Mercurius Politicus

A blog (mostly) about early modern history

Tag: early modern

Free access to EEBO

From 22 February, readers of Early Modern Online Bibliography will have access to Early English Books Online. If you have never had a chance to use this resource than you have the next three weeks or so to try it out.

Reading early modern pamphlets

There is an interesting discussion going on over at the SHARP e-mail list about the differences between reading on paper and reading on a screen.The conclusion of most posters is that while we may not need a new word to describe reading on a screen – viewing? screening? diging? – there is nevertheless a difference between the two. Defining that difference, on the other hand, is a bit harder and is something many scholars are still thinking about.

I blogged about this a while ago, in the context of Early English Books Online (EEBO) and whether reading seventeenth-century pamphlets on screen can change how you read them. Prompted by the SHARP discussion, I’ve been doing some more thinking about this. It occurred to me that this has been an interpretative issue since before the creation of EEBO and other digital reproductions of sources. Microfilm versions of pamphlets also carry with them some of the same issues.

In the case of the Thomason Tracts, for example, a microfilm edition by University Microfilms International (UMI) has existed since 1977. This is the way that most scholars have probably read them between that time until a few years ago. Although you can print out pamphlets from both EEBO and from microfilm, both methods of access are primarily through a screen. So what are the similarities and differences between reading a pamphlet in its original format, via a microfilm reader, or through your computer monitor? And do the differences make any practical impact on how you absorb and understand the text?

My own answer is that I’m not completely sure, but I feel instinctively that there must be differences, which in turn must impact on the experience of reading. But I was worried that this instinct is more to do with the book historians I’ve been reading – for whom the importance of the reader is a pre-requisite – than anything that could be demonstrated empirically. So here are a few thoughts about how those differences might actually have a practical impact on reception.

One is colour. A bit obvious, perhaps, but microfilm often only reproduces texts in black and white. This is certainly the case with the Thomason Tracts, and in turn EEBO reproduces the microfilm edition of them so retains this monochrome reproduction. This can potentially blur the subtleties of early modern printing. Here for example are two images of the title page of John Milton’s Eikonoklastes (unfortunately I couldn’t find two versions of the same copy, although they are the same edition):

Eikonoklastes monoEikonoklastes colour

The notes page on EEBO does say that the title page is in red and black, and if you look closely you can distinguish in places where it must have been red. But it’s still very unclear. Why does this matter? One reason is in helping to distinguish between the impact of author and printer on the finished text. Was it the printer Matthew Simmons, or the author Milton, who decided to use red ink – which would have complicated the printing process significantly? Another reason is in thinking about the impact the text had on its readers. How would they have read the title page? Does it matter that the Greek letters are printed in a different colour, given that many readers would not have understood them? Does it matter that “Published by Authority” is in red, given the severe Licensing Act that the Rump Parliament had passed the month before publication had re-introduced pre-publication censorship. To answer these questions properly, you really need to look at the original edition.

Another is environment. The original Thomason Tracts have to be read in the British Library. Typically the microfilm version would also have to be read in a university library, unless you could persuade the librarian to run off copies. This imposes certain physical conditions, such as near-silence, the presence of other scholars, and the absence of other distractions. You can read EEBO at home in your dressing gown. I certainly work differently in libraries when I know I’m probably going to be there for most of the day, compared to at home where I might be snatching half an hour to have a look at something. Looking at EEBO, you also have the rest of the internet to distract you. You can imagine spotting things in one state that you might not in the other. One silly example of mine is searching late at night for something and forgetting that EEBO’s search engine doesn’t automatically include AND for strings of words. Two weeks later when I tried again at a more sensible hour I found what I was looking for. On the other hand, being able to read EEBO outside library hours does increase the time you have available to work on it. For time-limited projects like dissertations, this can make a big difference to the amount of texts you are able to read or the amount of analysis you are able to devote to a text.

A third is searchability. Apart from wider short-title catalogues, the Thomason Tracts have been catalogued at least three times: once by Thomason himself, secondly by G.K. Fortescue in a two volume edition published in 1908, and thirdly by the UMI microfilm edition. Before EEBO, you were reliant on these indexes, compiled by someone else with limited search variables, to find what you were looking for. Now you can search not just for author and title but also for subjects and keywords. Fortescue also altered Thomason’s cataloguing order and sometimes gives his own dates. In turn Thomason’s dates are more idiosyncratic than used to be thought, and don’t necessarily mean the day the pamphlet was actually published. The UMI catalogue then restored Thomason’s cataloguing. Using EEBO lets you search by Thomason’s ordering, but also by your own. Inevitably this gives you much more freedom to navigate the collection and find new things. Particularly powerful is the gradual conversion to free text that EEBO are making of early modern pamphlets. This in particular is still a greatly untapped feature when it comes to identifying links between texts, making authorial attributions, and so on. But while such freedom has its benefits – making connections that would perhaps not have been possible otherwise – it can also have its drawbacks in terms of making mistaken connections, as the story about William Lilly in the latest edition of Early Modern Literary Studies makes clear.

