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Robert Darnton on the secret history of the blog.

10:37 AM, Mar 18, 2010 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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Historian Robert Darnton on early modern blogs:

Short, scurrilous abuse proliferated in all sorts of communication systems: taunts scribbled on palazzi during the feuds of Renaissance Italy, ritual insult known as “playing the dozens” among African Americans, posters carried in demonstrations against despotic regimes, and graffiti on many occasions such as the uprising in Paris of May–June 1968 (one read “Voici la maison d’un affreux petit bourgeois”). When expertly mixed, provocation and pithiness could be dynamite—the verbal or written equivalent of Molotov cocktails.

This subject deserves more study, because for all of their explosiveness, the blog-like elements in earlier eras of communication tend to be ignored by sociologists, political scientists, and historians who concentrate on full-scale texts and formal discourse.

To appreciate the importance of a pre-modern blog, consult a database such as Eighteenth Century Collections Online and download a newspaper from eighteenth-century London. It will have no headlines, no bylines, no clear distinction between news and ads, and no spatial articulation in the dense columns of type, aside from one crucial ingredient: the paragraph. Paragraphs were self-sufficient units of news. They had no connection with one another, because writers and readers had no concept of a news “story” as a narrative that would run for more than a few dozen words. News came in bite-sized bits, often “advices” of a sober nature—the arrival of a ship, the birth of an heir to a noble title—until the 1770s, when they became juicy. Pre-modern scandal sheets appeared, exploiting the recent discovery about the magnetic pull of news toward names. As editors of the Morning Postand the Morning Herald, two men of the cloth, the Reverend Henry Bate (known as “the Reverend Bruiser”) and the Reverend William Jackson (known as “Dr. Viper”) packed their paragraphs with gossip about the great, and this new kind of news sold like hotcakes. Much of it came from a bountiful source: the coffee house.

Fantastic stuff. And almost as gripping as this story about a surfing alpaca.

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