Mercurius Politicus

A blog (mostly) about early modern history

Asperity of speech

Imagine that you are a peer in the House of Lords. Another peer stands up in the chamber and says something that you feel is inappropriate. What do you do?

If this was the House of Commons, the Speaker would judge whether what was said was out of order, and intervene if it was. However, the House of Lords is self-regulating. There is no concept of “out of order” (the equivalent phrase is “undesirable”), and the Lords Speaker has no power to judge what is undesirable or to take action as a result. Instead this is the responsibility of the entire House.

So as an offended peer, it is up to you to draw the House’s attention to what has been said, and to use the right procedures to deal with it. If you are both offended and well-versed in parliamentary procedure, then you will remember the House’s Standing Order on Asperity of Speech.

This is one of a number of orders that have been agreed by the House over the centuries as a way of managing their business. This particular standing order – currently number 33 in a list of 86 – is one of the oldest, and dates back to 1626. It has its origins in an incident on 12 June in the Lords Committee for the Safety and Defence of the Kingdom, which was so shocking that the Lords Journal does not report it:

That an Accident happened at that Committee, of some Sharpness of Speech between two Lords; which the Committee thought fit to be reported to the House, that an Order might be settled, to avoid all Asperity of Speech at Committees hereafter.

The House thought it not fit to have the Words related, or the Lords named between whom they past; but referred it to the Lords Sub-committees for Privileges to set down an Order to prevent the like hereafter.

It is worth noting, though, that the Committee was considering Charles I’s requests for new supply amidst calls in the Commons for the duke of Buckingham to be impeached – and that Charles had alienated much of the Commons and the Lords in doing so. Whichever two peers were quarreling, it came only a few days before Charles dissolved Parliament altogether, so ‘sharpness of speech’ is probably a rather muted description of what was said.

The Lords Committee for Privileges came up with the following standing order in response:

To prevent misunderstanding, and for avoiding of offensive speeches, when matters are debating, either in the House or at Committees, it is for honour sake thought fit, and so ordered, That all personal, sharp, or taxing speeches be forborn, and whosoever answereth another man’s speech shall apply his answer to the matter without wrong to the person: and as nothing offensive is to be spoken, so nothing is to be ill taken, if the party that speaks it shall presently make a fair exposition or clear denial of the words that might bear any ill construction; and if any offence be given in that kind, as the House itself will be very sensible thereof, so it will sharply censure the offender, and give the party offended a fit reparation and a full satisfaction.

In other words, clarify what you said or take it back and apologise. Note that you should not actually stand up and read this standing order. You have to move that the order be read by the clerk, and this motion is debatable. It’s this debate that gives you your chance to challenge the offending peer. It is, however, a nuclear option to be used with care: as far as I can tell, there have only been five times in the last 200 years or so at which it has been debated.

In 1833, during Third Reading of the Local Jurisdiction Bill, Lord Wynford attacked the Bill but was accused by Lord Brougham (the Lord Chancellor) of getting his facts wrong. Wynford objected strongly:

I have submitted to this for a long time, but I will not be held up to ridicule in this way any longer. [Cries of “order.”]

The reading of the order did prompt an apology of sorts from Brougham, although he was able to use the wording of the order to supply his own ammunition:

The Lord Chancellor would confine himself, as far as modern usages would permit (for modern practice had somewhat modified it), to this order, and would avoid most carefully the example set by the other side, of making offensive, sharp, and taxing speeches. He trusted, that while he complied with one of the exigencies of the order, his noble and learned friend would comply with the other exigency, namely, that as “nothing offensive is to be spoken, so nothing is to be ill-taken.”

The next seems to have been in 1871, when the Earl Granville described some remarks made by Lord Oranmore and Browne as impertinent. Asked to withdraw his remark, Granville came back with this gem:

I am not unwilling to withdraw the word ‘impertinent;’ but I must say it was not pertinent.

Oranmore came back on another day and moved that the standing order be read, then addressed his objections to Granville:

Having used the strongest and most offensive expression that could be used—one that would not be permitted in any private society of gentlemen—I ask your Lordships is it becoming to use it in your Lordships House? I hope the noble Earl will not hesitate to state that he withdraws the word “impertinent,” as applied to anything I said, and which I submit he is called upon to do.

