University of Rochester Library Bulletin: Mercurius Melancholicus

Volume XII · Spring 1957 · Number 3 
Mercurius Melancholicus

Scholars have never adequately explored the beginnings of the English newspaper. Probably the main reason for this oversight is the fact that between 1620 and 1660 almost eight thousand separate issues of a variety of newspapers appeared in England, and most of them make pretty heavy going. Moreover, except for the British Museum, no library has anything resembling a full collection of these pioneer weeklies. But despite such problems of quantity, quality, and academic logistics, the early English newspaper has much to offer to the historian-whether his field be politics, literature, social change, or human foibles. It is therefore pleasant to report that Rush Rhees Library is now taking steps to become one of two or three American libraries that will have at least an amply representative cross section of these old newspapers. Yet this, in turn, suggests another problem. Because the newspaper reader of three hundred years ago, like his modern descendant, used his paper to wrap fish in or to line suitcases with, there are very few originals still in existence; hence any new collection must consist largely of photoreproductions of items in the British Museum.

To shift for the moment to the personal, this is where I come in. Since early 1955 I have been working on a book dealing with the beginnings of English journalism. As a result of various research grants (including a sum from the Library), I have managed to acquire some three thousand old newspapers on microfilm. When I finish going through these two dozen reels, the entire batch will be turned over to the University, and it will provide Rush Rhees Library with the core of a first-rate collection of seventeenth-century sub-literature—one that, in terms of its early newspaper holdings, will probably be the strongest in the United States.

Even so, no collection of literary or sub-literary documents can be considered either functional or complete if it consists entirely of microfilm; for no reader can get the feel of a work—its heft, its appearance, its physical impact—if he examines it only through the ground-glass screen of a reading machine. Therefore it is also pleasant to report that Rush Rhees Library has acquired, from the Huntington Library, the full run of an old newspaper in the original, complete to the extent of including some of that newspaper's contemporary counterfeits. This newspaper, Mercurius Melancholicus, lasted from September, 1647, to October, 1648; however, before one can appreciate the fifty-six numbers that comprise this run—or the approximately dozen counterfeits that supplement it—some understanding of the gestation and birth of English journalism is prerequisite.

The earliest example of what can be called a newspaper-that is, a frequently issued periodical devoted to news—probably appeared in Augsburg in 1609. By 1620, under the stimulus of the mushrooming Thirty Years' War, Amsterdam had become the center of European journalism—such as it was; and at the end of that year an enterprising Dutch printer had begun to export to London the first newspapers printed in English.

These first English newspapers consisted of a single sheet containing four columns of news. This news was of the war in Europe, and from it one gets a sweeping though shallow picture of events from the Channel to the Dardanelles. Stylistically these earliest newspapers are dull, mainly because they were verbatim translations of Dutch sheets, but partly because they attempted to present the news without comment or editorial intrusion, as well as without much human interest. Also, their publishers were extremely chary of offending anyone in authority. (One of the first newspapers exported to England is, for example, thirty-four lines shorter than its Dutch counterpart, because the publisher eliminated an innocuous item of news pertaining to England.) This stylistic dullness and this caution are two of the three characteristics which dominate most early English journalism; the third is the fact that, from the beginning, newspapers were operated to make money. This explains why several papers were promptly published in London and why, by early 1622, a group of English printers and editors had combined to form the first newspaper syndicate.

Apparently this enterprise was fairly profitable. Though newspapers now consisted of from eight to twenty-four small pages, costs were kept down by the use of cheap type and paper and by a heavy reliance on translations from Dutch weeklies. Moreover, supply was geared to demand: the syndicate issued newspapers with much greater frequency when, to a London audience, the news from the Continent was good, and cut back when the Protestant cause seemed to be losing. Finally, the publishers were careful not to antagonize that government which for ten years permitted them to stay in business. In no newspaper prior to late 1641 does an article of English news appear. If an ambassador is returning to England, we can see him move, say, from Venice to Calais; then for a month he disappears from the news, until a report from Paris notes that Ambassador X is en route back to Venice. Even then Charles I and his advisers, because they increasingly felt that any public discussion of news was dangerous and improper, closed down the newspapers for a four-year period.

When, in the mid-1630's, what was left of the syndicate resumed publishing, they faced a declining market. Interest in events close to home was pushing the battles in Germany into the background, and within a few years the House of Commons would be, among other things, "the greatest entertainment in England." By 1641 London was beginning to be deluged with printed speeches and reports from the Long Parliament, now firmly ensconced at Westminster; and at the end of that year the first weekly of home news timidly peeped forth, to be quickly followed by many competitors.

The bibliographical problems of these early months in the history of domestic English journalism are ghastly. Papers changed their names issue by issue, separate issues were unnumbered or numbered dishonestly, plagiarism of articles and titles—even of whole numbers—was not uncommon; and, over all, there is little to distinguish one of these early newspapers from another. Stylistically, they carry on the tradition of dullness inherited from the weeklies devoted only to foreign news and, like them, they deal only with the surface of events. Yet such lack of color and depth is not unexpected. Like their predecessors, these new publishers wanted to stay in business; and in the confusion of 1642 no bandwagon was ready to be jumped on, while both Parliament and king continued to talk of the need for a rigorous censorship. Hence caution, hence only the surface of the news. But, even so, these early one-man newspapers do give a fairly full picture of the day-to-day developments in London, though this picture lacks both perspective and lights and shadows.

