Book Review: An Anatomy of an English Radical Newspaper

What is a newspaper? What are the different roles that newspapers have played in the past and what role(s) should they play today? Recent changes in the media landscape have led to a renewed interest in these questions. But the English term newspaper has always been somewhat misleading. The French term journal is suggestive of a unit of time (the day) but lacks explicit reference to the material form of the publication or its subject matter. The English term brings both to the surface: news-paper. Today the paper part of the term may seem like a reminder of another era in which physical newspapers were delivered to doorsteps, unfolded and refolded in Tube carriages, and left on public benches for the next person to enjoy or discard. News is increasingly encountered on computer screens, smart phones, and tablets. At many times in the past, however, it was arguably the news part of the term that could have seemed inadequate. The definition of news may be elusive, but it is clear that newspapers have almost never been limited to accounts of recent events. In eighteenth-century Britain and North America, newspapers contained letters to the printer on various subjects, as well as excerpts from books, official notices, and advertisements (which often took up most of the first page). In the nineteenth century, poems, short stories, and serial novels took on prominence in many newspapers, increasing their interest for readers. At other times, such as the British Isles in the 1640s and the United States in the 1790s, newspapers have aligned themselves with particular factions or advocated specific causes. The fact that such newspapers intervened in politics makes them all the more important to study, as Laurent Curelly’s book on The Moderate (1648-49) reveals. At that time the preferred term was newsbook rather than newspaper. Most news periodicals of the 1640s were short quarto pamphlets rather than the larger folios that later came to dominate English journalism. The form and content of news publications has varied significantly over time, and it is only by closely examining individual examples that we can begin to understand what role newspapers (or newsbooks or whatever else they were called) have played at different moments in the past.

9781443886550Although the Moderate lasted little more than a year, it existed at a crucial juncture in the history of the British Isles (1648-49). This period included the vexed negotiations between King Charles I and Parliament after the Second Civil War, the trial and execution of the king, and the creation of the Commonwealth. As Curelly shows, the Moderate did not simply record passing events. It participated actively in successive political controversies. By examining all of the texts that appeared in  The Moderate—from news reports and editorial comments to petitions and advertisements—and comparing these to what appeared in other publications of the time, Curelly charts its changing political orientation. He shows how it gave voice to certain ideas rather than others, supporting the positions of one group rather than another. Sometimes it published accounts or documents that other newsbooks would not touch.

The author’s choice to focus on a single periodical may seem odd given recent interest in “big data” and transnational approaches to the history of news. But it is a choice that offers its own rewards. As Curelly points out, the scholarship on seventeenth-century English news publications (in both manuscript and print) is extraordinarily rich. He is able to build on this literature by offering something different: an in-depth study of a single publication that identifies its distinctive character. This approach can be contrasted with a recent trend in scholarship that stresses the connections between publications of various types situated in different places. For example, the Early Modern News Networks project led by Joad Raymond examined English news in a wider European context, studying the people, institutions, and practices that shaped reports as they travelled.(1) The interest in networks is also evident in computational approaches to the study of newspapers. The creation of digital databases (whether proprietary or open access) has led scholars to use computer algorithms to detect patterns of various kinds. For example, ongoing projects focused on the nineteenth century are studying which newspaper articles circulated most widely, the relationships among editors, and the changes that texts underwent as they travelled. (2)

