material circulated more widely than many people had thought. That needed explaining. There were also gems to uncover, such as an Irish treatise on time and apocalypse, buried unstudied in two manuscripts in Florence. Quickly, the book became both research monograph and a guide to the subject more generally.

Few projects are ever really completed, and I hope that the publication of The Apocalypse stimulates wider debate about the role of the apocalyptic – and belief more generally – in early medieval society. On-going collaborations are important here, particularly with Matt Gabriele at Virginia Tech, who is visiting the department in March 2015. Together we have co-ordinated a number of sessions on ‘Apocalypse, Prophecy and Reform’ for this year’s International Medieval Congress at Leeds, working with Felicitas Schmieder from the FernUni in Germany. Further projects will follow. In many ways, the book stands at the middle of a process, rather than at the end.