Yesterday's News: Seventeenth-Century English Broadsides and Newsbooks

March 29, 1996, through August 31, 1996

During the seventeenth century, England experienced an explosion of information as domestic news, in the form of printed pamphlets and broadsides, became more accessible to the general public. The political, social and religious upheaval that marked the century created a demand for information that the London printing houses worked hard to satisfy. From 1642 to 1651, the English Civil Wars not only generated much of the news, but also helped to bring about a change in the political climate that permitted the proliferation of printed news accounts throughout the rest of the century. As citizens struggled to follow the conflicts of the early years of the first civil war, the methods of censorship which had hitherto made the publication of domestic and political news illegal and dangerous began to break down, setting the stage for the development of news as a profit-making industry. Seventeenth-century newsbooks differed from our modern newspapers in both form and style, appearing as small pamphlets and ranging from four to forty pages in length. Although they generally focused on a single topic, they gave their readers detailed accounts of the same kinds of events that we read about in today's newspapers. There were even the equivalents of our tabloids.

Murders and other crimes were among the most popular subjects for newsbooks, and reports of wives killing husbands, mothers murdering children, and children doing away with parents and siblings abound. Graphic illustrations were often used to heighten the dramatic narrative.

Cruell [From Henry Goodcole.Natures' Cruell Step-dames: or Matchless Monsters of the Female Sex. London. 1637.] Windie

Traditionally, weather seems to merit the most media attention when it is experienced in its extremes. A number of pamphlets, including The Wonders of this Windie Winter (London, 1613), were generated by an unusually stormy season in 1612-13 which exacted a heavy toll on life and livestock.

It is probably not surprising that the same political unrest and social upheaval that permitted and even encouraged the printing of news as a profit-making enterprise also fostered the growth of suspicion and distrust of news entrepreneurs.Early reporters were not above embellishing and manipulating the facts to make their product more appealing to the news-buying public. Criticism of the press took many forms including drama, art, prose, and even poetry. John Davies's satirical verse, A Scourge for Paper-Persecutors (London, 1625) laments the decline of " serious" literature and the rise of more popular forms of writing, such as news.

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Chronicling everything from politics to weather, touching on the mundane and the macabre, the more than one hundred ballads, broadsides, and newsbooks that made up Yesterday's News offered an amusing and dramatic glimpse into the headline-making events of their day.