Elizabethan news pamphleteers

The word ‘pamphlet’ defines a form, not a function; a class of object, not the class of intellectual content contained therein. Pamphlets are, and were, “short printed work[s] of several pages fastened together without a hard cover” (OED.) In early modern times, they were typically quartos, in which four text pages were printed on each side of a sheet of paper. Then the paper was folded twice to form four leaves or eight pages counting front and back, 11-13 inches tall, sewn, not stapled. The stapler wasn’t invented until the 18th century — for Louis Quinze, fascinatingly. Love the history of the mundane!

The first newspaper is said to have been printed by Johann Carolus in Strausbourg in 1605. But the greene_quipEnglish loved news reports long before that. Paul Voss makes a good case for an English precursor in his book, Elizabethan News Pamphlets. And of course, what counts as news oft depends upon the reader.

The pamphleteers

The first Englishman who made a living from his writing was probably Robert Greene, who deserves his own post one of these days. He wrote everything that paid: plays, romances, philosophy, and pamphlets. A Quip for an Upstart Courtier is a bit long for a pamphlet, but it kind of qualifies and it’s funny, if you don’t mind the early modern language.

He had plenty of competition. Rising literacy among the middling sort created a booming market for printed works aimed at that new class of reader. A pamphlet cost as little as tuppence and could be passed around the tavern or the workshop. News from the Continent, accounts of sensational murders, reports of strange creatures caught by fishermen jostled on bookseller’s shelves alongside religious works across the spectrum from Puritan to Catholic (even though both ends were illegal.)

Some pamphleteers, like Robert Greene and Thomas Nashe, were university graduates, but most had merely grammar school educations (like Shakespeare.) Most of them descended from tradesmen. Greene’s father was either a saddler or a cordwainer (shoemaker), Nashe’s was a country parson. Thomas Middleton, a prominent writer of the Jacobean period, was the son of a bricklayer. Gentlemen might write pamphlets at the more literary end, especially of the religious variety. Martin Marprelate, a name you’re probably heartily sick of hearing by now, was certainly a gentleman.

The pamphlet writer might be paid two pounds for his piece, if he had a name like Greene or Nashe. Lesser names might be paid in copies only, which they had to go out and sell for themselves. Most writers made their living doing something else (like most writers today.) Literate young men with good manners were always in demand as messengers. They could teach gentlemen’s sons to read or pick up work as scribes, writing letters for the unlettered. Two pounds was enough to scrape by on, though not to live the literary life of London. A country parson kept the wolf from the door on twenty shillings a year — half the price of one cracking good pamphlet. You can see the attraction, even with the uncertainty of publication.

News from afar

“France at this day had been a most flourishing kingdom which now is a theatre of misery.” Francis Bacon.

By François Dubois, a Huguenot painter born circa 1529

He was writing about the French wars of religion, which began with the bloodbath of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, the wedding day of Henry of Navarre, when thousands of his fellow Protestants were killed. That event cast a deep shadow on the minds of the Elizabethans. When Henry succeeded to the French throne, the shadow lightened. Was it possible that France could break from the Catholic League as well?

But France was plunged into civil war. The English sent money and soldiers led by the Earl of Essex. Back home, the hunger for news grew unabated. Elizabethans gobbled up pamphlets the way Americans stared at their TVs during the Vietnam War, unable to turn away from the ghastly reports. 

Publishers scrambled for real news, but always with the patriotic moral slant required in those days. News pamphlets emphasized the dangers of civil war and the need for English unity. It’s well to remember that this constant drumbeat of horrific news from France resounded in English ears when we criticize them for religious intolerance. Unity was the only safe course!

Both the press and the stage played vital roles in presenting ideas to the public in those days, as the authorities well knew. Here’s a snippet from Shakespeare’s King John, written during this period: “This England never did, nor ever shall, / Lie at the proud foot a of a conqueror, / But [except] when it did first help to wound itself.”

A wide variety of individuals and circumstances contributed to the reporting of news. Intercepted letters, official reports, and personal correspondence all made their way into print. Sir Henry Unton, ambassador to France in 1591, sent regular reports on military affairs, including troop movements, casualties, cost overruns, and the activities of the Earl of Essex. He dated all his letters and kept 1652_balladpictrack of how long they took to get where they were going. He complained several times about his letters being stolen and printed without his consent.

Other field correspondents seemed eager to be quoted, filling their letters with those convincing details that sold copies. “The thundering shot of the canon calleth me to my place, and therefore am constrained to cut short, leaving your good Ladieship to the consideration of all heerein expressed which is no more but what I myself have seene and know for truth.”

