News addiction? Nothing new. “You cannot imagine to what a disease the itch of news is grown,” wrote an Englishman named John Cooper in 1667. At that time, newspapers had been in existence for just over 60 years. The first appeared in Strasbourg, in German, in 1605: the Strasbourg Relation, a weekly that was the brainchild of a book dealer named Johann Carolus. The first English-language newspaper (Courant out of Italy, Germany etc.), an English version of a Dutch paper, surfaced, out of the reach of royal censors, in Amsterdam in 1620.
Ben Jonson’s play A Staple of News was already satirizing news mania in 1625. But long before there were newspapers, there was a craving for what they delivered, and about half of this captivating book about the emergence of the modern commodity we call news is devoted to the early attempts to satisfy that itch, a history of the news before the papers. In the Middle Ages, there were topical sermons given by itinerant preachers, songs by wandering minstrels, gossip in taverns, and travelers’ tales in inns. The Crusades created a taste for news from faraway places, and Pettegree remarks that, for the average Christian of the 11th century, Jerusalem was more familiar than the nearest big city.
During the Renaissance, enterprising Italians began offering weekly handwritten news briefings (avvisi) to subscribers, mostly rulers and merchants, some of whom could also afford their own correspondents and couriers as they scrambled to find out what was happening before anyone else did. Information then, as now, was money and power.
Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in the mid-15th century led to the rise of miscellaneous news pamphlets, often illustrated with woodcuts, that quickly displayed a tendency toward tabloid sensationalism: lurid crimes, earthquakes, celestial apparitions, women giving birth to (according to reliable sources) cats, breathless accounts of discoveries in the New World. The crimes of women seemed to be a particular source of fascination. All this was news to me.
But the proliferation of printed news also had more serious aims and consequences. Pettegree, professor of modern history at the University of St Andrews, is a specialist on the Reformation, and he notes that Luther’s movement might have been quickly suppressed if it hadn’t been for the publicity it was able to generate: “The Reformation was Europe’s first mass-media news event.” He shows how major stories of the period like the St. Bartholomew’s Massacre (1572) and the defeat of the Spanish Armada (1588) were shaped, or garbled, as breaking news. Punctually published newspapers came into existence just in time to cover the Thirty Years’ War (1618-48).
Yet even with plenty of historical turning points to report, early newspapers were very gray ladies indeed, imitating the flat, factual tone of the laconic, handwritten diplomatic and political summaries that preceded them. There were no headlines—the most important stories weren’t given any precedence or emphasis—no illustrations, and none of the narrative flourishes and passionate commentary of the news pamphlets.
Maybe it’s no coincidence that just as these staid papers came into existence, coffee and tea first arrived in Europe: People needed something to keep them awake while reading. In any case, caffeine and news have been inseparable ever since. The coffee-house culture of mid-17th-century London and the news culture that flourished with it both came under official suspicion. One of the ministers of Charles II expressed nostalgia for the time “when we drank nothing but sack and claret, or English beer and ale. These sober [coffee] clubs produce nothing but scandalous and censorious discourses, and at these nobody is spared.” Of course, sobriety and the output of news stories wouldn’t be associated for long.
The first daily paper in England, the Daily Courant, appeared in London in 1702. By that time, newspapers, at first written entirely by whoever published them, had begun running regular advertisements, and the extra revenue allowed publishers to farm out the writing to a new tribe of scribes, the ill-paid hacks of Grub Street. An eighth of each of the London papers, and half of the Spectator (Richard Steele and Joseph Addison’s pioneering foray into witty and wide-ranging magazine journalism), were devoted to advertisements for books, chocolate, coffee, patent medicines, fugitive servants, and lost property. Even members of the royal family were placing ads for lost spaniels and misplaced scepters.
News, of course, invented the modern world as much as the modern world invented news. Finding out what was going on elsewhere in the world changed people’s minds about what was possible or tolerable. And if news didn’t change minds by itself, it could be given a partisan spin. By the late 17th century, London papers were Whig or Tory, and in France, the road to the French Revolution was paved with polemical newspapers.
Other changes wrought by news were more subtle. The melodramatic early news pamphlets tended to interpret every natural disaster and lost battle in terms of God’s oblique will—in terms of portents, warnings, and punishments of sin. But matter-of-fact newspapers effectively reduced things to capricious natural causes and equally capricious human decisions: The South Sea Bubble in England wasn’t designed by a wrathful God to punish frenzied greed; it just looked that way.
In general, Pettegree gets through this vast, multidirectional mass of early modern material lucidly and expertly, turning up all sorts of unexpected bits of information, though some of the scholarly territory he traverses can be as dense with indigestible facts as early newspapers themselves. And the book ends too soon, just as the 18th century gets going. I would have liked to know more about the lives and times and pay scales of those Grub Street hacks, what papers Samuel Johnson read with his copious consumption of tea, and the nascent celebrity culture of popular actresses and wayward aristocrats.
But it leaves one with the reassuring thought that, in terms of our collective appetite for shocking news developments, nothing much has changed. A very large coterie of modern intellectuals attacked the shallowness of newspapers and the poisonous effects of reading them: T. S. Eliot, F. R. Leavis, Nietzsche, Heidegger, et al. But even that wasn’t new. As Pettegree shows, angry clerics were denouncing newspaper reading as a sin in the 17th century.
The delusion is that there was some Golden Age of serene, newsless authenticity, a time when people were too spiritually connected to community or nature to be interested in the transient, the faraway, the scandalous. This book reminds us that human beings in any age, like the residents of 1st-century Athens encountered by St. Paul, can’t wait “either to tell or to hear some new thing.”
Lawrence Klepp is a writer in New York.