Sunday, January 25, 2009

Breaking News: Birth of Democratic Culture

"A 1644 printing
of John Milton's 'Areopagitica,'
a protest of censorship."
(Photo: Andrew Councill for The New York Times)

Edward Rothstein has an interesting article, "When the News was New," in The New York Times (January 23, 2009) about an exhibition in the Folger Shakespeare Library on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.: "Breaking News: Renaissance Journalism and the Birth of the Newspaper." The image above comes from the slideshow presenting some of the exhibits.

Rothstein makes an intriguing point about what was being brought forth in this birth:
Look carefully, and it is really the birth of the modern West that we see taking place here: snippets of news and sensation helped define a shared experience of the past and present, as political debates laid the foundations of democratic culture. If the Reformation is often credited with having turned the West toward the Enlightenment, another such force must be the growing taste for news and its multiple retellings. While other cultures were arguing over the interpretations of sacred texts, England’s was arguing over the nature of government in print. We are the beneficiaries.
What was going on in the process by which newspapers and journals developed was the rise of democratic culture . . . though I'd demur about the implied contrast between "other cultures . . . arguing over the interpretations of sacred texts" and "England's [culture] . . . arguing over the nature of government in print." England's populace was also "arguing over the interpretations of sacred texts," as Milton's Areopagitica itself partly testifies, and we are also the beneficiaries there in our freedom of speech and opinion on religious matters, especially our right to criticize religion -- an inheritance that we also now once again need to vigorously defend, as is becoming increasingly obvious from the many violent religious acts that we currently witness and the threats (at times, the death threats) directed at those who speak up.

Of course, free speech has its downside, as in newspapers prefiguring the National Enquirer, which also got their start:
Mixed in with political argument were other morality tales. There were reports of the skies raining blood in Rome, or, in London, "A True Relation of a most desperate Murder" from 1617. There were accounts of beheadings, bizarre births and conjoined twins ("a Prodigious Monster").
No mention of alien abductions, though demons probably sometimes spirited away with unfortunate victims. Invented stories, exaggerated rumors, and wildly inaccurate reports expanded to reach a national audience in this new age of print.

But even scholars sometimes lack care for complete accuracy, as shown by this exhibit, titled "'Mercurius Rusticus: or, the Countries Complaint,' 1646":

The image, originally photographed by Andrew Councill, shows this paper's subtitle as "the Country's Complaint" -- or do my eyes deceive me?

Awaiting confirmation of my vision from readers . . .

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At 7:02 AM, Blogger A.H. said...

A great Mercurian image...even it was used for the Royalist cause! Blasphemy! Strangely, most references to this pamphlet use the plural, though I see "y's" like you. I wonder if country is being confused with "counties"--but this was the Country's objection and there was only one country. Odd.

At 7:28 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks for the confirmation, Eshuneutics . . . and I see that you have a new icon that I can't quite make out (though it looks interesting).

Jeffery Hodges

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