There is also the fact that pamphlets are three-dimensional objects made of particular materials. Again it is almost banal to point it out, but microfilm and EEBO reproduce these objects in two dimensions. Here is a title page from the royalist newsbook Mercurius Elencticus, singled out by Jason McElligott in his study of the later royalist newsbooks as an example of one printed on particularly thin paper:


You can partly deduce this from the digital version by the fact that print from the other side of the page has leached through, but you can’t get any real sense of comparison with other issues or other titles. Again, why does this matter? Partly because paper quality can tell us something about the cost of the title – how much the printer was prepared to invest in it, how much it sold for – and something about the audience – who could afford it. But in the royalist newsbooks’ case it also relates to the fact that they were produced underground in opposition to a strident Parliamentarian censorship regime, with limited access to raw materials, and printers had to make do with what they could.

Then there is the issue of resolution. All three types of media are ultimately viewed with the naked eye, but there are various ways they are mediated before we see them. Original pamphlets can be zoomed in on with a magnifying glass. Microfilm and EEBO versions can be zoomed in on mechanically or digitally. The resolution at which EEBO reproduces pamphlets could be an issue here – they can get slightly pixellated if you are looking at them at a particularly high level of zoom. On the other hand, it’s much easier to zoom on a computer than it is by hand. A ractical example of this is a pamphlet called The Perfect Politician about Oliver Cromwell, by a pseudonymous author. In his 1990 essay on Cromwell’s contemporaries, John Morrill identifies this as being by L.S.


It certainly does look like L.S. When you zoom in, though, it seems clear that it is probably by I.S and that L.S. is a misreading because of the full stop merging into the I.


The pamphlet is probably by John [Iohn] Streater, a radical and veteran of the New Model Army. Knowing this puts the pamphlet in a very different context. So the ease with which type can be examined through EEBO – despite issues with resolution – may well have an important role in bibliographic analysis of texts that have otherwise been well-examined.

These are some initial thoughts about the differences between original sources, microfilm and digital reproductions. I’m sure you’ll have more – what do you think? But in closing it occurs to me that all three have an important similarity. One thing that original pamphlet, microfilm and EEBO all have in common is a relatively static bibliographical apparatus. They all still draw on Wing’s Short-Title Catalogue  of Books Printed  in England, Scotland,  Ireland, Wales  and  British  America  and  of  English Books  Printed  in  Other  Countries  1641-1700. Some of the attributions in Wing can be dubious. The Perfect Politician is a good example of this. Here is what the information page in EEBO says:

Attributed to Henry Fletcher by Wing.
Sometimes attributed to William Raybould.

A quick look at the title page makes it obvious that Fletcher and Raybould are the booksellers, not the authors.

Perfect Politician

This misattribution is fairly easily sorted out. However there are others where it’s not so clear, or where recent scholarship has moved beyond Wing but EEBO doesn’t reference this. For me a great improvement to EEBO would be to give users the ability to set up an account with a real-life identity and let them annotate texts. You would know which scholars were working on something of interest to you; you would be able to flag where you disagreed with an attribution, giving reasons; and you could contact the person who’d made an annotation to ask them about any attributions you were unsure of. Until bibliographical catalogues go properly digital, there will remain this odd juxtaposition between digital texts and analogue descriptions.

Mr Barrington’s gelding

I’m in the midst of writing up my dissertation, hence the lack of posts in recent weeks. Most recently I’ve been going through issues of Severall Proceedings in Parliament, a newsbook set up in October 1649 under the auspices of the Commonwealth’s new licensing act. It was licensed by Henry Scobell, the clerk to the Commons, and edited by Henry Walker. In issue 9, in amongst material on the war in Ireland and reports on parliamentary legislation, is this:

Last Sunday night was lost a large Dapple grey Gelding, that paces and Trots with heat in his feet, who before had lost a dark Grey trotting mare, wall eyed, a ban[…] face, 5 years old. And a Flea-bitten grey Gelding, that paces and trots of 18 years. Mr Barrington of Colchester will give content to any that shall help him to the knowledge of them.