A year later the standing order was read again during Committee stage of the Parliamentary and Municipal Elections Bill, which proposed creation of a secret ballot. Many peers objected to the creation of culture of secrecy in elections, and the Duke of Richmond, who was leader of the Conservative Opposition in the Lords, led criticism of the Bill. The debate became very heated, and the Earl Granville accused the Opposition of wanting to wreck the Bill:

Noble Lords opposite are so accustomed to have their own way in matters of this sort, that they cannot conceive any course being taken except for us to vote and be beaten on every Amendment they propose.

The Marquess of Clanricarde objected and moved that the order on asperity of speech be read, which the clerk duly did. Outside observers do not seem to have been impressed. Here is the Spectator:

In a burst of petulant discontent, they tore the Ballot Bill to fragments, and then, excited by their achievement, danced a war dance over its remains, flourishing their tomahawks at each other, till Lord Clanricarde, of all human beings, was obliged to recall them to decorum and sense by asking the Clerk to read a sort of private Riot Act, which the Peers, it would seem, keep up to prevent themselves from becoming too disorderly.

The next occasion the order came up was in 1950, when in a debate on “communists in public service”, Lord Vansittart criticised the Bishop of Bradford for writing a pamphlet in which he was alleged to have argued that Soviet Russia was spreading Christ’s message, and described a socialist vicar as a potential killer. The Bishop was not in the chamber at the time, and a couple of months later Viscount Stansgate moved that a motion of regret be agreed:

That this House, ever jealously regarding the Privilege of Parliament, is no less zealous to provide against its abuse, and regrets that the Lord Vansittart, in the speech which he made in this House on March 29 last, did not use due care in the exercise of the Privilege of Parliament.

The Marquess of Exeter intervened to move that the standing order on asperity of speech be read instead, anticipating an ill-tempered debate. Stansgate focused in particular on the accusations against the socialist vicar:

I am not a lawyer, but I cannot imagine a grosser criminal libel against any man. Yet we are asked (for we are all judges—we are all sitting Speaker to-day) to give the privilege of Parliament to the noble Lord in the use of words of that kind against a man with whose political opinions and beliefs most of us in this House disagree.

The Bishop of Bradford also weighed in against Vansittart with some choice words:

The fact of the matter is that if you disagree with the noble Lord you must expect some epithets quite soon, and the fact that they may be mutually contradictory epithets does not matter. I should like to end by suggesting that before he next selects his epithets, the noble Lord should ask himself rather carefully whether they do not come under the ban of the Ninth Commandment.

Vansittart was not restrained in his response:

Well, the noble Viscount has come out and called me, in the most ostentatious manner, the equivalent of a liar. I shall, of course, retort to that by saying that by so doing he has taken his ticket and labelled himself as a fellow passenger of fellow-travellers.

Viscount Addison, the Leader of the House, eventually intervened to ask that Viscount Stansgate not pursue his original motion, using a procedural device of a question on whether Stansgate’s motion should be moved:

There is no Speaker. We rule ourselves. We rule by the good will and common consent of every individual Peer, and we have no other rule. I think that that is one of the reasons why the debates of this House are so highly esteemed. Therefore the careful refraining from any misuse of our privileges is, I think, a stern duty that falls upon every one of us… With the greatest possible respect to my noble friend Viscount Stansgate, whom I have known and loved for forty years, I am going to ask him not to press his Motion. I want this House to shut this business down.

Stansgate was unrepentant:

My Lords, we Nonconformists have a hymn: Dare to be a Daniel, dare to stand alone. That is what I propose to do.

The House then divided on the question of whether Viscount Stansgate’s motion should be put, but a majority disagreed – so neither Stansgate’s motion nor the standing order were agreed or read.

The last time the order was actually read was in 1998, during a debate on the Teaching and Higher Education Bill. Amongst other things, this Bill established the current system of student loans. Lord Whitty, the Government Whip leading the Bill in the Lords, accused a number of peers of hypocrisy in purporting to represent students’ views. The Earl Russell – appropriately enough, given his life outside the Lords as a historian of the seventeenth century – moved that the order be read. On this occasion it wasn’t debated but immediately pushed to a division, which was passed by 169 votes to 98. The clerk then read the order.

Immediately afterwards, Lord Richard – who was the Leader of the House – suggested that the House adjourn for a short break. This is the Parliamentary equivalent of a pub landlord saying “come on mate, you’ve had a good night but it’s time to go home”. When proceedings resumed, Lord Whitty clarified that he had not intended any personal attack by what he had said, and the House got on with the business before it.

