J.B. Williams

by mercuriuspoliticus

A History of English Journalism to the foundation of the Gazette (1908), by J.B. Williams, is now available in its entirety to download from the Internet Archive. His chapter in the Cambridge History of English and American Literature (1907-21) is also available in full on Bartleby.

Williams’s work is important for those studying English print culture during the seventeenth century. It was the first modern history of early seventeenth-century newsbooks, and spans the trade in corantoes in the 1620s and 1630s as well as the development of the newsbook proper in the 1640s and 1650s. Much like the political histories of the period by S.R. Gardiner and C.H. Firth, it has cast a long shadow over historians’ interpretation of early modern news culture.

Williams’s narrative is Whiggish and sees the 1640s as the crucible of the modern newspaper. In particular, he introduces a cast-list of “pioneering journalists” that have influenced how historians have interpreted newsbooks and used them as sources. Williams actually wrote under a pseudonym, at least during the early stages of his career (he abandoned it in 1914 although I haven’t yet discovered why, or found much else out about his background). His real name was J.G. Muddiman, and he was a descendant of the Restoration journalist Henry Muddiman (perhaps a reason for the pseudonym). For Williams, Muddiman is a “patriarch of English journalism”:

From the founding of the Gazette, until his death in 1692, he was little less than an institution, and the reason why up to the present he has been forgotten is because he devoted himself entirely to journalism, was not a pamphleteer, and engaged in no controversies. (p. 176).

Other newsbook writers receive short shrift compared to Muddiman. Marchamont Nedham, for example, is dismissed with the following words:

He was no patriarch of journalism, invented nothing, originated nothing, and his name is chiefly to be associated with the retrogressive and decadent Mercurius Politicus. (p. 178)

Only recently have scholars like Blair Worden and Joad Raymond restored Nedham’s reputation, together with the importance of Mercurius Politicus as a publication.

By contrast, Williams is intrigued by more eccentric personalities. For example, he has a love-hate relationship with Henry Walker, the independent preacher and pamphleteer. He takes gossip and invective about Walker by his enemies at face value, eager to cast him as an ugly red-headed Judas figure (p.73), who employed a “ragged regiment of tatterdemalions, Mercuries, and hawkers” to sell his books (p. 72). But he also wants to portray Walker as an early news pioneer – pioneering the newspaper advertisement and bringing a capitalist business sense to civil war journalism. This portrait of Walker as part purveyor of titillation, part Fleet Street editor is to misunderstand his complex personality. Walker was not just a newsbook writer: he worked as an ironmonger, seems briefly to have been ordained a deacon, was a well-known preacher, and later in the 1650s ministered to a parish. Walker is still misunderstood and his works sometimes dismissed, a mistake that derives in some part from Williams’s portrait of him.

While Williams was a pioneer in trawling the Thomason Tracts for newsbooks, his scholarship is not always perfect. Writers sometimes have titles mistakenly attributed to them, or attributions made without evidence. This focus on editors also ignores the role of printers, patrons and readers in bringing newsbooks to print.

Williams was also an ardent royalist. This is obvious from the moment you open his book, where you are confronted by a print from the Thomason collection of Charles II. The link to Thomason seems to be the only sketchy link to the book, given that it stops its main narrative in 1659 a year before Charles was restored to the throne, and deals only in conclusion with what happened in the early years of the Restoration.

So why still read Williams? Partly because his fascination with gossip makes for a good read. But he’s also important because, much like Gardiner, his work set the tone for subsequent generations of scholars. His history is a good starting point for anyone interested in understanding mid-seventeenth century newsbooks, although it needs to be read alongside more recent work on the subject. The extent to which Williams was himself influenced by the powerful narratives established by contemporary newsbook writers and historians is, however, another story…