Political Communication and Political Culture in England, 1558-1688

Political Communication and Political Culture in England, 1558-1688

by Barbara J. Shapiro

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This book surveys the channels through which political ideas and knowledge were conveyed to the English people from the beginning of the reign of Elizabeth I to the Revolution of 1688. Shapiro argues that an assessment of English political culture requires an examination of all means by which this culture was expressed and communicated. While the discussion focuses primarily on genres such as the sermon, newsbook, poetry, and drama, it also considers the role of events and institutions. Shapiro is the first to explore and elucidate the entire web of communication in early modern English political life.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804783620
Publisher: Stanford University Press
Publication date: 11/07/2012
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 416
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Barbara Shapiro is Professor in the Graduate School and Emerita Professor of Rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley.

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Political Communication and Political Culture in England, 1558–1688

By Barbara J. Shapiro


Copyright © 2012 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8047-8362-0

Chapter One


Thanks first to radio and television and then the cell phone and the Internet, we live in an age preoccupied with an explosion in the reach and density of the media and their penetration into our daily, and particularly our political, lives. Other ages too experienced a multiplicity of means through which people learned about politics. This book seeks to present a panorama of the genres through which early modern English men and women learned about politically significant ideas, events and institutions. It is about the channels through which the political culture of the time and place was acquired. Only enough of the substance of the messages sent and received is presented to allow us to gain an understanding of the agendas and target audiences of the plethora of media.

Not without reason, intellectual historians pay a great deal of attention to what people thought and what people knew at various times and places. They have, however, paid far less attention to how people came to know what they knew, the written and nonwritten channels through which knowledge was acquired. There are, to be sure, many studies of literary genres, but each of those studies typically focuses on a single one. Real people, however, do not learn from any single genre. They know what they know through a melange of sources, and not only by reading and having heard about distant matters but also through seeing and participating directly in the world around them. The English public received political ideas and values through a wide array of channels ranging from erudite treatise to scurrilous ballad. How did the English people know what they knew about the political life of their country? What means did they have of communicating their beliefs and experiences? To what extent was government successful in disseminating its ideas and monitoring and controlling public discourse? Did the kinds and quantity of political expression change when governmental control lapsed or proved ineffective? By addressing these questions this book seeks to offer a fuller view of English political culture than previously has been presented.

The treatment here differs from that of earlier studies in a number of ways. Unlike much of the work on political thought of this period, this study does not focus on the work of well-known innovative thinkers such as Hobbes, Harrington and Locke. Literary and other scholars have produced detailed studies exploring a single figure such, as a Milton or Dryden, or a single genre, often covering only a brief period of time. Examples of the latter that come to mind are those on Elizabethan or Restoration drama, sermons of the Jacobean era and civil war–era news media. Some scholars have focused on separate cultures or subcultures within the larger political sphere. There have been numerous studies of court culture, which is to be distinguished from the larger culture particularly by its aesthetic forms. Royal entertainments, courtly behavior and language and court masques figure large in this approach. This subculture was less likely than others to turn to print. Personal sociability and manuscript circulation were typical of its communicative structure. Thus far there has been greater attention to the pre–civil war court than to court life of the Restoration era, perhaps because of its greater informality, and the fact that it was less cut off from the world of polite society and commerce than its predecessor. The civic culture of towns is another subculture, the study of which gives special emphasis to the rituals of civic governments. There have also been studies of coffee house culture, an institution to which Jürgen Habermas gave particular attention in connection with the concept of a public sphere. Here we look at the whole spectrum of available venues and genres in which political ideas were expressed and through which the English people received and contributed to their general political culture from the reign of Elizabeth to just prior to the transformation of 1688.

Genres and Channels for Political Expression and Experience

My approach to genres and modes of political expression may require some explanation. Focusing on particular types of expression and experience such as drama, sermons or poetry allows us to look at avenues of expression familiar to contemporaries and to audience expectations as to subject matter, rhetorical conventions and tone. Although the genres or forms of expression discussed here were stable enough to be identified as such by contemporaries, I do not wish to use genre in a formal and technical sense because formal genre requirements were often ignored or modified, and some topics and subject matters were conveyed in a variety or mixture of formats. The focus on genre, somewhat loosely conceived, is useful, however, because it was widely recognized that different kinds of speech and writing were governed by different rhetorical conventions and appropriate styles.