From the very start, publishers struggled to distinguish real news from fake. They advertised the quality of their pamphlets by the frequent use of words like ‘true’, ‘report,’ and ‘credible.’ They loudly condemned false reports, in contrast. “Some in these dayes, who either for that they know not, or care not for truth, or wil not inquire after the truth, wil be sure to publish nothing but untruth, mispending their time, misdemeaning their braine, and misusing their pen, no lesse foes to themselves, then back friends to the welminded.”

News from afield

greene3tpFrance wasn’t the only place where things happened. Englishmen and women were equally eager to read true reports of extraordinary events in their own country. Sandra Clark, in The Elizabethan Pamphleteers, says that, “Pamphlets are the Elizabethan predecessor of the features, editorials, serials, personal columns, human interest stories and news reports of our newspapers and magazines and the pamphleteers’ professional lives as those of the freelance journalists at a disadvantage in a buyer’s market.”

You could read about the latest sensational murder and, after paranoid, believe-it-all King James followed rational Queen Elizabeth to the throne, the latest witch trial. Robert Greene published several explorations of the London underworld, like The Defense of Coney-catching. (Coneys were rubes, wide-eyed innocents. Coney-catching was slang for stealing from them by trickery.)

Confessions of prisoners were also popular. “Going to prison was a sufficiently common occurrencewitch_trial in Elizabethan times for the pamphleteers to be able to draw on a large fund of cynical and familiar notions about jail and jailors as a source of bitter humour.” You could be sent to prison for debt, among other causes we would consider trivial.

We have tons more pamphlets from the seventeenth century than the sixteenth, but once you get the hang of the language, these things are fascinating and chock-full of characters we novelists can steal without shame. Heck, they did it. Many a pamphleteer made his living repackaging other men’s work. The original writer might sneer at you, but others would think it only good sense.

Before you get carried away with this fabulous new sociological resource, Clark reminds us, “The reader who knows something of Elizabethan habits of mind will have learnt to be wary of making too simple an equation between what is stated and what was true, and so to take with a pinch of salt any claim that this material gives an authentic account of first-hand observation of contemporary life.”

News of the weird

If you thought witch trials were the weird part, you have not yet come around to the early modern world view. Many, many marvels were being discovered around the globe on a daily basis. Things you could never have imagined! Read about them all right here!

elephbigI’m not sure if this counts as local news or weird tales, but thinly veiled accounts of scandalous behavior was guaranteed to entertain at the alehouse of an evening, especially if you had some idea who was being caricatured in the report.

Travel reports were hugely popular. I think they were usually published as books, being too great a tale for eight to sixteen measly pages. But you could break a big journey into many publications, if you wanted to make more hay out of your travails. Or your publisher could.

Here we find titles with the words ‘marvellous,’ ‘wonderful,’ and ‘strange’ occurring in great frequency to signal to the reader that they would find something rare and amazing inside. This vast sub-genre includes reports of unusual weather phenomena, like earthquakes and terrible storms. The point of these reports was never the storm itself, but rather the immorality that caused them and the moral lessons to be learned.

Arthur Golding wrote in 1580, A discourse upon the Earthquake that hapned throughe This Realme of England. True to the form, there’s very little description of what actually happened. Similarly, an account of the exceptionally strong winds that blew in the winter of 1613 had little to say about actual damages. “These tempests, as they have been ill windes to blow many upon the rockes of ruine, and poverty, so have they blowne some to profit”

And then there’s the odd whale caught off the coast of Cornwall and the ever-popular monstrous kent-monsterbirth. We can still read about this sort of thing in tabloids like the Weekly World News, though that stuff has probably mostly shifted to the Internet. Free, with color pictures. Elizabethans would gobble it up.

And then there’s the social commentary, like Robert Green’s self-serving The Repentance of Robert Greene Maister of Arts, 1592. Or veiled gossip (never about the upper classes, that would be too risky.) Oliver Oatmeale, whose name and fame I borrowed for Publish and Perish, wrote titillating tales of tete-a-tetes and other amorous adventures. Like this 1595 piece with the catchy title, A quest of enquirie, by women to know, whether the tripe-wife were trimmed by Doll yea or no.

It’s about Doll Phillips who posed as a fortune-teller to scam a wealthy London widow, the owner of a tripe shop in St. Nicholas Shambles. Admitted to the widow’s home, Doll requests a snippet of the widow’s pubic hair in order to divine which of her suitors she should marry. “Once she has established a homoerotic intimacy with the widow, Doll proceeds to steal her money and jewels.” the widow is thus publicly shamed by her “trimming”, she’s forced to marry the only suitor who will have her, Nick Trickes. There are three verses of doggerel in which she laments her better days, having lots of fun with the imagery of a tripe shop. “Over our heads of tripes a canopie.. I trotted from my trotter stall…”  (from Sexual Types: Embodiment, Agency, and Dramatic Character from Shakespeare to Shirley, by Mario DiGangi. I only read this snippet. Modern literary criticism makes my hair hurt!)


Clark, Sandra. 1985. The Elizabethan Pamphleteers: Popular Moralistic Pamphlets 1580-1640. Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.

Voss, Paul J. 2001. Elizabethan News Pamphlets: Shakespeare, Spenser, Marlowe & the Birth of Journalism. Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press.

Bacon's Essays: Of Discourse

Francis Bacon at 17
Francis at 17, when he was prone to stutter when especially excited.

Of Discourse seems a bit bland, given Bacon’s own rhetorical gifts and the importance of rhetoric in Elizabethan and Jacobean culture. Still, it’s good advice, from a man who spent much of his life standing around in a monarch’s presence chamber, making small talk with visitors from abroad and other courtiers.

Bacon was much admired for his eloquence, both verbal and written, although as a young man he made some notes in his private commonplace book worrying that he sometimes spoke too fast, when he got excited about a topic, stuttering and perhaps emitting a little spit. Practice and maturity would cure those small faults.

I find the prose in this essay too dense, perhaps a little too artful. I’ll try to unpack it for us. Two helpful hints are to remember that at this time, ‘want’ also meant ‘lack,’ and ‘that’ was often used in place of ‘in order to.’

More substance, less style

“Some in their discourse, desire rather commendation of wit, in being able to hold all arguments, than of judgment, in discerning what is true; as if it were a praise, to know what might be said, and not, what should be thought.”

We all know people like this. They rattle off some quip — they think — in order to sound witty or clever, when their stupid quip actually has little to do with the topic at hand. Clever, maybe, but ill-considered.


“Some have certain common places, and themes, wherein they are good, and want variety.”

People who can only talk about their kids, or their dogs, or how much they hate their jobs… Pick up a magazine or take up a hobby, for pity’s sake! And please don’t tell us about your dreams or repeat the whole plot of whatever movie you just saw.

“The honorablest part of talk, is to give the occasion; and again to moderate, and pass to somewhat else; for then a man leads the dance.”

This is opaque. I think he’s saying, it’s best to be a director of the conversation, introducing new topics that others can then expand. That’s the gift of the skilled hostess or host at a party.

“It is good, in discourse and speech of conversation, to vary and intermingle speech of the present occasion, with arguments, tales with reasons, asking of questions, with telling of opinions, and jest with earnest: for it is a dull thing to tire, and, as we say now, to jade, any thing too far.” 

Variety is pleasing in conversation as in other things. We like to talk about current events (not necessarily politics!), mix that up with a story or two, especially stories with morals. Ask each other questions. Joke a little, but also talk seriously about some things.

Mind your jests

“As for jest, there be certain things, which ought to be privileged from it; namely, religion, matters of state, great persons, any man’s present business of importance, and any case that deserveth pity.”

jesterIn Bacon’s time, jesting about great persons could land you in jail. These days, it’s the major topic, at least among people who are sure they’re all on the same page politically. We could probably do with less of it, in my most humble opinion. More discussion of policy, less mocking of personalities.

“Yet there be some, that think their wits have been asleep, except they dart out somewhat that is piquant, and to the quick. That is a vein which would be bridled: Parce, puer, stimulis, et fortius utere loris.” (Boy, spare the spur, and more tightly hold the reins, Ovid, Metamorphosis.)

There are guys like this in my dad’s old coffee shop gang. Everything you say, they come back with some sarcastic comment, obviously intended to be clever and funny, but actually just a crashing conversation killer. You can’t talk to a person like that! 

“And generally, men ought to find the difference, between saltness and bitterness. Certainly, he that hath a satirical vein, as he maketh others afraid of his wit, so he had need be afraid of others’ memory.”

You can’t cover up your general bitterness by using joking intonation, pretending that you’re being amusing while you’re really just bringing everyone down with your endless negativity. Exploring what Bacon meant by “saltness,” I find this exact quote in the OED under the meaning “piquancy, poignancy.” Although the term also meant “lecherousness” back then. Nowadays, “salty” is an old-fashioned way of saying “sexy.”

