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The Invention of News: How the World Came to Know About Itself

The Invention of News: How the World Came to Know About Itself

by Andrew Pettegree

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Long before the invention of printing, let alone the availability of a daily newspaper, people desired to be informed. In the pre-industrial era news was gathered and shared through conversation and gossip, civic ceremony, celebration, sermons, and proclamations. The age of print brought pamphlets, edicts, ballads, journals, and the first news-sheets, expanding the


Long before the invention of printing, let alone the availability of a daily newspaper, people desired to be informed. In the pre-industrial era news was gathered and shared through conversation and gossip, civic ceremony, celebration, sermons, and proclamations. The age of print brought pamphlets, edicts, ballads, journals, and the first news-sheets, expanding the news community from local to worldwide. This groundbreaking book tracks the history of news in ten countries over the course of four centuries. It evaluates the unexpected variety of ways in which information was transmitted in the premodern world as well as the impact of expanding news media on contemporary events and the lives of an ever-more-informed public.
Andrew Pettegree investigates who controlled the news and who reported it; the use of news as a tool of political protest and religious reform; issues of privacy and titillation; the persistent need for news to be current and journalists trustworthy; and people’s changed sense of themselves as they experienced newly opened windows on the world. By the close of the eighteenth century, Pettegree concludes, transmission of news had become so efficient and widespread that European citizens—now aware of wars, revolutions, crime, disasters, scandals, and other events—were poised to emerge as actors in the great events unfolding around them.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Pettegree (The Book in the Renaissance) delineates the history of news delivery in Europe over the course of four centuries in this comprehensive and occasionally dense volume. He tackles this ambitious task both methodically and confidently, charting the ways in which news initially traveled, beginning in 1450 with the years following the invention of printing. Publishers then experimented with pamphlets and broadsheets, new types of books that were "far shorter and cheaper than the theological and scholarly texts that had dominated the market in manuscripts." These helped to make news a part of popular culture. Pettegree attributes the early need for political and economic information to their roles in commerce. Merchants in 14th and 15th-century Italy, for example, had to obtain "vital data on which to base business decisions." They relied on it. "But to act on a report that turned out to be false, or exaggerated, could be more disastrous than not to have acted at all." Trustworthiness was key back then and continues to be a primary concern in journalism. Though Pettegree does not directly address parallels between the emerging news industry centuries ago and the complexities of mass media today, readers will recognize them. The similarities keep his discussion relevant. (Mar.)
Guardian - Jeremy Paxman

“If you have ever wondered how this noisy, self-important carousel got going, Pettegree's book will tell you.”—Jeremy Paxman, The Guardian
Prospect - Andrew Marr

The Invention of News is. .a painstaking study of news networks before and during the early days of newspapers .[which] challenges our preconceptions about the news. . .[I]f you believe in the examined life, in reflecting on your own behaviour, [it is] hugely interesting."—Andrew Marr, Prospect
New Statesman - Peter Wilby
“Newspaper themselves were once new media. Yet as Andrew Pettegree explains in an elegantly written and beautifully constructed account, it took several centuries before they became the dominant medium for news.”—Peter Wilby, New Statesman
Literary Review - Adrian Tinniswood
The Invention of News is a valuable addition to our knowledge of European cultural history. It is also an ambitious book [and] a good history. It illuminates and entertains. . .’—Adrian Tinniswood, Literary Review
The Weekly Standard - Lawrence Klepp

“Pettegree gets through this vast, multidirectional mass of early modern material lucidly and expertly.”—Lawrence Klepp, The Weekly Standard
The Huffington Post - Glenn Altschuler

“A fascinating account of the gathering and dissemination of news from the end of the Middle Ages to the French Revolution, when the newspaper came of age.”—Glenn Altschuler, The Huffington Post
The Barnes and Noble Review - Adam Kirsch

Magisterial . . . The Invention of News is an outstanding introduction to the past that also helps us understand our future.”—Adam Kirsch, The Barnes and Noble Review
Folger Magazine

“Groundbreaking.”—Folger Magazine
BBC History Magazine - Justin Champion

‘Andrew Pettegree’s capacious and compelling book traces the evolution of news, from the exchange of manuscripts in the late medieval period to the triumph of newspaper and journals as a medium for the expression of public opinion in the 18th-century Enlightenment. . .Pettegree’s book is judicious and well written, with illustrations that give an immediate sense of how ‘news’ evolved from being the concern of the political elite to the privilege of entire nations.’—Justin Champion, BBC History Magazine
TLS - Alastair Hamilton
‘Andrew Pettegree’s The Invention of News is a fascinating book - beautifully written, admirably organized, with a mass of information about even the most recondite means of collecting and transmitting news before 1800.’—Alastair Hamilton, TLS
The Daily Beast - Nick Romeo