Genres or forms of expression thus provide a helpful window for examining political life. But they must not be treated as impermeable or entirely stable, and both the enduring and the unstable are worthy of attention. News, for example, might be conveyed in proclamations, pamphlets, broadside ballads, printed newsbooks, manuscript newsletters, trial accounts or gossip among friends and acquaintances. News writers adopted the norm of accuracy and impartiality, but, as contemporaries recognized, much of the news media they encountered were partisan efforts purveying rumor or misinformation. Several of the most important genres were vehicles for government communication.

Some genres were used for political purposes throughout the period; others were adapted to political use for a short time and under particular political circumstances. Many had recognizable expectations as to format, length, subject matters; others were more loosely defined. I have treated historiography as a genre, but there were many types of historical writings ranging from chronicles and annals to perfect history and memoirs. Historical writing might appear in lavishly illustrated, expensive folios designed for the prosperous and also in brief inexpensive formats for popular consumption. Historical and legal discourse were often intertwined. Historical material might be blended with news or chorography, a form focused on the description of the present state of some particular political entity. It might be conveyed in prose or verse forms, in narrative or drama, presented as merely factual or mixed with fiction. Treatment of England's national past, the Roman past and scriptural history lent themselves to discussion of a wide range of often contemporary political issues. The events recorded in Scripture were undoubtedly the most familiar. Some venues were more likely than others to make use of Scripture, others the English or Roman past.

Although the chapter headings I employ suggest sharp distinctions among genres, there are instances in which the material in one chapter might well have been considered in another. Ballads often conveyed news of people and events and may be considered either as a species of poetry or as a news form. Satirical libels were often in verse. Some forms reached quite distinct audiences, depending on cost or whether they were personally viewed or read. Reading itself might be done privately with the opportunity for reflection and analysis or aloud to an audience, some of whom might be illiterate. While empirical political description was a genre devoted to matters of fact, the form could also be turned to fictional uses, as in Sir Thomas More's Utopia. For this reason several chapters emphasize the overlap among genres.

The term "genre" is, therefore, used rather loosely to indicate a recognizable form of expression typically following a set of known rhetorical features. Despite occasional disregard for genre norms, most types of expression adhered to their own rhetorical conventions. The rhetoric of the sermon was quite different from that of the ballad, the news media or the libel. There were relatively fixed and differing conventions for such genres as the epic, elegy and pastoral. Some genres, such as assize sermons, lent themselves particularly well to conservative themes; others were more likely to emphasize conflict than harmony. There were also norms for different kinds of drama, some dramatic forms lending themselves more easily to political comment than others. Not all drama conformed to the strict norms announced by drama theorists. The popular historical drama, to which we give considerable attention, did not fit into the conventional classifications.

The sermon is an easily recognizable, relatively stable genre, typically beginning with a biblical text and then providing an explanation of its meaning and implications for the audience. While most sermons focused on doctrine and practical piety, there were also sermons that dealt with political topics particularly when they were given in certain venues or delivered on particular occasions. We concentrate on sermon types most likely to communicate political messages. Something similar can be said of the trial. While most trials were not political in character, the well publicized trials of particular individuals, for treason or seditious libel, became the focus of political excitement and comment. We can therefore reasonably identify, if not precisely define, a category of political trials.

If some forms of expression were fairly stable, others underwent considerable change. The "character" began as a literary form with little political content and then morphed into a decidedly political genre used to attack religious and political opponents. The use of the political printed play prologue during the Restoration era provides an example of an ephemeral genre. Petitions were a traditional form for presenting grievances but changed considerably over time. Not only did new types of petitioners appear, but petitions presented by large crowds in public spaces began to appear menacing to those to whom the petitions were addressed. Always a device for requesting change, the petition sometimes became a means of applying substantial political pressure backed by the threat of force. There were also new forms of expression, such as the serial newsbook, which came into existence during the revolutionary period, and may have evolved from the coranto or manuscript newsletter. One possible evolution runs from the familiar letter, written by a known person to another known person and then transformed into a newsletter written by a known person to an unknown audience and finally to the newspaper, written by an unknown person to an unknown audience, all the while retaining features of its origin.

Despite permeability, overlap and changeability, the forms of expression and activity to be discussed were sufficiently fixed to be recognizable, although sufficiently flexible to be adapted to new uses. Examining the available modes and channels of political expression provides a convenient way to approach the question of how political ideas and information were expressed and disseminated. Collectively they provide a useful way of viewing political culture between the accession of Elizabeth and the Glorious Revolution.

Scholarly Traditions

The emphasis on genres necessarily entails combining the approaches of intellectual, literary and political history as well as the history of printing and the book. Scholars from several disciplines come to the subject of English political thought with a variety of perspectives. The multidisciplinary "history of ideas" approach, which traced the development of particular ideas over lengthy periods of time, was not attentive to the context in which ideas developed and has not lately been much pursued. Influenced to a greater or lesser degree by Marxist approaches, some scholars have treated political ideas and assumptions as reflections of economic structures and class interest.

There have been several traditions of literary scholarship, some more, some less useful to my endeavor. Older historical approaches, such as those of E. M. W. Tillyard and Basil Willey, were eclipsed by "new critics" who rejected their historicizing bent. These in turn have been largely displaced by "new historicists" and others who, under the influence of Foucault, have returned to investigations of epistemic regimes or have conceptualized literary activities as either subversive or contained by dominant political-intellectual structures. This approach sometimes shows a kinship with the notion of paradigms and paradigm shifts developed by Thomas Kuhn in the context of a particular discipline, by applying that notion to an entire culture rather than to one branch of intellectual life. Some new historicists, however, have preferred to focus on an event or even an anecdote and thus have not looked to categorizing movements or to charting long-term change. Literary historians also have been active in examining the political aspects of particular periods such as the Jacobean era or the Restoration or have focused on the works of individual dramatists such as Shakespeare or Middleton or poets such as Milton and Dryden, demonstrating that literary figures often participated in political discussion. When literary scholars moved in the direction of viewing literature as embedded in and a part of political discourse their work overlapped with scholars working in other disciplines. It is currently difficult to distinguish the work of many literary scholars from that of the cultural or intellectual historian or the contextually oriented political theorist.

Of the numerous historians who have focused on political life, most have dealt primarily with political thought and political institutions. Many have investigated the tensions between concepts of limited and unlimited monarchy, or controversies over the ancient constitution. Some have produced institutional studies of Parliament, the courts, local administration, patronage or the military. Others have illuminated the importance of gender, social structures or religion. Current work on intellectual history and the dissemination of ideas is being reshaped by studies of literacy, manuscript circulation and the history of the book, as well as reading practices, marginal annotation and the practice of commonplacing. This work, again shared by historians and literary scholars, is complemented by studies of the use of governmental authority to supervise and control intellectual and cultural communication. The common interests and overlapping investigations of literary scholars and intellectual and cultural historians has greatly enhanced the possibilities for work dealing with political and other sorts of communication, whether in print, manuscript or oral form.

For many decades political theorists, a group sometimes closer to philosophers, sometimes to historians and literary scholars, focused on the work of canonical figures, such as Richard Hooker, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. For several decades now this approach has been overshadowed by an emphasis on the context in which such individuals wrote of general concerns about early modern republicanism or Machiavellianism. Contextual approaches, pioneered by J. G. A. Pocock and Quentin Skinner, have emphasized the languages of political discourse. Whether the principal interest is in forms of discourse or in the writer's embeddedness in current political controversy, the scholarly work of the community of political theorists has come to overlap with that of the historian and literary scholar, all of whom collectively pursue interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary investigations of early modern English political life and thought.

This study takes a more comprehensive view of the channels of early modern English political culture than has been achieved previously while making use of the insights of these scholarly traditions. Ideas themselves, modes of discourse, audiences and changes in these elements are obviously central to political culture. It is impossible to gain an understanding of political culture, however, without also paying some attention to the pressing political issues of the day, the conflicts they engendered and the institutions in which they were experienced and expressed. Culture involves both ideas and institutions. Culture, however, must be learned. It can be understood fully only if the means of transmitting all these elements of political culture to the citizenry are understood fully. The media may not be the message, but they contribute mightily to how, where, when and to what extent recipients receive the messages and how they process them.

In order to gain a composite sense of how English men and women absorbed and participated in the changing political culture of their time, the chapters that follow bring together work in various disciplinary traditions. Some draw heavily on relevant previous scholarship. Others, particularly those dealing with the least formal and most ephemeral modes of communication, have little such scholarship to draw upon.


Excerpted from Political Communication and Political Culture in England, 1558–1688 by Barbara J. Shapiro Copyright © 2012 by Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

1 Introduction 1

2 News, Information and Political Controversy 25

3 Empirical Political Description 54

4 Historical Writing and Political Thought 77

5 Drama and Political Education 104

6 Politics, Poetry and Literature 137

7 The Sermon and Political Education 166

8 Observation and Participation 198

9 Law, Politics and the Legal System 231

10 Conclusion 266

Notes 299

Index 383

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