Walker had a habit of dropping obscure small ads into the midst of high political news, but even so I had to stifle a laugh when I read this.

Mr Barrington is, I think, Henry Barrington who was from one of Colchester’s longstanding elite families. His wealth came from brewing; he was mayor of the town in 1631, 1641, 1648 and 1658. He was an Independent who clashed with more moderate Presbyterians over government of the town. In 1653 he would go on to sit in Barebone’s Parliament.

I’ve had a look through the Essex assize records and the case never came to trial. So it’s not clear whether whether Mr Barrington ever did get his gelding back. What the records did reveal is that gelding theft seems to have been to mid-seventeenth century Essex as bike theft is to early twenty-first century Cambridge – that is to say, completely endemic. Here are all the cases of gelding thefts heard at one assizes session in Chelmsford on 26 July 1649:

  • 10 April 1649. Indictment of Thomas Albrett of Billericay labourer there stole a bay gelding worth £5, belonging to Thomas Cordwell. Pleads not guilty; guilty; to be hanged, reprieved after judgement. Witnesses: Thomas Cordwell, Edras Humfrey. (ASS 35/90/7/23)
  • 10 May 1649. Indictment of Edward Smith of Feering labourer, there stole a bay gelding worth £15, belonging to William Mihill. Ignoramus. Witness: William Mihill (ASS 35/90/7/57)
  • Indictment of William Barnes alias Avis Playse (sic) of Little Baddow labourer, 1 June 22 Chas.I, there stole a fleabitten gelding worth £5, belonging to William Meade. Ignoramus. Witness: William Meade. (ASS 35/90/7/50)
  • 24 June 1649. Indictment of William Markes of Beaumont labourer there stole a “yellow bony” gelding worth £8, belonging to James Heard. Pleads not guilty; not guilty. Witnesses. James Heard, Edward Cole. (ASS 35/90/7/41)
  • 3 July 1649. Indictment of John Rutter and William Baily of Barking, labourers, there stole a abay gelding worth £3, belonging to the same Henry. Pleads not guilty; both acquitted. Witness: John Savidge. (ASS 35/90/7/12)
  • Indictment of John Archer of “Walden” labourer, 11 July, at “Hallingbury’ stole a grey gelding worth £8, belonging to Geo, King gentleman Pleads not guilty; not guilty. Witnesses: George King, Roger Smith. (ASS 35/90/7/20)

Horse theft increased significantly during the civil wars, for obvious reasons. But even in times of relative peace it could have significant profits. In the 1590s, a ‘flea-bitten ambling gelding’ could fetch over £3. As the records above attest, typically thieves were labourers down on their luck, although there is some evidence of organised gangs operating sophisticated enterprises, with stolen horses taken outside the county and sold elsewhere. But Barrington also attracted significant criticism from the Presbyterian minority in Colchester, so it’s possible there were more personal reasons at play in the theft of his horse.

The great game?

‘Work?’ he said to me once, astonished, when I referred to our classroom activities as such. ‘Do you really think that what we do is work?’

‘What else should I call it?’

I should call it the most glorious kind of play.’

(Donna Tartt, The Secret History (Penguin, 1993), p. 34).

I’ve been reading newsbooks from the 1640s in recent months as I gear up for my dissertation. In doing so, I have increasingly kept returning to the question of why their editors wrote them. When I first started reading seventeenth-century printed books I think I had a tendency, subconscious or otherwise,  to assume that they were written either for ideological reasons, or for profit. At first glance, writing for pleasure doesn’t seem to fit with a purportedly rational public sphere.

And yet it’s hard to get away from the fact that some editors obviously took a mischievous pleasure in the act of writing. Editors personified their own and rival titles as larger-than life characters, like this woodcut of Mercurius Aulicus from Newes from Smith the Oxford jaylor (1645):


Ideological battles were often fought out in playful or mischievous language, like the attacks on Marchamont Nedham’s pro-Parliament newsbook Mercurius Britanicus over the spelling mistake in its title. Here is the anonymous author of a 1647 broadside called Queres to be considered having fun with Nedham’s spelling:

Whether Britannicus doth not repent, that hee made Hue and Cry after the King, and that whereas before hee spelt his name false, whether he wisheth not he had not spelt it at all, and whether he invoketh not Neptune to beare him safely to some forraigne Land?