In the course of the next few years the nomenclature and continuity of the English newspaper became relatively stabilized. Moreover, now that there were conflicting groups openly battling for sovereignty, a paper could—sometimes almost had to—take sides. Thus, if somewhat intermittently, the years from 1643 to 1649 represent the early heyday of a partisan press, a press comparatively free and often exuberant. However, with the establishment of the Commonwealth under Cromwell at the end of that decade, the government was once more strong enough to see that certain old censorship statutes were honored not in the breach but in the observance. Then, with the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, the press was even more effectively muzzled; and not until the late 1670's, when the rise of the Whigs began to make the party system a fact of English political life, did a press that can be considered anything more than a mere echo of the central government tentatively re-enter the scene. Since then the growth of a free press has been slower but far more inevitable than it was during the historically phrenetic period of the 1640's.

But a majority of the approximately two hundred newspapers, comprising almost four thousand separate issues, published between the beginning of 1643 and the end of 1649 were ostensibly neutral. Because London, the center of English publishing, was the seat and source of power for the Parliamentary coalition, most newspapers that survived more than a few numbers necessarily treated the Royalists as the enemy. Even so, they can be classified as neutral: defeats of the Parliamentary forces get almost as much space as the victories of Fairfax and Cromwell, and the political news from Westminster is given full, if usually shallow and undiscerning, coverage. Indeed, from these newspapers one could write a relatively complete history of the English Civil War, though such an account would tend to be a chronicle rather than an analysis or a portrait.

For the supplemental material necessary to any such analysis or portrait one would have to turn to the smaller and more irregular group of newspapers that constitute the opposition or openly partisan press. Because of the government's recurrent efforts at censorship and the anti-Parliament groups' consistent lack of funds, most of these opposition papers were short-lived, and almost all of them were printed and sold with that surreptitiousness that accompanies illegality and semi-legality. Most of them, too, were pro-Royalist, though at the end of the decade a few radical papers advocating democratic reforms harassed the Independent-dominated Parliament and army from the left. Yet all of them tell us much that cannot be found in the ostensibly neutral press, despite the fact that they generally do so accidentally—by indignant analysis that is sometimes cogent and revealing, by gossip that is sometimes truthful, and even by scurrility and invective that are occasionally penetrating. Of these opposition newspapers, Mercurius Melancholicus, though its politics were negative and its customary tone strident, is one of the more informative.

In the autumn of 1647, when this paper first appeared, the Independents—that is, those who were relatively tolerant in their attitude toward religion, anti-absolutist in their political theory, and dependent on the army for their power—were about to assume the control of England. When, a little more than a year later, Melancliolicuscame to an end (though subsequent fly-by-night anti-Cromwell newspapers briefly revived its name), the Independents were in the process of solidifying that control, a process which they climaxed early in 1649 by beheading the king. To oppose this course of events the two or three men who successively wrote Melancholicusused almost all of the devices in the journalist's bag of tricks, a bag which, incidentally, has not been much enlarged in the three centuries since then.

The most frequent device employed by Melancholicus was the attempt to divide the supporters of the government by emphasizing the differences that cropped up among the shifting groups in the Independent coalition, concentrating its weekly fire on that group closest to the top. In the course of this divide-and-conquer campaign Melancholicus found itself sleeping with a strange assortment of political bedfellows—from anti-Cromwell radicals to extreme Royalists—for those who stood up against the Independents, regardless of where or why they so stood, were embraced by this newspaper. Lurid exaggeration, ranging from the depiction of the king as a saint to the painting of Cromwell as a devil, was central to this technique; while peripheral to it, though ubiquitous in the Royalist press, was the use of atrocity stories, personal vilification, and smutty abuse-in both purple prose and facile verse. Finally, the successive editors of Melancholicus were slightly more prone than their anti-Independent colleagues to portray themselves as martyrs fighting the good fight against the massive forces of republican chaos, religious fission, radical levelling, and military dictatorship. Obviously, therefore, Melancholicus can only be considered as negative. Except for its generalized praise of peace (with the king to reap the benefits thereof) and its loose sympathy for the monarchy and a strong centralized church, it preached nothing positive—unless the editors' fanatical fear of the revolutionary consequences of religious toleration, a fear which is always dramatically in evidence, can be called a positive stand. Yet, despite—or because of—the fact that Melancholicus was thus iconoclastic, its style was often pungent and zestful, and sometimes possessed of the clarity and vigor of a hasty, unprincipled Jeremiah.

It is true, even so, that Melancholicus was—and is—less effective than Mercurius Pragmaticus, the most devastating and penetrating of the half-dozen Royalist journals that flourished during the 1640's. ButMelancholicus did succeed, in its own day, in needling the government into jailing one of its editors and offering a reward, which the paper claimed was insultingly small, for the arrest of another. And, in our own day, it can still provide enough sidelights on the history of an exciting period to make the trip through its badly printed, stylistically uneven, zealously distorted pages a worth-while journey.