Check your privilege

Another post where I bemoan the fact that it’s been too long since I’ve written anything for this blog. But I thought I would spend the next few posts looking at the procedures of Parliament during the seventeenth century, and how they have influenced Parliamentary procedures today. This first post is about the roles of the House of Commons and the House of Lords in matters of spending and taxation.

Most bills that pass through Parliament involve some sort of public expenditure of one kind of another. They might require Government to fund a service to the public or a particular group, for example, or to finance a regulatory framework that applies to business or charities. For this sort of bill, the Commons will agree a “money resolution”. These tend to follow a standard format along the following lines:

That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the bill, it is expedient to authorise—

(1) the payment out of money provided by Parliament of any expenditure incurred by a Minister of the Crown by virtue of the Act, and

(2) any increase attributable to the Act in the sums payable under any other Act out of money so provided.

Some bills are so-called “money bills”, which deal solely with national taxes or loans. Some are “supply bills”, dealing with changes to taxation or public spending. In practice these two categories can overlap, but for Bills that fall into either category, the Commons will agree a “ways and means resolution”, which authorises any charges or taxes made on the public as a result of the Bill, and the payment of any sums into the Consolidated Fund (the Consolidated Fund is essentially the Government’s current account, managed by the Treasury).

For bills that start in the Lords and then transfer to the Commons, rather than the other way round, this causes a potential difficulty. A bill that is passed from the Lords to the Commons may well involve matters relevant to financial privilege, and in constitutional terms it will have been the Lords which has agreed them and suggested them to the Commons. The Lords get round this difficulty by agreeing a “privilege amendment” to a bill just after it has had its Third Reading – the point just before it is taken to the Commons. These follow a standard format:

Nothing in this Act shall impose any charge on the people or on public funds, or vary the amount or incidence of or otherwise alter any such charge in any manner, or affect the assessment, levying, administration or application of any money raised by any such charge.

For most bills this will very likely not be the case, but it is a convenient fiction that allows the Commons to pretend its privilege has not been infringed. The Commons then removes the amendment from the Bill at Committee stage – the first point at which the bill can be amended – which means that in theory they are the first and only House to agree provisions that relate to public expenditure or taxation.

In part the financial privilege of the Commons is enshrined in statute: section 1 of the Parliament Act 1911 provides that if a money bill having been agreed by the Commons is not passed by the Lords within a month, the bill receives Royal Assent regardless. In practice the Lords has never tried to amend a money bill, so this has not been put to the test. But the concept of financial privilege goes back a lot further than a hundred years. It has its origin in two resolutions made by the Commons in the 1670s.

The first was in April 1671, in the context of amendment made by the House of Lords to the Foreign Commodities Bill. The Bill sought to increase duties on tobacco and sugar imports. Owners of Barbados sugar plantations persuaded a number of peers that it would not be desirable to have duties on refined sugar, as otherwise they would have to export unrefined sugar and lose any profits they made from refining it before export. The Commons responded as follows to the amendment made by the Lords:

The House then proceeded to the Reading the Amendments and Clauses, sent from the Lords, to the Bill for an Imposition on foreign Commodities: Which were once read:And the first Amendments, sent from the Lords, being for changing the Proportion of the Impositions on white Sugars from One Peny per Pound, to Halfpeny half Farthing, was read the Second time; and debated.Resolution against Lords altering Tax Bills.

Resolved, &c. Nemine contradicente, That, in all Aids given to the King, by the Commons, the Rate or Tax ought not to be altered by the Lords.

Commons Journal, 13 April 1667.

The second was in July 1678, in a supply bill to pay off soldiers recruited by Charles II for a potential war with France that ended before it had really started, as a result of other European states (which had been at war much longer) beginning negotiations for peace treaty with Louis XIV. Twists and turns in the negotiations resulted in the Dutch asking Charles to put his plans for disbanding his troops on hold, and the Lords amended the dates in the bill accordingly.  The Commons responded as follows:

Mr. Solicitor General reports from the Committee to whom it was, amongst other things, referred, to prepare and draw up a State of the Rights of the Commons, in Granting of Money, a Vote agreed by the Committee: Which he read in his Place; and afterwards delivered the same in at the Clerk’s Table: Where the same was read; and, upon the Question, agreed; and is as followeth; viz.

