Transcribed and digitised handwritten pamphlets shed new light on pre-Civil War Britain
Hundreds of handwritten pamphlets detailing the news, politics, intrigue and scandals of pre-Civil War Britain are now at academics, history buffs, teachers and students’ fingertips thanks to a project led by University of Birmingham historian Dr Noah Millstone.
Dr Millstone’s project has transcribed and digitised hundreds of handwritten pamphlets dating from before the outbreak of the Civil War (1642). These new readable and searchable versions have now been published in a free online database, creating a vital resource for future research into English and European history.
The ‘Manuscript Pamphleteering in Early Stuart England’ project saw Dr Millstone and his team, including volunteers at local archives in Norfolk, Surrey, and Leicestershire, transcribe pamphlets from more than 50 archives in the UK and USA, ranging from the British Library to local records offices and libraries. These pamphlets have informed a set of teaching resources for A-Level teachers delivering modules on seventeenth-century history.
Before the Civil War, England had a large, influential and often radical culture of pamphlet literature. Speeches, letters, petitions, briefs and dialogues joined character assassinations, secret histories and conspiracy theories in a jumbled literary underground.
Even though seventeenth-century England had a well-established printing industry, many people preferred hand-copying to printing. This was partly because copying by hand was often easier than arranging for printing, and partly because some works were considered too dangerous to print. These included tracts from political or religious dissidents who criticised policy in church or state, or Roman Catholic or Puritan separatists.
Many different sorts of people copied manuscript pamphlets, from aristocrats and wealthy collectors, to country clergymen, merchants, tradesmen and apprentices. Many of the copyists remain anonymous. However, historians have been able to identify the handwriting of particular copyists who worked on a commercial basis. These scribblers worked in 'shops' or teams of manuscript-copyists, writing out texts to sell to clients.
The majority of hand-copying was not commercial. It was a way of sharing texts within a community or other environments such as universities, professional organisations, alehouses, and workplaces, or anywhere where travellers met and talked about the news.
Most pamphlets were concerned with recent events or the near past. These included speeches delivered by government officials, commentary on government policies, apologies for, or attacks on, public figures, accounts of important criminal trials, and considerations of recent events. English foreign policy and news from abroad also featured extensively, as did religious controversies.
However, manuscript pamphlets were not always what they seemed. Many were what we might now call ‘fake news’. One example is an account of a speech given by Archbishop George Abbot. He never made the speech and the work was in fact a forgery, foisted on Abbot by an anonymous pamphleteer.
Dr Millstone says; ‘This manuscript pamphlets database will allow researchers and students see a very different side of seventeenth-century England. The materials we’ve been able to make available show that. Like their modern counterparts, seventeenth-century readers were interested in sexual misconduct and government corruption, and took conspiracy theories extremely seriously.’