Uncovering A Local News Community in Sixteenth-Century France

By Andrew Pettegree |

June marks the 400th anniversary of the earliest surviving Dutch newspaper, the Courante uyt Italien, Duytslandt, &c., published on 14th June 1618 by Caspar van Hilten in Amsterdam. To mark the occasion, our blog posts this month will focus on the history of news printing.

In the early days of the St Andrews Book Project, we used to take off to France every summer for fieldwork, and often in the Easter vacation too. The highlight of these Easter trips was always a period working in the fabulous collections of the Bibliothèque Méjanes in Aix-en-Provence. Every year we were welcomed like long lost friends, settled in the Rare Book Reading Room where the smiling staff would wheel in trolley after trolley of their wonderful pamphlet collection.  If we had ever compiled a good readers’ guide to Special Collections (and we talked about it) Aix would have rated five stars and many rosettes.

On the last day of our trip, I was brought a small book that I knew would contain a number of small news pamphlets (Rés. S 25).  I expected three; in fact, the volume contained almost forty.  All dated from between 1538-1544, and had been printed in Rouen. This sort of material is very rare for the period, and almost all the small French news pamphlets of this nature were printed in Paris.  In this one volume, I stumbled across the existence of a precocious local news community.


News pamphlet in Aix-en-Provence
Aix-en-Provence, Bibliothèque Méjanes in Aix-en-Provence, Rés. S 25. USTC 76517.

It took me some time to work through the full implications of what I had discovered. None of the works were sophisticated typographically, mostly four or eight pages, sometimes with a crude title-page woodcut.  All were unique survivors. Though I subsequently identified a number of these Rouen imprints in other libraries, even if they were the same texts they tended to be different editions.  These were years of war, an extended chapter in the titanic struggle between the Valois Kings of France and Emperor Charles V, with the Emperor very much in the ascendant. At one point during these years Imperial troops advanced deep into France and stopped only a few leagues short of Paris.  Rouen readers would have learned little of this. These pamphlets presented a patriotic, optimistic view of the conflict from a French perspective: welcoming the declaration of war, celebrating peace, describing victories in minor skirmishes, ignoring defeats.  This had as much to do with morale as information. Similar pamphlets published in the Habsburg Netherlands present a mirror image, dwelling only on Imperial triumphs and falling silent when the fortunes of war shifted.

It was reflecting on these pamphlets, an extraordinary discovery made many hundreds of miles from the location in which they would originally have been read, that prompted me to explore this flawed and fragile news market in greater detail, in the project that became The Invention of News. I have much for which to thank the Bibliothèque Méjanes in Aix-en-Provence, and their smiling and generous staff.


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Andrew Pettegree is Professor of Modern History at the University of St Andrews and Director of the Universal Short Title Catalogue. He is the author of over a dozen books in the fields of Reformation history and the history of communication including Reformation and the Culture of Persuasion (Cambridge University Press, 2005), The Book in the Renaissance(Yale University Press, 2010) and The Invention of News (Yale University Press, 2014) and Brand Luther: 1517, Print and the Making of the Reformation (Penguin, 2015). His new projects include ‘Preserving the World’s Rarest Book’s’, a collaboration with the international library community funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. His most recent book, Trading Books in the Age of Rembrandt (co-authored with Arthur der Weduwen), will appear in March 2019.

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