“Though Pettegree’s impeccably researched history ranges over four centuries and half a dozen countries, he manages to cover countless details without losing sight of broader themes.”—Nick Romeo, The Daily Beast
The New Yorker

“Revelatory.”—The New Yorker
Books and Culture

The Invention of News delivers a rich and compelling narrative, which picks away at several common presumptions about the history of news.”—Books and Culture
Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly

“This is a wide-ranging and readable study—and a very good one—that makes clear the rise of journalism as we have long known it was anything but predictable centuries ago.”?Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly
Open Letters Monthly

“Howe’s is a voice that ought still to be heard – and in this collection we may bear privileged witness to the gathering power of that voice over the course of its long development.”?Open Letters Monthly
Harvard Kennedy School - The Goldsmith Award

Winner of the 2015 Goldsmith Book Prize given by the Harvard Kennedy School, Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy.
Chris Sterling

“This is a wide-ranging study, but a good one, and one that makes clear the rise of journalism was anything but predictable.”—Chris Sterling, CBQ
CHRONIQUE - Leonard R. N. Ashley

“This book covers the transmission of information to 1800; it contains a great mass of information about Renaissance communications and the expansion of understanding in the age of political and mercantile expansion.”—Leonard R. N. Ashley, Chronique
Library Journal
★ 04/15/2014
The desire and need to know what is happening in the world around us has deep historic roots. Pettegree (history, Univ. of St. Andrews) carefully documents the history of news in Europe. Beginning with the prepaper world, the author covers the four centuries up to 1800. As Europe developed, the start of a communication network formed to support the information needs of rulers, church officials, and developing commercial enterprises. Early efforts included papal courier services, a postal service for the Holy Roman Empire, and medieval chronicle writing. Previously, news was often delivered orally in town marketplaces, taverns, and churches, and only the elite could afford to subscribe to specialized manuscript messenger services. As print evolved, along came pamphlets, edicts, journals, and broadsheets. Then, when printing materials became cheaper and more accessible, people's understanding of the world began to change. The book is wonderfully illustrated with examples of early news sources. Pettegree relies on an impressive range of archival sources, including diaries, that illuminate how several individuals acquired and understood everyday events. VERDICT This expansive view of news and how it reached people will be fascinating to readers interested in communication and cultural history.—Judy Solberg, Seattle Univ. Lib.
Kirkus Reviews
From imperial messenger and town crier to Citizen Kane: a vigorous history of the rise of the news business. Who needs news, anyway? Well, writes Pettegree (Modern History/Univ. of St. Andrews; The Book in the Renaissance, 2010, etc.), first there is the potentate, who needs to know the doings in the far corners of the realm. Then there's the merchant, who needs to know conditions in distant markets, the better to buy low and sell high. The author first examines such fledgling news enterprises as the couriers of European rulers and entrepreneurs, who, it can be surmised, were not always trustworthy, given the advantage they found in controlling what news was released and when. He then turns to such pioneers as the curious (in both senses) Cologne burger Herman Weinsberg, who kept dossiers on his relatives and neighbors: "It was only after his death that his appalled family members discovered that he had memorialised all their doings in an expansive chronicle of their lives and times." Weinsberg also gathered accounts of political events, noting the importance of what emerged as a significant theme in Pettegree's book: the integrity of the teller. The author takes a refreshingly broad view of what constitutes journalism—he includes medieval balladeers in the mix, for "singing ballads was a powerful part of information culture"—and of the genealogy of problems that any old-school newspaperperson will recognize: from the proper balance of ads to editorial copy to making decisions on what to run and what to spike and, as always, reaching audiences whose members might not always have appreciated that they needed the news that was on offer. Was the newspaper an instrument of liberation or control? Can any news be trusted? Is the free flow of information essential to a democracy? Learned and well-written, Pettegree's book ventures fruitful answers.