Resolved, &c. That all Aids and Supplies, and Aids to his Majesty in Parliament, are the sole Gift of the Commons: And all Bills for the Granting of any such Aids and Supplies ought to begin with the Commons: And that it is the undoubted and sole Right of the Commons, to direct, limit, and appoint, in such Bills, the Ends, Purposes, Considerations, Conditions, Limitations, and Qualifications of such Grants; which ought not to be changed, or altered by the House of Lords.

Commons Journal, 3 July 1678.

It’s worth noting that the two scenarios had very different outcomes. In the second, the Commons solved the problem of its privilege being infringed by incorporating the Lords amendments into a new Bill. In the first, the bill fell because neither House could agree it. Both issues came up during the process of what is nowadays known informally as “ping pong” – or in technical terms, as Lords Consideration of Commons’ amendments (where the bill has started in the Lords then moved to the Commons) and Commons consideration of Lords’ amendments (where the bill has started in the Commons then moved to the Lords). Amendments made in one House can be batted back and forth to the other House, until the point both Houses are content.

Financial privilege can still cause issues at ping pong. There is a convention that if the same amendment is insisted upon twice by one House, and the other House rejects it, the entire bill falls. This is the case even if the disagreement is about a single clause. Financial privilege can be used by the Commons as a means of rejecting Lords amendments, although it’s also open to the Commons to waive their privilege if they choose to do so. Most recently, financial privilege caused issues for the passage of the Welfare Reform Act 2012. When the relevant bill passed from the Commons to the Lords, the Lords made over 100 amendments. These then passed to the Commons to consider in the first stage of ping pong.

46 of these engaged financial privilege. The Commons agreed to 35 of them, but voted against 11 of them and passed the Bill back to the Lords without them. The reason they gave for rejecting them was that they:

would alter the financial arrangements made by the Commons, and the Commons do not offer any further Reason, trusting that this Reason may be deemed sufficient.

Commons Reasons and Amendment, January 2012.

It is the convention that where the Commons disagrees with an amendment made by the Lords, and that amendment invokes financial privilege, that this is the reason given in response – even if it is not in fact the actual reason that the Commons has disagreed. It is the Commons – in practice, its clerks – which decides whether an amendment invokes financial privilege, not the Government.

It is also the convention that the Lords will not insist on an amendment that is rejected for reasons of financial privilege: in other words, that they will not pursue “double insistence”, which results in the bill falling. But it is open to the Lords to send back a different amendment in lieu of the first, in the hope that the Commons will agree this instead.

When the Welfare Reform Bill was returned from the Commons citing financial privilege as the reason for rejecting the 11 Lords amendments, it caused some controversy and suggestions that the Commons was defining financial privilege extremely widely, and that the Goverment was able as a result to use its majority in the Commons to impose the will of one House. The debate in the Lords on this matter on 14 February 2012 is worth reading in this respect. The Lords ended up suggesting variations on the amendments, some of which were Government suggestions but two of which were not – the latter dealing with the “bedroom tax” reducing housing benefit for claimants considered to have a spare room.

The Commons then disagreed with these two further amendments when they were sent back to them by the Lords. The Lords in turn suggested another amendment in lieu, requiring the Government to review the provisions six months after implementation. The Commons accepted this, and the bill as a result was able to receive Royal Assent.

So 350 years or so on, the issues that were exercising MPs and peers during the reign of Charles II are still of significant constitutional importance to MPs and peers today. The comparisons with the 1670s were not lost on peers debating the bedroom tax, but nor was the potential to disagree about the extent to which there was a smooth line connecting one to the other. Here for example is Lord Strathclyde speaking for the Government in the debate on 14 February:

Even for a Conservative, the financial privilege of the House of Commons cannot be considered new. Its origins lie in the constitutional settlement that followed our civil war. The Commons agreed its first resolution on the subject in 1671, and in 1678 resolved that:

“All aids and supplies, and aids to his Majesty in Parliament, are the sole gift of the Commons; and all bills for the granting of any such aids and supplies ought to begin with the Commons; and that it is the undoubted and sole right of the Commons to direct, limit and appoint in such bills the ends, purposes, considerations, limitations, and qualifications of such grants, which ought not to be changed or altered by the House of Lords”.

And here is the response in the same debate from the Labour peer Lord Morgan, who is also (as will become clear) a historian:

Lord Morgan: My Lords, I will just say that I am afraid I do not agree with my noble friend Lord Tyler on this.

Noble Lords: He is not your noble friend.

Lord Morgan: Well, sometimes he is-but the view that we heard is historically flawed. The idea that there has been a seamless web since 1671 is quite unsound. As we know, the Parliament Act defined money Bills very precisely. It did so in the spirit of the resolutions of the 1670s. Distinctions were drawn between where the money came from, which was spelt out very clearly, the intended objective and the issues governing its expenditure. It was confirmed in 1911 by the great Prime Minister Mr Asquith that the money Bills provision applied to what he called “all matters of pure finance”. There was agreement across the House that it would not be applied to financial privilege more generally, particularly where issues of social policy were concerned. This is why very often House of Lords amendments had waivers in the House of Commons on many things-including, recently, university tuition fees, the savings gateway and child trust funds, all issues that I discussed myself. The principle that this should now be extended to any implications for public expenditure is far wider than the Parliament Act 1911, and adds a new and unwelcome principle to our unfortunately unwritten constitution.

Incidentally the exchange at the start of this last extract is because Lord Morgan got his forms of address wrong. In the Lords peers refer to each other in the third person as “noble Lords”. Members of the same political party call each other “my noble friend”. Lord Tyler, whom Lord Morgan was addressing, is a Liberal Democrat and so not – at least in the context of the Lords chamber – a noble friend to Labour peers.

The Perne and Ward libraries

The Perne and Ward Libraries is a new blog about the libraries at Peterhouse, Cambridge.

The Perne is one of the secret wonders of Cambridge. Based around the bequest left to the college by Andrew Perne, Master of Peterhouse from 1553 to 1589, it contains many other early modern books too, making around four thousand volumes in all. The books are housed in beautiful seventeenth-century shelving and furniture: to see quite how stunning the library is, read my previous post about the Perne here.

The Ward, apart from being where I spent every waking hour between March and May of 2001 frantically cramming for my finals, is Peterhouse’s undergraduate library, housed in Cambridge’s former Museum of Classical Archaeology. 

The first post is about Richard Crashaw, metaphysical poet and fellow of Peterhouse from 1637 until he was ejected in 1644. 

Clarendon

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Today is the anniversary of the birth of Edward Hyde, first Earl of Clarendon: adviser to Charles I and Lord Chancellor under Charles II, and author of the History of the Rebellion and Civil Wars in England.

I first read bits of of Clarendon’s history of the civil wars while an undergraduate, returned to it again in extracts as a postgraduate, but became gripped by it when I killed some of my commute by reading it all the way through a few years ago, having downloaded a free version from Google Books. It remains one of the great narratives of England’s troubles during the mid-seventeenth century, and not just because of Clarendon’s ability as a writer to capture in a single phrase the essence of the period’s key figures: describing John Hampden, for example, as having ‘a head to contrive, a tongue to persuade, and a hand to execute any mischief’, or Oliver Cromwell as a ‘brave bad man’. It’s also because he managed that rare thing of being both protaganist and commentator, combining first-hand knowledge of the political intricacies of the period with a much wider understanding, inspired by his readings in Roman history, of the compromises inherent in any political regime. Of course his views are partial, and he makes that clear from his first sentence: expressing his intention that ‘posterity may not be deceived, by the prosperous wickedness of these times’. But it has taken modern historians a long time to rediscover some of Clarendon’s insights: for example, that ‘paper-skirmishes’ went hand in hand with actual combat, as in this passage:

There was one circumstance not to be forgotten in the march of the Citizens that day, when the shew by Water was little inferior to the other by Land, that the Pikemen had fasten’d to the tops of their pikes, and the rest in their hats or their bosoms, printed Papers of the Protestation which had been taken and enjoyned by the House of Commons the year before for the defence of the Privilege of Parliament; and many of them had the printed Votes of the King’s breaking their Privileges in his coming to the House, and demanding their Member.

As a pamphleteer for the royalist cause, of course, Clarendon was closer than most the world of ‘paper bullets’ that he foregrounds in his account of the outbreak of the wars. Perhaps it’s this that means the History is still remarkably fresh for a modern reader, much closer in spirit to contemporary political diaries like those of Tony Benn or Alan Clark than to a drier work of political commentary.

All of which means I thought I should break my rather long period of silence here to mark Clarendon’s anniversary. There are various free editions of the History on Google Books and the Internet Archive, as well as a modern selection of extracts edited by Paul Seaward. The best book about Clarendon’s own role in the English civil wars remains, 62 years on, Brian Wormald’s Clarendon: Politics, History and Religion. Wormald was a retired fellow at my college when I was an undergraduate: in retrospect I would rather my only encounter with him had been to talk to him about the book, rather than him catching me climbing over a wall taking a shortcut to the pub.

The engraving of Clarendon is a print by David Loggan after Sir Peter Lely, from around the 1660s or 1670s: AN394659001, © the Trustees of the British Museum.

Then and now

Westminster Hall on the first day of the legal year circa 1750, when the hall was still a courtroom:

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The same view yesterday, the day after Parliament rose for the Christmas break:

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First image is an engraving sold by the printsellers Robert Laurie and James Whittle of the Golden Buck at 53 Fleet Street in 1797, based on an earlier state dating back to c. 1750 or so. AN1082748001, © the Trustees of the British Museum.

Second image taken by me on my way through to the Commons gift shop to finish my Christmas shopping.

Observations upon an inquiry

Some scattered thoughts about the section of the Leveson Inquiry report titled “A brief history of press freedom in the United Kingdom”. You can find this at part B2 of volume 1, starting at page 58.

  • The chapter’s sub-title is “A brief history of press freedom in the United Kingdom”. Not “A brief history of the relationship between the press and the state in the United Kingdom”, or even “the newspaper industry and the state in England” (which is what the report is really about). Much of the legislation the report cites was targeted at all printed materials, and indeed before the early seventeenth century the concept of printed news or a printed news industry is a bit problematic. This is an important distinction, given the extent to which the various Licensing Acts of the seventeenth century are being referenced by media commentators arguing against statutory regulation. They are not particularly apt historical parallels with Leveson’s idea of a statutory backstop for the Press Complaints Commission.
  • The report presumes that the pre-modern state was able, if it wished, to control or suppress the content and output of printed publications. While there are certainly examples of early modern states preventing publication, altering content, and taking books out of circulation once printed, there are many more of states failing to do so. And there are lots of examples, too, of authors falling into line with licensing when it suited them (not least John Milton, of whom more below). The story of press and state interaction is much messier than a simple narrative of bureaucratic, censoring governments seeking to crack down on radical libertarian journalists who might otherwise have let daylight in on the workings of government.
  • The report doesn’t distinguish between political regulation of printed texts and mechanisms to regulate economic ownership and exploitation of the same texts. The 1538 proclamation by Henry VIII that the report cites was linked to the break with Rome and required those writing, printing or selling religious texts to have them examined by a representative of the king or the church. The report claims the proclamation was linked to the Stationers’ Company, but this wasn’t actually incorporated until 1557 – the point at which its charter began the procedure of stationers registering their rights to a text by entering their name and the book’s title in the Company’s Register. For the Stationers’ Company, cracking down on ‘rogue’ printers and booksellers was cementing it and its members’ economic position. Considerations of profit like this are largely missing from the report’s narrative, despite the fact that profit has, since the beginning of the English news industry been at the heart of the trade’s relations with the state.

It’s interesting that the report focuses – like many broadsheet and tabloid editorials of the last few weeks – on John Milton as a crusader for press liberty. But Milton is much more complicated a historical figure than this. Despite writing Areopagitica in the 1640s he went on to play an important role in the Commonwealth’s system for licensing printed newsbooks during the 1650s. Milton’s life was full of so many ambiguities like this that he is actually a fairly apt metaphor for how complicated the relationship between press and state is.

Of course the section in the Leveson report that deals with the news trade’s history is only a few pages out of hundreds, and so it has to simplify things by default. But it does make me wonder if, in creating black-and-white narratives about how modern problems have arisen, we are pushed – consciously or sub-consciously – towards black-and-white answers. The report’s bibliography doesn’t, as far as I can tell, cite any works by academic historians. Would the inquiry have benefited from calling historians as expert witnesses, or by setting out a longer, messier analysis of the development of the news trade?

Crowdsourcing the early modern blogosphere

It has been far too long since I posted anything here: the last few months have been exceptionally busy, and once you get out of the rhythm of blogging it’s hard to get back into it. But I thought I should break my silence to link to Newton Key’s draft article on the early modern blogosphere, which you can find an open source peer review version of here.

Newton has been blogging himself over at Early Modern England since 2007, so is well-placed to offer a critical analysis of how early modern blogging has developed over the last decade or so. His argument, which I have a lot of sympathy with, is that blogs about early modern history have lots in common with the ways in which people in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries conceived of, produced, shared and engaged with knowledge and information. Whether it’s sharing the ideas of others with commentary, back and forth debate, creative reimagining of texts as they are shared, reused and reworked, or heated debates and flame wars, all of these have their equivalents in early modern print and manuscript cultures.

How much of this is a product of the interests of early modern bloggers? As Newton notes, a lot of the early modern blogosphere is focused on English history; a lot of bloggers are from the UK and the US; and a lot are interested in book history (widely defined). It’s not surprising that at least some of us have gone into blogging with an eye to text, genre and medium-related parallels. I certainly started blogging with at least some sense of the similarities it had with authorship and publication in the early modern period. My choice of title for this blog was very deliberate, although in retrospect part of me wishes I’d picked Perfect Diurnall (if only because I think a lot of people got me and another blogger I’d rather not be mistaken for confused for a time). And there was a point after I finished my Masters where I wondered more explicitly about some of the parallels.

Part of me, though, wonders whether the parallels that Newton identifies are more a product of certain characteristics inherent in both early modern and twenty-first century genres and media. We are used to thinking of blogging as a social medium (social media being one of those phrases that is so widely used that one can forget what it actually means). We’re probably less used, at least until recently, to thinking about pamphlets and letters as social media too: but early modern cultures of animadversion, annotation and text-sharing owe a fair amount to some of the inherent material and textual qualities of these media. Some of the parallels may be simply be a by-product of similarities between blogs and early modern media.

I was particularly interested by Newton’s attempt to bring network analysis to the early modern blogosphere, which is (I think) the first time anyone has tried to do this. I’m not entirely convinced by the metric he uses – blogrolls, which at least some of us have gradually ceased to maintain in recent years – but it is noteworthy that certain key hubs do emerge within the network he maps. Sharon Howard’s blog is one obvious one, and indeed it’s thanks to Sharon that there was an early modern blogosphere at all, at least during the late 2000s (I was certainly inspired by her blog and I suspect others who started blogging around the same time as me were, too). One that doesn’t appear on Newton’s map, but I think deserves to be there, is Gavin Robinson’s site, which certainly between around 2007 to 2009 was the focus for a lot of really innovative experimentation with blogging as a form, and of lots of discussion in the comments. Going further back, Blogging the Renaissance was the focus early on of a small but lively community of posters and commenters.

One further parallel that strikes me, which Newton does not raise in his article, is that the difficulties facing a scholar trying to analyse early modern blogs are not unlike those facing their counterpart trying to analyse early modern texts. Much of the writing, production and sale of early modern texts must have happened in ways that have not survived in the sources, in particular through spoken conversations. Many texts simply haven’t been preserved for us to read. And the anonymity of some writers, many printers and booksellers, and nearly all of those otherwise involved in the production and reception of texts, brings a similar challenge. These are problems that anyone writing the history of blogs also has to grapple with. It’s too easy to think of digital sources as somehow more permanent than material ones, but of course that’s not true: bloggers stop blogging, sites get closed down or pulled, and they aren’t always preserved at the Internet Archive or elsewhere. Anyone trying to reconstruct the controversy sparked by several posts and comments by Mercurius Rusticus, for example, now only has one side of the debate to analyse. None of Rusticus‘s own posts are now online, although some of the comments he (and I’m presuming it was a he) left on other blogs survive.

And of course the lack of sources goes a lot deeper than that. Early modern bloggers are, I think, largely a virtual or imagined community, rather than a physical one (in the sense that I’ve met few other bloggers in real life – I think I can count four I’ve met, and two of them I knew as friends before they started blogging anyway). But like any community, its members communicate with each other in lots of different ways. There are e-mails, Twitter DMs, Facebook messages and so on sitting in inboxes and archive folders at the moment which would probably produce a rather different picture of the network between early modern blogs – not to mention conversations at conferences and in the pub. Already, despite the infancy of the early modern blogosphere, a lot is probably lost to those wanting to study it.

But that’s not to say, as with any historical topic, we can’t try to recover what’s lost. Newton’s article is a good start, and it’s only appropriate – given his argument – that he’s put a draft version up for peer review via WordPress. So go and have a read, and annotate it in the style of a sixteenth-century scholar; or do what a seventeenth-century pamphleteer would have done, and leave an answer, rejoinder or animadversion here.