Pamphlet wars

by Nick

I’ve had a paper accepted for the Birkbeck Early Modern Society conference in July. The full programme can be found here. My paper will be on the pamphlet war that took place between John Taylor and Henry Walker in the summer of 1641. This dispute is quite a celebrated one, not least because of the imagery the two employed in their pamphlets. You can read more about the dispute in Bernard Capp’s biography of Taylor, and see a sample woodcut from one of the pamphlets here.

Below is an abstract for the paper.

In 1641 a pamphlet war broke out between John Taylor, a waterman, and Henry Walker, an ironmonger. The pamphlets the pair fired back and forth became increasingly graphic and offensive, dredging up old gossip and using scatological woodcut caricatures. This encounter is seen by some historians as an ideological conflict that prefigured the outbreak of the English civil war in 1642: Taylor and Walker, after all, would go on to be propagandists for king and Parliament respectively. By contrast, other historians – focusing on the offensive content of the later pamphlets – have seen Taylor and Walker as Grub Street hacks, happy to write trashy pamphlets in return for profit.

However, previous studies of this literary encounter have limited their focus to the authors and their texts. This paper sets out a more detailed analysis of the dispute. It examines every player involved in the “communication circuit” that brought the pamphlets into print – not just authors but also printers, booksellers and readers. It argues that the dispute’s form and content was shaped by the creative tensions between these groups, each of which in turn can only be understood by subjecting them to rigorous political, social and economic contextualisation. In doing so, the paper argues that the dispute operated on a number of levels. It was simultaneously both ideological and profit-driven; both a bitter feud and a literary spat between colleagues; both highbrow and crude. This more nuanced analysis has wider implications for historians’ understanding of the sophistication and complexity of print culture in the early 1640s.