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Copyright © 2014 Andrew Pettegree
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-300-17908-8


Power and Imagination

Maximilian I, Holy Roman Emperor between 1493 and 1519, was not the most astute of rulers. Despite a whirlwind of travel, diplomacy and optimistic dynastic alliances, he never succeeded in asserting control over his large and dispersed dominions. Even before his election as emperor, he had so inflamed opinion in the Low Countries that in 1488 the people of Bruges held him hostage for seven months until he capitulated to their demands. Always chronically in debt, on one other occasion he was forced to flee his German creditors by slipping out of Augsburg under cover of darkness. This was neither very dignified nor very imperial.

Yet Maximilian usually seemed to triumph over adversity. A combination of extraordinary resilience and restless scheming ensured that his grandson, Charles V, would inherit from Maximilian an even more formidable collection of territories, encompassing a large part of the European land mass. Maximilian also had imagination. He harnessed the power of the innovation of printing more effectively than any contemporary ruler. And in 1490 he embarked on a project that would have enormous resonance for the history of communication: he determined to create an imperial postal service.

At this time Maximilian ruled over an unusual combination of territories. As co-administrator with his father, Emperor Frederick III, he ruled the Habsburg lands in Austria and south Germany; through his first wife, Mary of Burgundy, he was also effective ruler of the Netherlands as regent for his young son Philip. A later marriage, to the daughter of the Duke of Milan, opened the prospect of further dynastic aggrandisement but also brought him into persistent conflict with the kings of France, inevitable rivals for supremacy in Italy. Juggling these complex possessions and constantly on the move, Maximilian needed to have the most up-to-date political intelligence. It was with this in mind that in 1490 he summoned to Innsbruck two members of an Italian family of communications specialists, Francesco and Janetto de Tassis. The two men were the sons of Alessandro Tassis, who had built his reputation by organising the papal courier service, the Maestri dei Corrieri. Francesco had subsequently gained experience with similar projects in Milan and Venice. Now Maximilian engaged the two sons to establish a regular postal service that would cross Europe: from Innsbruck in Austria to his Netherlandish capital at Brussels. The agreement made provision for the establishment of regularly spaced and permanently manned stages: the couriers were to ride at an average speed of 7.5 kilometres per hour, covering up to 180 kilometres per day. In 1505 a new contract extended the range of this network to embrace stations in Spain, at Granada and Toledo, where Maximilian's son Philip now resided as co-ruler.

Like so many of Maximilian's grand schemes, this was only partly successful. It would take another hundred years before the imperial postal network was fully functioning. But from these beginnings would eventually emerge a communications network that underpins much of what we will encounter in this book: the beginnings of a commercial market for news, and the first regular serial news publications.

It is hard to know what inspired Maximilian to take this momentous step, but in creating such an ambitious scheme he, like so many of his Renaissance contemporaries, sought inspiration from the ancients. With the help of Francesco de Tassis, Maximilian had the chance to recreate a plausible imitation of the postal network of the old Roman Empire – until this point the most spectacularly successful communications system known to civilisation.

The passage of time had done much to obliterate the physical remains, if not the memory, of the Roman Empire; but the imprint of the Roman communications system had proved remarkably enduring. It would be the ghostly presence hovering in the background as medieval Europe gradually began to construct its own system of news and communication.

The Ghosts of Vindolanda

Like so much of what had been created during the Roman Empire, the Roman postal service was an achievement of breathtaking imagination and administrative ambition. The Roman road network had been designed to move large bodies of troops around a militarised domain that stretched from Spain to Germany and from Britain to Asia Minor. A high-speed courier service was an essential part of the information and administrative infrastructure that underpinned this system. Although much of the engineering work was in place under the Republic, the postal service itself only became fully established during the reign of Emperor Augustus. Couriers travelled by horse or by carriage. The main stage posts were established eight miles apart, with night quarters at every third stage. This suggests that a courier would normally progress at the rate of about 25 miles a day. Fifty miles would be possible if the news was especially urgent, but the journey would take a terrible toll on the messenger if the distance to be travelled was very large.

Normally a single courier would carry the message the entire length of the journey. In principle a relay of messengers could travel in greater comfort, but many messages were so confidential that they could only be entrusted to a particular individual. Very often the written message was little more than an introduction, confirming the credentials of the bearer; the substance would then be delivered verbally. The same messenger could then take back a reply. According to Suetonius, Augustus, who took a personal interest in the establishment of the post, also regularised the practice of dating letters, even to the exact hour, to document when they had been despatched.

