At the turn of the eighteenth century, newspapers had established themselves as the principal port of call for readers with a strong taste for current affairs. One hundred years after the first newspaper had been printed in Strasbourg in 1605, the new medium had spread to all parts of western and central Europe.
London alone sported nine newspapers in 1704, while the Holy Roman Empire was home to roughly sixty titles, most of which appeared several times per week. This was a considerable improvement compared to the early days of the newspaper, when once-per-week publication had been the norm. As early as the 1630s, however, frequency began to increase, and by the middle of the century, Leipzig—an important commercial centre—saw the first truly daily newspaper, which reached its readers on six days of the week. That said, most journalists—and subscribers—still preferred longer intervals between individual issues. For example, the first daily newspaper in England, The Daily Courant, appeared as late as 1702, and thrice-weekly publication remained the industry standard throughout the eighteenth century. Still, the newspaper market continued to expand, with new titles appearing in provincial towns and international networks growing denser. The Netherlands in particular, benefitting from extensive trade links, a welcoming attitude to immigrants, and relative freedom of the press, became the information hub of Europe where news channels from all over the continent converged. In the years around 1700, newspapers were thus an ever more prominent feature in the lives of those who wanted to keep abreast of events.
And yet, in the shadow of the thriving newspaper market, another form of current-affairs reporting flourished: the hand-written newsletter. In cities as socially and politically diverse as London, Amsterdam, Hamburg, Stockholm, and Danzig, to name but a few, merchants, postmasters, students, diplomats, and professional journalists dabbled in the business of writing weekly or twice-weekly news sheets. They garnered news from the places where they lived, typically in a four-page letter in quarto format, and then passed the end product on to a wealthy patron in exchange for either remuneration or social prestige, or sold it to as wide a circle of subscribers as they could find. Today, countless examples of these manuscript news sheets from the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries survive in often voluminous collections in European and North American archives and libraries. Precious little, however, is known about the people who compiled the newsletters, the sources of information they drew on, their print runs, how the copying was organized, who the subscribers were, and most importantly of all, why there was such demand for a medium that was undoubtedly more expensive than rival newspapers and almost by necessity should have gone out of business once print news, with its hallmarks of technical efficiency and wide circulation, had entered the arena.
It hardly comes as a surprise, therefore, that with few exceptions (such as Alex Barber, Holger Böning, Heiko Droste, and Rachel King), historians have investigated scribal news only as a precursor to the printed newspaper.1 Over the last two decades, the sixteenth-century avvisi, as they were known at the time, have attracted a large amount of attention from scholars of early modern Europe. Italian and German historians in particular have studied the channels of manuscript communication that connected Renaissance Italy and the Holy Roman Empire with each other and the rest of Europe. They have charted the world of the commercial news agent, the so-called novellante, who emerged in the late 1400s and supplied factual accounts of political and economic developments to influential and well-heeled clients throughout the following century.
Yet with the advent of the newspaper, which wedded the flow of scribal information to the printing press, manuscript news sheets lost their fascination for many historians. Once the older medium had been superseded by an allegedly more modern and efficient form of communication, it was consigned to the dustbin of history. Its heyday during the sixteenth century was subsumed into a teleological narrative that turned on the inevitable rise of print media during the modern period—a dominance that came to a rather abrupt end only at the close of the last millennium, when the digital revolution undid the Gutenberg universe. But in the same way that printed books survived the e-book and the printed newspaper seems to have carved out a niche for itself in today’s crowded current affairs market, hand-written newsletters did not vanish after 1605. On the contrary, they proliferated well into the eighteenth century. In London, as late as 1786, one William Tayler offered regular postings of a mixture of manuscript and printed reports on the debates in the two Houses of Parliament to interested parties.
What, then, was the recipe for success that secured the longevity of the news sheet? This is a question I want to explore as part of my current research project at the GHIL. Specifically, I’m interested in the supply of up-to-date information from Britain to the Prussian and Hanoverian courts by purveyors of news based in London in the later seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. The reports in question were written by members of the Huguenot Refuge, the community of French Protestants exiled from their country of origin over the course of the seventeenth century, and are nowadays kept in the state archives in Hanover and Berlin. Examining them in detail reveals why ministers and court officials in the Holy Roman Empire were prepared to employ their own foreign correspondents, at considerable cost. Large parts of each report were usually reserved for accounts of the proceedings in the English Parliament, conveying in great detail the thrust of debates, the outcome of votes, and the passage of bills through the various stages of the legislative process. Contrary to what modern readers might expect, none of this information was easily available at the time. Parliamentary privilege explicitly forbade the reporting of what was said in the two chambers, a right jealously guarded by MPs well into the eighteenth century and generally respected by most political commentators and observers. Only from the 1770s onwards did British newspapers cover parliamentary debates regularly and extensively. Before then, anyone interested in the goings-on in Parliament had to rely on what they heard in coffee-houses, came across in private letters—and read in manuscript news sheets. The business model of many a newsletter writer was based on the fact that news about the inner workings of the Commons and Lords was available only below the level of print. Scribal news thus gave—or at least promised to give—access to privileged information that was not, or was not supposed to be, available elsewhere.
No wonder, then, that German courts maintained channels of communication of their own to obtain reports from the Palace of Westminster—as well as the latest court gossip, economic news, military information, and the odd human-interest story. From the mid to late 1680s, the Hanoverian and Prussian courts both enlisted the services of men who were well versed in the art of gathering information and capable of writing elegant French, the lingua franca of early modern court society. Remarkably, they kept these men on for more than twenty years, even awarding them diplomatic status in the process. It was only in the 1710s that the newsgathering operation seemed to come to an end and the correspondents were dismissed. Hanover and Berlin, however, were far from unique in their endeavours, as other German courts and the Dutch Republic likewise hired their own information professionals in London. More importantly, state-sponsored newsletters were only the tip of a scribal-news iceberg. They are in many cases better preserved than their commercially distributed rivals, but they formed part of the same universe of hand-written news that spanned many European countries in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries—alongside and in competition with printed newspapers. Enormously popular at the time, they satisfied an appetite for news that seemed almost insatiable; scattered across many modern repositories today, they still await thorough historical research. But this may have to wait until the current Covid crisis is over and we can enjoy unhindered access to archives and libraries once again.
- See, e.g., Alex W. Barber, ‘“It is Not Easy What to Say of our Condition, Much Less to Write It”: The Continued Importance of Scribal News in the Early 18th Century’, Parliamentary History, 32/2 (2013), 293–316; Holger Böning, ‘“Gewiss ist es/dass alle gedruckte Zeitungen erst geschrieben seyn müssen”: Handgeschriebene und gedruckte Zeitung im Spannungsfeld von Abhängigkeit, Koexistenz und Konkurrenz’, Daphnis, 37 (2008), 203–42; Heiko Droste, Das Geschäft mit Nachrichten: Ein barocker Markt für soziale Ressourcen (Bremen, 2018); Rachel Scarborough King, ‘All the News that’s Fit to Write: The Eighteenth-Century Manuscript Newsletter’, in Siv Gøril Brandtzæg, Paul Goring, and Christine Watson (eds.), Travelling Chronicles: News and Newspapers from the Early Modern Period to the Eighteenth Century (Leiden, 2018), 95–118.