Nedham’s tortuous justification for continuing with the mis-spelling basically boils down to an extended “it’s not me that can’t spell, it’s you”:

In the meane time, we have him quarelling at Britanicus for a letter, challenging him that he cannot spell his own name. Poore Aulicus! The Academicall Cur, (like a whelp of Lilly) begins to bark Criticisme, in stead of Slander. Any thing must serve now (in this low ebbe of Affaires) to helpe out the Pamphlet. But thou art mistaken; we doe not write, not read here, as you doe at Oxford: they are not able to spell one word true there; for they spell the Parliament Rebels; Popery, the Protestant Religion; Idolatrie and Superstition, Decencie; Episcopacie, Iure Divino; Reformation, Schisme &c and many such strange kind of spellings.

Part of the attraction of newsbooks was their regularity – a great innovation at the time. Save for sudden swoops by the authorities, a new edition came out every week with page numbering and content picking up where the last issue left off. Readers certainly found them addictive. The wood turner Nehemiah Wallington complained that his newsbook habit meant:

So many theeves… stole away my mony before I was aware of them.

Others shared Wallington’s habit. Thomas Juxon regularly copied extracts from newsbooks into his diary. Fighting his addiction, John Rous protested (too much) that:

The many occurences about the Parliament businesses… are extant in multitudes of bookes and papers (unto which God in mercy put an end!).

But I’ve started to wonder whether writing the news couldn’t sometimes be as addictive as reading it. Exposure to a national audience;  hundreds of copies of your title published every week; almost immediate responses, both positive and negative, in other newsbooks and pamphlets: all these could have been innovative and exhilarating for certain kinds of personality. The explosion of print in 1641 permanently changed the way that politics in England operated, giving public opinion a much wider role than ever and further opening up affairs of state to those traditionally outside the political classes. In such an environment, for some at least, writing newsbooks must have been fun.

None of this is to suggest that journalism in mid-seventeenth century England was a game. Being involved in unlicensed newsbooks in the 1640s and 1650s could be dangerous. Printers could have their presses confiscated, and printers and writers alike could be imprisoned. But reading some of the exchanges between rival editors, you do wonder whether a “glorious kind of play” had at least some role, alongside the political or financial gains that could be made, in popularising newsbooks.

Killing Noe Murder

news9a_0I’ve been reading Edward Sexby’s Killing Noe Murder for class this week, and it got me thinking about the mechanics of actually publishing controversial pamphlets.

Sexby was born around 1616 and served under Oliver Cromwell in his Ironsides during the early 1640s. By the time the New Model was formed in 1645, he was serving under Fairfax and went on to play an important role in the radicalisation of the army during the later 1640s. He famously set out his political views on the first day of the Putney debates:

The cause of our misery is upon two things. We sought to satisfy all men, and it was well; but in going about to do it we have dissatisfied all men. We have laboured to please a king and I think, except we go about to cut all our throats, we shall not please him; and we have gone to support an house which will prove rotten studs — I mean the Parliament, which consists of a company of rotten members.

After Putney, Pride’s Purge and the regicide, Sexby became an important figure for the Commonwealth and went to Bordeaux to try to influence his fellow Protestant Frondeurs and support them in their struggle. By 1655, though, like many fellow supporters of the Good Old Cause, he had fallen out of love with Cromwell and the Protectorate. He was involved in the plot by Miles Sindercombe to assassinate Cromwell in early 1657.

After the plot failed, Sexby – who was at this point in the Netherlands – wrote a pamphlet called Killing Noe Murder, giving biblical and classical humanist justifications for why Cromwell was a tyrant and could lawfully be killed. Although there is some debate about the extent of involvement, it seems likely that Sexby took the lead in writing it but perhaps in consultation with Silius Titus, the Presbyterian representative of the royalists Sexby had allied himself with against Cromwell. He introduced the pamphlet with this sardonic preface:

May it please your Highness,
How I have spent some hours of the leisure your Highness has been pleased to give me, this following paper will give your Highness an account. How you will please to interpret it I cannot tell; but I can with confidence say my intention in it is to procure your Highness that justice nobody yet does you, and to let the people see the longer they defer it, the greater injury they do both themselves and you. To your Highness justly belongs the honour of dying for the people; and it cannot choose but be unspeakable consolation to you in the last moments of your life to consider with how much benefit to the world you are like to leave it. ‘Tis then only, my Lord, the titles you now usurp will be truly yours. You will then be indeed the deliverer of your country, and free it from a bondage little inferior to that from which Moses delivered his. You will then be that true reformer which you would be thought. Religion shall be then restored, liberty asserted, and parliaments have those privileges
they have fought for.