The imperial postal service was created explicitly to serve the purposes of the vast Roman administrative machine. The upkeep of the service was extremely expensive, particularly after the development of more elaborate rest stations (mansiones), where travellers could find accommodation, stabling and a change of horses. The system was not generally open to the public. Yet the management of the Empire demanded the transport of a large quantity of military freight along the roads, alongside the express courier service, and it seems that this more mundane traffic provided plentiful opportunities for the citizens of the Empire, dispersed around the distant outposts, to maintain a surprising level of written communication.

The full extent of this can only be guessed at: most of the evidence has long since disappeared. But a glimpse into this lost world opened up quite recently, thanks to a remarkable find at Hadrian's Wall, near the northern British frontier of the Roman Empire. In 1973 a team of archaeologists was continuing routine excavations at Vindolanda, one of the military camp settlements adjacent to the wall. Excavating a trench they came across a mass of leather, textiles and straw, mixed with bracken and wood. Some of the wood was in small, thin fragments. When they inspected these slivers, it became apparent that these were covered in writing. What had been discovered were the first of nearly two thousand writing tablets, all written in ink on a wooden veneer – somehow miraculously preserved in the anaerobic soil of Northumberland.

The wooden tablets found in this excavation have transformed what is known of the writing culture of the northern Empire. Britain was as far away as it was possible to be from the production centres of papyrus, the versatile reed that provided the cheapest and most abundant writing material in Roman times. Where papyrus was not available, officials used waxed wooden tablets, where notes could be inscribed in the wax. A large number of these were also found in the Vindolanda excavation, though with little or nothing still legible once the wax had disappeared. The slivers of wood discovered at Vindolanda, subsequently confirmed by other finds, reveal a whole new writing medium, and one open to a wide cross section of the general public. The tablets, now in the British Museum, preserve communications from over one hundred writers, from the local governor and his wife to relatively humble members of the garrison community.

The ghosts of Vindolanda are often no more than tiny and incomplete fragments of enigmatic and cryptic messages. Yet they reveal a writing community of depth and breadth even in a frontier outpost at the very edge of the Empire, manned, it should be remembered, not by Roman legionaries but by auxiliaries raised from other subject peoples. We do not know how widespread were the skills of reading and writing in the Roman Empire. But what can be inferred from the Vindolanda tablets is that even when societies were not highly literate, systems of government and administration could be built around the assumption that written communication was a normative means of conveying news.

The Romans were of course masters in the exercise of power. The creation of the imperial postal service reflected a recognition that the control of information, and the swift passage of vital news, was essential to the government of widely dispersed and thinly garrisoned possessions. Roman Britain was an archetype of the large province managed by an astonishingly small occupying force. It was only possible because the control of communications meant that a larger, irresistible force could swiftly be marshalled.

The Roman postal service died with the Empire, to be resurrected only by the equally ambitious German emperors at the turn of the sixteenth century. But the main lesson of the Roman communications network, that control of news was an essential attribute of power, was fully grasped in medieval Europe. We will see it reflected in the conduct of all three of the major power brokers in the medieval world: the Church, the State and the merchant class. All three would develop a vivid culture of news.

From the Cloister

The Church was one of the great estates of medieval Europe. Its institutions had played a crucial role in the preservation of learning after the collapse of the Roman Empire. Since membership of the clerical estate was essentially defined by literacy, it was inevitable that the clergy would be the designated record-keepers of early medieval society. As the Church consolidated its reach across the whole of western Europe, it would also be in the forefront in the transition from a culture where inherited wisdom was preserved by memory to one of written record. Not that the assumed superiority of writing would go entirely uncontested. In the various confrontations between secular and ecclesiastical power that erupted in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, lay folk were not always prepared to concede that verbal reports were any less authoritative than, as they put it, 'words written on animal skins'. This well-turned insult drew attention to the rather unromantic origins of parchment, which was at this point the only abundantly available writing material. Parchment, made of the dried hide of sheep or calves, was a good, reliable and durable writing surface, but complex and expensive to prepare. The writing surface had to follow the irregular dimensions of the original hide, so notes were often written on thin slips cut from the edges. So for all but the most ceremonial purposes, such as a charter or treaty, there was a strong incentive to keep messages short. Often, as in Roman times, written communications would simply attest to the trustworthiness of the messenger, who could deliver the substance of the message verbally. Parchment could also be reused, but then important documentary information is often lost because a text has been scraped off and overwritten. This means that the information culture of the early medieval period often has to be reconstructed from very fragmentary remains.