Curelly is perfectly aware of the recent scholarship on news but his approach is different. Although he does not put it this way, one could say that in this book he is less interested in news (what it was, where it came from, how it circulated, etc.) than in the role of newspapers in the dissemination of political ideas. His study of The Moderate is thus related to a volume he co-edited with Nigel Smith entitled Radical Voices, Radical Ways: Articulating and Disseminating Radicalism in Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century Britain (Manchester University Press, 2016). Curelly’s interest in radical ideas helps to explain the contours of his study. His goal is to locate where The Moderate fit in the political spectrum, and determine whether it advanced a coherent ideological programme. Despite the name, The Moderate was—or at least became—a radical publication. The story of how it acquired its name is interesting in itself. In the summer of 1648, John Dillingham, the author of another newsbook called the Moderate Intelligencer, complained that his former printer, Robert White, was now issuing a rival publication that claimed to be the genuine Moderate Intelligencer. From Dillingham’s perspective, White’s publication was a counterfeit that sought to usurp an existing readership. But White also claimed rights to the title by virtue of having registered it with the Company of Stationers. Both men submitted petitions to the House of Lords, which ultimately decided in favour of Dillingham. White and his new collaborator then simply removed the word intelligencer from their title, which became The Moderate. The tone and orientation of The Moderate evolved over the next few months, creating a growing disparity between the title of the publication and its position in the political spectrum.

Many contemporaries and subsequent writers have associated The Moderate with the Levellers. Curelly insists that it would be wrong to refer to it as “a Leveller organ”. Although it undeniably supported the Levellers in the spring of 1649 it was not an official publication. Curelly suggests that The Moderate’s political orientation depended in part on commercial imperatives. The choice of texts it published and the editorial commentary accompanying them could be said to reflect the convictions of its anonymous editor (more on this below), but it was also competing with other newsbooks for the patronage of readers. The Moderate had to find a niche in the market. Curelly suggests that whoever was behind The Moderate came to appreciate that an audience for a more radical publication existed and that this perception influenced editorial decisions.

Given Curelly’s interest in the political orientation of The Moderate, one of the most important questions concerns personnel: who was the editor (for lack of a better word) who compiled and selected materials, introduced news reports, petitions, and other documents, and sometimes commented at length on them? After considering the available evidence, Curelly concludes that we cannot answer this question with any certainty. This discussion is not as clear as it could be. The text initially refers to a John Mabbott, which must be a mistake since Curelly subsequently refers correctly to Gilbert Mabbott [18, 21 & passim]. Mabbott was a press licensor appointed by Parliament and was identified by many contemporaries as the man behind The Moderate. It seems that he combined his official duties as licensor with his management of one of the most radical newsbooks of the time. Curelly agrees that several clues point to Mabbott’s involvement, but he remains equivocal.

Despite this uncertainty, however, much of the analysis is premised on the idea that a single individual was the guiding force behind this publication, and that there was no change in personnel. Curelly’s careful reading of the different texts that make up the publication is mostly directed at trying to identify where the anonymous editor fit in the political spectrum and which groups in Parliament and the army he supported at various moments. There is little discussion of the role that other individuals, such as printers and booksellers, may have played. One chapter focuses on “editorials,” and though one could question the use of that term in a seventeenth-century context, Curelly shows how The Moderate contained a series of writings that criticised decisions, defended individuals, and suggested future courses of action. He acknowledges that much of the material published in The Moderate was copied or adapted from existing sources, but insists that the editor’s influence can often be detected, and that “The Moderate had a much stronger internal structure than meets the eye”[70].

Another key chapter focuses on the petitions that were published in The Moderate. The importance of printed petitions in this era has been shown by David Zaret, Jason Peacey and others. Here they provide Curelly with another opportunity to try to distinguish The Moderate from other newsbooks at the time. At the end of 1648 and beginning of 1649, The Moderate included more army petitions than any other newsbook, and it was sometimes the first to publish or comment on them. This fact leads Curelly to suspect that The Moderate was widely read within the army, and that it acted as “a vehicle for publicising army grievances and demands” [78]. This chapter provides the clearest evidence of how The Moderate intervened in the political process by facilitating the wider circulation of radical demands. The Moderate published civilian petitions in favour of the abolition of tithes, the reform of the legal system, the implementation of popular sovereignty, and the creation of a system of poor relief. It was the only newsbook to print the entire “Large Petition” of September 11, 1648 and the full text of John Lilburne’s Englands new Chains discovered. Here Curelly shows the value of reading all of the texts contained in each issue of The Moderate. Although Lilburne’s work could be detached and read on its own, readers of The Moderate would have encountered it alongside editorial comments and news items. Curelly suggests how these texts were in dialogue with each other. In the spring of 1649, The Moderate published several petitions calling for the release of the Levellers. The most fascinating ones were authored by the wives of the imprisoned Levellers. A group of them co-authored a first petition asking for the release of their husbands. The House of Commons responded that they should “go home and looke after your own business and meddle with your housewifery” [qtd. in 93]. The women persevered, authoring a second and more daring petition that was given full coverage in The Moderate. In addition to calling for the release of the Levellers, the women defended their right to petition and thus participate in the political process. Their second petition was openly hostile to the authorities of the Commonwealth, and in deciding to print it The Moderate clearly aligned itself with the Levellers.

