Decoding pamphlets

There is a brilliant article by Jason Peacey in the November edition of Historical Research. The politics of British union in 1642 and the purpose of civil war pamphlets is about a work by Henry Parker called The Generall Junto [link goes to EEBO]. Peacey argues that, while historians have been prepared to contextualise such works up to a point – recognising that they are not just a text to be mined for facts or abstractly scanned for political thought – nevertheless, some contemporary pamphlets may be capable of much deeper contextual analysis.

Peacey starts by analysing the ideas in the pamphlet, locating them in a political and intellectual context that was pro-union between England, Scotland and Ireland, but also pro-parliamentarian. He also analyses the context of Parker’s social and political relationships – in which he had a close relationship Viscount Saye and Sele’s circle within the wider Warwick-Bedford-Pym-St John junto. He argues that historians have been misled by George Thomason’s comment that the text was printed “at the charge of Sir John Danvers”, demonstrating that this was not just a lobby text written for cash by Parker for Danvers, but a text written as part of a concerted campaign to keep the junto’s coventanter allies on board.

So far Peacey’s contextualisation is a fairly standard approach to analysing pamphlets. Drawing on work in other periods that argues that textual meaning is tightly intertwined with the printed form of a work and with what its readers made of it, he subjects the pamphlet to one further level of contextualisation. For a start there is its unusual format – 32 pages but printed in folio rather than quarto. The preface also highlights the wide margin “that a better pen, and direction, might change and supply my failing invention”. The pamphlet was not published – instead, fifty copies were produced and distributed to key players in the contemporary political scene. Thankfully, some of those copies have survived, and Peacey traces the reasons why those we know were targeted were included. Thomason’s surviving copy, which is part of the Thomason Tracts collection in the British Library, seems to have been a private copy. But there is a copy in the Bodleian Library which was given to John Selden, a copy in the Newberry Library given to the earl of Bath, a copy in the National Library of Scotland was given to the marquis of Hamilton… and so on.

Peacey brilliantly reconstructs how the pamphlet targeted both friends, waverers and enemies of the junto in an attempt to address concerns – and did so through a brilliantly ambiguous text that contains views at various point almost diametrically opposed to each other. For example, Charles’s rule over Ireland was justified by both conquest and consent. As Peacey puts it, “Parker had to construct a text to say things which would be read differently by each recipient”. Thus Peacey is able to reconstruct the impact of the pamphlet in a way that would not have been possible by just reading it as a published text, or a work of political thought. As a result he adds hugely to our understanding of how politics was conducted in the early 1640s.

Peacey has written more on his techniques for decoding pamphlets in his book Politicians and Pamphleteers, but if you’re after a starting point, then I’d definitely recommend his recent article. It’s one of those articles you read and think “I wish I’d written that”.

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