Problems of this nature apply even to those at the very apex of medieval Europe's emerging news networks. The Cistercian monk Bernard of Clairvaux, for example, was one of the most distinguished voices of medieval Christianity. He was deeply involved in the major political and theological controversies of his day. He spoke out against the Cathars and the theologian Peter Abelard; he intervened freely in disputes over the election of bishops, and offered his counsels to the French king, Louis VI. Between 1146 and 1147 he preached passionately in favour of the Second Crusade. All of this required close attention to the maintenance of an active network of information, messengers and correspondence.

In the conditions of twelfth-century Europe this was by no means easy, but Bernard possessed one priceless advantage. As Abbot of Clairvaux, the mother house of an extensive network of monasteries, Bernard could call upon the assistance of a willing band of peripatetic and literate churchmen. A remarkable number of Bernard's letters survive – around five hundred – far more than for his contemporary (and rival) Peter the Venerable, Abbot of Cluny. These were just the visible remains of an information network that extended far beyond regular communications with Rome, even as far as Constantinople and Jerusalem. The maintenance of such a network was not without its challenges. As was the case with Roman couriers, the written communication was often little more than a letter of introduction, with the substance of the message intended to be conveyed verbally. Bernard would sometimes have to wait patiently for a suitable envoy who could be trusted to deliver a sensitive communication accurately. He was lucky that Clairvaux was a regular stopping place for numerous pilgrims and clerics on official business, situated as it was in prosperous Champagne, between Paris, Dijon and the Alpine passes.

Bernard was, by the standards of the time, exceptionally well informed. But there was still a large element of chance in the individuals who passed by and the news they brought. It was seldom possible to corroborate a report brought by a visitor – Bernard would have to make his own estimate of the reliability of the source. Many of those who brought news – of a disputed episcopal election, for instance – had their own axes to grind. If the news was important enough for Bernard to send his own messenger, it might be many months before he received a reply. Even a journey back and forth to Rome, the hub of Europe's most intensive traffic in information, might take up to four months, as the messenger inevitably had his own business to conduct, and might not be planning a return trip to Clairvaux. Contact with more occasional correspondents was even more sporadic. A complex negotiation, which required the passage back and forth of several despatches, was hard to envisage.


Bernard of Clairvaux was an exceptional figure: a true prince of the Church. But the wish to stay abreast of events, and an awareness of the significance of life outside the cloister, was shared by many of his fellow clerics. Medieval monasteries served an important function as custodians of the collective social memory: monks were the first historians of western Christendom. To perform this function required that they make assiduous efforts to gather information on the world's follies and travails; in the words of the chronicler Gervais of Canterbury, 'such deeds of kings and princes as occurred at those times, along with other events, portents and miracles'.

Some of these events had a decidedly contemporary character, and this trend becomes far more pronounced in the chronicle-writing of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. This development was partly the consequence of the increasing predominance of chroniclers who were secular priests and even laymen, many with close access to the centres of power in the royal courts. The monastic chroniclers in contrast had, by nature of their vocation, been largely confined to their own houses. These new chroniclers could get out and about: they frequently wrote from their own experience, or recorded having personally spoken to eyewitnesses or participants.

These medieval chroniclers offer a precocious and unexpected sense of developing news values. Naturally they write from a religious perspective: events reflect the unfolding of God's purpose and must be interpreted within the context of divine revelation. But the chroniclers also reveal a profound concern that the events they record should be credible and recognised as such. They offer repeated testimonials to the quality of their sources, the social status or number of the witnesses, and whether the writers were personally present. Even the recording of distant events reflects a clear concern to report only what was credible. Thus the chronicler of St Paul's Cathedral in London recorded, of an exceptionally severe frost in Avignon in 1325 in which many froze to death, that 'according to the testimony of those who were there and who saw it, for one day and night the ice covering the Rhône, which is an extremely fast-flowing river, was more than eight feet thick'. Note how the addition of a seemingly precise but unverifiable detail, the thickness of the ice, adds greatly to the credibility of the account.


Excerpted from THE INVENTION OF NEWS by ANDREW PETTEGREE. Copyright © 2014 Andrew Pettegree. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Andrew Pettegree is professor of modern history, University of St. Andrews, and founding director of the St. Andrews Reformation Studies Institute. He lives in Fife, Scotland.

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