In addition to the chapters on editorials and petitions, there is a chapter that considers how The Moderate covered events in Ireland, Scotland, and England, a chapter on foreign news (focusing on coverage of the French Fronde), and a chapter on “domestic news” and advertisements. Throughout these chapters, Curelly emphasises the existence of a discernible editorial voice, but at points the search for coherence seems strained. For example, even the advertisements are examined for clues about The Moderate’s place in the political spectrum. One might assume, if The Moderate was at least in part motivated by commercial concerns, that the advertisements would not necessarily reflect the political convictions of the editor. On the other hand, whoever stood to profit from sales of The Moderate logically would have sought to include notices of interest to his readers, and so it makes sense that many of the books being advertised could be considered radical or even seditious. The hypothesis is that Mabbott, or whoever else was making the decisions, identified an audience that was interested in radical ideas and geared his publication toward them. The inclusion of a section on advertisements is welcome because the subject has been little studied for this period; historians of journalism tend to assume that it was only later that publishers identified target audiences whose attention could be sold to advertisers. Curelly’s analysis could be taken to suggest that this was already happening in 1649, but in fact The Moderate only included 22 advertisements, an average of one every three issues, and the price of 6 pence per insertion mentioned here seems far too low to have made a financial difference, especially given how few ads were printed. We also do not know which ads were actually paid for as opposed to inserted on behalf of printers and booksellers who might have been owed a favour or had some involvement in the production and distribution of The Moderate.

On the whole, this book benefits from the author’s extensive research and sustained engagement with the sources. The writing is generally clear, though two of the chapters contain lengthy sections in which the author simply summarises content from The Moderate rather than weaving selected examples into the analysis as needed. At several moments, but especially in the discussion of petitions, he shows the value of reading all the components of a given newspaper, and thinking about how they might fit together. In an age in which many interactions with historical newspapers begin with keyword searches, it is important to be reminded of the value of examining publications as they were first encountered by readers. The author stresses the idea of an identifiable editorial voice because he wants to highlight the political role of this particular newsbook. In the section on petitions, he suggests how these editorial choices may have contributed to the course of events, but this remains somewhat vague. The quest for coherence leaves little space for analysis of the effects of the choices that were made—how The Moderate may or may not have made a difference at the time. The book clearly reveals how The Moderate helped to circulate radical texts, and points toward interesting examples (such as the petitions by women) that I will use when I teach this period of British history. Given the author’s interest in the dissemination of ideas, one might have hoped for more sustained discussion of the extent to which news publications of this period deserve to be taken seriously as sources for the study of political thought. But by writing this book Curelly certainly shows how a newspaper could act as a vector for new and controversial ideas.

Reviewed by Will Slauter

Université Paris Diderot


(1) See Joad Raymond & Noah Moxham, eds., News Networks in Early Modern Europe (Leiden: Brill, 2016), available as an open-access book from the publisher’s website.

(2) See, for example, the “Viral Texts Project” led by Ryan Cordell at Northeastern University and the multi-country project entitled “Oceanic Exchanges”.

Review originally published in Cercles: Revue pluridisciplinaire du monde anglophone, March 2018

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