Don’t be a poser

Lord Foppington, a fictional character

“He that questioneth much, shall learn much, and content much; but especially, if he apply his questions to the skill of the persons whom he asketh; for he shall give them occasion, to please themselves in speaking, and himself shall continually gather knowledge.”

You can learn a lot by asking people about their areas of expertise, and please them by giving them the opportunity to talk about that subject.

“But let his questions not be troublesome; for that is fit for a poser.”

Don’t just ask questions because that’s your social conversation trick. There are such things as stupid questions! You should actually be interested, or it’s just annoying.

But Bacon meant something different by the word “poser” than I thought at first. OED gives us two definitions: “A person who sets testing questions; an examiner,” and “A difficult or perplexing question; a puzzle. Also: a tricky or intractable problem.” The first dates from 1587, the second from mid-eighteenth century. They don’t have an entry for the meaning I mean when I want to be mean, “a person who acts in an affected manner in order to impress others” (from Google, I guess.) For that, OED has poseur, “A person who deliberately adopts a particular attitude or pose; a person with an affected or pretentious style or demeanour,” first citation from Putnam’s Magazine in 1869.

Don’t hog the conversation

“And let him be sure to leave other men, their turns to speak. Nay, if there be any, that would reign galliardand take up all the time, let him find means to take them off, and to bring others on; as musicians use to do, with those that dance too long galliards.”

Yes, let other people speak. This is one I have to work on, because I’m quick, verbally. I have to remember to let pauses develop so slower-talkers can get their turn.

I’m not sure what he means about the long galliards, though. Wikipedia says, “The galliard is an athletic dance, characterised by leaps, jumps, hops and other similar figures.” That sounds like fun, even as a metaphor for a lively conversation. Maybe it’s one of those dance traditions in which couples take turns occupying the center of the floor, showing off their fancy moves.

Lying, bragging, and other unpleasantries

“If you dissemble, sometimes, your knowledge of that you are thought to know, you shall be thought, another time, to know that you know not.”

jossing-affairFrancis, Francis! You’re working too hard here. Let’s see…. if you lie about something you’re supposed to know, at a later time, people will assume you know something about something about which you know nothing. You’re going to screw up your reputation by lying, that’s the main theme.

“Speech of a man’s self ought to be seldom, and well chosen. I knew one, was wont to say in scorn, He must needs be a wise man, he speaks so much of himself: and there is but one case, wherein a man may commend himself with good grace; and that is in commending virtue in another; especially if it be such a virtue, whereunto himself pretendeth.”

The first part is obvious: don’t talk about yourself too much. The second part is a great strategy, much practiced by us writers. We promote others’ books as a way of aligning ourselves with their work. It’s not sleazy if you’re sincere about it. You can say, “I love J. L. Oakley’s The Jössing Affair! It’s everything great historical fiction ought to be. I strive to provide the same kind of immersive experience for my readers.” But don’t say, “If you like Stephen King’s Whatever, you’ll love my books!” Latching onto some best-seller whose books are nothing like yours.

“Speech of touch towards others, should be sparingly used; for discourse ought to be as a field, without coming home to any man.”

I don’t know what the field has to do with it, but don’t gossip, is the message here. This is followed by an anecdote that makes no sense to me. I guess he’s trying to illustrate the thing about not speaking poorly of others.

“Discretion of speech, is more than eloquence; and to speak agreeably to him, with whom we deal, is more than to speak in good words, or in good order.”

Speak with courtesy, don’t say every dang thing that crosses your mind. Don’t be witty at the expense of a nice social interaction. (That thing the coffee house guys do.)

“A good continued speech, without a good speech of interlocution, shows slowness: and a good reply or second speech, without a good settled speech, showeth shallowness and weakness.”

What does this mean? The slowness must mean slowness of wit, but I don’t know what could be good about someone who drones on, instead of letting their interlocutors chime in. Answering too quickly can show the other speaker that you can’t bother to think about what’s being said to you.

“As we see in beasts, that those that are weakest in the course, are yet nimblest in the turn; as it is betwixt the greyhound and the hare. To use too many circumstances, ere one come to the matter, is wearisome; to use none at all, is blunt.”

Neither speak too quickly nor too slowly, is what he’s getting at here. The same theme throughout: don’t just strive to be witty. Have something of substance to say. By “circumstances,” he means “illustrations” or “examples.” This is especially important if you’re asking for a favor or something similar. Don’t just jump in and say, “Hey, can I borrow your car?” Start by explaining — briefly! — that your car is in the shop.

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