The pamphlet seems to have arrived in London by 18 May. The Publick Intelligencer reported on that day that “divers abominable desperate pamphlets” had been scattered about the streets, including at Charing Cross and other places in the City.

The former Leveller John Sturgeon (formerly a member of Cromwell’s life guard, but since the mid-1650s an opponent of the Protectorate) was arrested on 25 May with two bundles of copies on him – about 300 in all. Two days later a search was made of St Catherine’s Dock and seven parcels with 200 copies – 1,400 in all – were found in the house of Samuel Rogers, a waterman. A bundle of 140 found near steps of a house. So perhaps 2,000 were taken out of circulation.

Many more did get circulated, though. John Thurloe wrote to Henry Cromwell on 26 May enclosing a copy:

There is lately a very vile booke dispersed abroad, called Killinge noe murder. The scope is, to stirre up men to assassinate his highnes. I have made search after it, but could not finde out the spring-head thereof. The last night there was one Sturgeon, formerly one of his highness’s life-guard, a great leveller, taken in the street, with two bundles of them under his arme. The same fellow had a hand in Syndercombe’s buissines, and fledd for it into Holland, and is now come over with these bookes. I have sent your lordship one of them, though the principles of them are soe abominable, that I am almost ashamed to venture the sendinge it to your lordship.

Thurloe’s assistant Samuel Morland wrote to John Pell at the start of June that:

There has been the most dangerous pamphlet lately thrown about the streets that ever has been printed in these times. I have sent you the preface, which is more light, but, believe me, the body of it is more solid; I mean as to showing the author’s learning, though the greatest rancour, malice, and wickedness that ever man could show – nay, I think the devil himself could not have shown more.

People paid up to 5 shillings to get hold of copies. A copy even got thrown into Cromwell’s coach.

So how did Sexby and his accomplices achieve this? The first step was maximise the numbers who could have read Killing Noe Murder had. The pamphlet is 16 pages of quarto, and hence made up of two sheets of paper. Each set of 8 pages would have been printed as follows: the numbers represent page numbers in the final book.


It was printed on cheap paper – possibly ‘pot paper’, which in the 1620s had sold for between 3s. 4d. and 4s.6d. a ream. A ream contained 500 sheets, so one ream would have supplied 250 copies of the book. The 2,000 copies confiscated by the authorities would hence have cost at least £1 for Sexby and his accomplices to commission. Of course this does not include printer’s costs: by way of comparison, in 1655 Sturgeon had paid the radical printer Richard Moone 40 shillings for 1,000 copies of A Short Discovery of his Highness the Lord Protector’s Intentions. This was 8 pages long so a work double the size might have cost 80 shillings, or £4, for 1,000 copies. Assuming on top of the 2,000 confiscated copies that perhaps another 1,000 or 2,000 copies did survive and go into circulation, the whole enterprise might have cost Sexby £12 to £16.

Parcels of the pamphlet would then have been shipped across to London. Thurloe ordered a search of Dutch boats but had no luck in finding which skipper had shipped them over. It seems likely that John Sturgeon was Sexby’s London agent when it came to receiving and distributing copies. He had fled to the Netherlands after being involved in Miles Sindercombe’s failed plot to kill Cromwell earlier in 1657, so probably accompanied the pamphlets over to England from Amsterdam.

When it came to scattering copies about London’s streets, it’s impossible to know exactly how Sturgeon achieved this. However, it seems likely that he drew on radical political and religious communities within London. Sturgeon was a member of the Baptist church of Edmund Chillenden, which met at St Paul’s. In the 1630s, Chillenden had been involved with John Lilburne in distributing subversive puritan literature, and had subsequently been involved in army politics with Sexby. It seems plausible that his church was the centre for a number of London-based Levellers and Baptists whom Sturgeon may have mobilised to help. Someone else arrested along with Sturgeon was Edward Wroughton, a haberdasher who was a member of Thomas Venner’s Fifth Monarchist congregation at Coleman Street. Members of this church were mostly young men and apprentices, who would be likely candidates for dispersing the pamphlet during the middle of the night.  So it’s possible too that a network of congregations played a part in helping Sexby.

Killing Noe Murder had an impact out of proportion to its size and the number of copies distributed. It became a major talking point and the Protectorate took significant steps to take it out of circulation and arrest its conspirators. Sadly for Sexby, he was arrested after returning to London in June 1657 to foment further assassination attempts. While being held in the Tower of London he confessed authorship of Killing Noe Murder. He died there in January 1658.

My illustration is of course of the Master DI Sam Tyler John Simms as Sexby in The Devil’s Whore. For more on Sexby and Killing Noe Murder: