Medieval Newspapers

by His Lordship Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno)
Orignally published in the October 2005, A.S. XLI issue of the Dragonflyre, a publication of the Barony of Vatavia.

Newspapers as we understand the term did not appear until the first quarter of the 17th century. But they did not spring forth fully formed, but are the result of earlier developments, particularly of the previous century and a half. It is these antecedents that this essay will explore.

For convenience sake the word newspaper will be used to refer to written matter containing stories of current events. The term itself was not coined till 1670. Prior to this a welter terms were used to describe this item including: paper, newsbook, pamphlet, broadsheet, or coranto.

The passing of news is as old as history. But for most of that time it was mostly done orally, the providence of skalds, bards, heralds, troubadours, and anybody else whose profession kept them traveling.

As writing developed, it almost became obligatory for private letters to contain reports of significant events of interest. Beginning around the 14th century a system developed where letters of news and philosophical discussion would be sent to a central collecting point to be bundled and sent around to the various correspondents. The banking house of Fugger had an organized system of collecting and routing these letters, which often could be seen by outsiders. This system would not die until the 18th century.

It was not until the invention of printing, with the corresponding increase in literacy, that the idea of a newspaper began to grow. These first efforts could be roughly be broken into three forms. There was the broadsheet ballad and the single sheet book, both focused on a single event, and the annual or semi-annual budget.

The broadsheet ballad began as simply as a printed version of the oral tradition of news transmission. As demand for these increased their connection to music became increasing tenuous. Most were very formalistic and deservedly quickly forgotten, though some survived to become part of folklore tradition. The newsbook was one or two sheets of paper folded to form eight to twelve pages. They are commonly referred to as pamphlets, though occasionally the more technical term quarto is also used. The budgets were collections of miscellaneous news items from the previous six months or year, a sort of early yearbook.

The first printed account of an event was the “The Trewe Encounter” by Richard Faques about the battle of Flodden shortly after the battle in 1513. In 1563, Venice would regularly print newssheets on the course of the war with Turkey. (The cost of hearing one of these newssheets read was a coin called a gazeta from which the world gazette came from.) Pamphlets were regularly being published in Germany by the 1560s, and in England by the 1590s.

While the first recognizable newspaper began publishing in Antwerp around 1605, in the early 1590s, English printers produced a series of pamphlets detailing the campaigns of Henry of Navarre and his English allies against the Catholic League. While not the work of a single printer, collectively they provided a continuing narrative of the events. But they were not unbiased as they consistently portrayed continual success. The series ended with the conversion of Henry to Cat holism.

The format of the stories was almost always in the form of a letter. While the correspondent was usually anonymous, he was described as honorable and creditable. The stated purpose of the letter was to relay the “true” circumstances of a given event. This did not mean that the story that followed was objective in the sense we use now. Instead the story would be used to illustrate the “truth” as the correspondent saw it, usually by demonstrating God’s will.

The nature of the news items published spanned the gauntlet. From official proclamations, to partisan declarations, to sensational murders and widespread disasters, to miraculous wonders all found an outlet. Somber tales of war and religion vied with sensational tales of scandal and murder. Every story had a viewpoint or a moral to push. Commentary mixed with facts, and often was the bulk of the tale. Thus news was published not so much to report the events of the day but as a means of illustrated the state of society, to glorify a patron, to excoriate the opposition, or to rectify real or imagined slights.

The government understood the power of the press and kept strict control over the number of presses and what they printed. Thus much that was printed contrary to official positions was mostly done abroad. They had their own printers, and anything about the government that did not come from these presses usually resulted in tough times for those who did it even if it did not contradict policy. All the usual tricks seen today: propaganda, disinformation, spin-doctoring and unofficial leaks can all be found among the products of these presses.

Many writers of these accounts were amateurs in the sense that it was not the main source of their income. While there were some who published items from an altruistic sense that these items need to be more broadly known, most had an axe to grind. Many others wrote for pamphlets as a way of making money while they awaited recognition for their more respectable works. Another major source of material were translations from foreign sources.

We all crave to know what is happening. Over the past four centuries we satisfied that craving via newspapers. As a child of the printing press, they did not appear until the end of the Renaissance. And like most things, progress was uneven. While the general populace was illiterate, that did not decrease their popularity, and print runs were unusually large for the time (600 to 800 copies). That few of these survive is a testament to their ephemeral nature. And while the new letter you hold was done by the most modern of methods, it firmly has its roots in the Renaissance.



Clark, Sandra. The Elizabethan Pamphleteers: Popular Moralistic Pamphlets, 1580-1640. Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1983.

Shaaber, M.A.. Some Forerunners of the Newspaper in England: 1476-1622. New York: Octagon Books, 1966.

“Soundy , Phillip, and George Unwin. "Publishing." The New Encyclopedia Britannica. 26. 1994. pp 473-474.

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


Copyright © 1997 - present His Lordship Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno). All rights reserved.

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