Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac Disraeli

Origin of Newspapers.

We are indebted to the Italians for the idea of newspapers. The title of their gazettas was, perhaps, derived from gazzera, a magpie or chatterer; or, more probably, from a farthing coin, peculiar to the city of Venice, called gazetta, which was the common price of the newspapers. Another etymologist is for deriving it from the Latin gaza, which would colloquially lengthen into gazetta, and signify a little treasury of news. The Spanish derive it from the Latin gaza, and likewise their gazatero, and our gazetteer, for a writer of the gazette and, what is peculiar to themselves, gazetista, for a lover of the gazette.

Newspapers, then, took their birth in that principal land of modern politicians, Italy, and under the government of that aristocratical republic, Venice. The first paper was a Venetian one, and only monthly; but it was merely the newspaper of the government. Other governments afterwards adopted the Venetian plan of a newspaper, with the Venetian name:— from a solitary government gazette, an inundation of newspapers has burst upon us.

Mr. George Chalmers, in his Life of Ruddiman, gives a curious particular of these Venetian gazettes:—“A jealous government did not allow a printed newspaper; and the Venetian gazetta continued long after the invention of printing, to the close of the sixteenth century, and even to our own days, to be distributed in manuscript.“ In the Magliabechian library at Florence are thirty volumes of Venetian gazettas, all in manuscript.

Those who first wrote newspapers were called by the Italians menanti; because, says Vossius, they intended commonly by these loose papers to spread about defamatory reflections, and were therefore prohibited in Italy by Gregory XIII. by a particular bull, under the name of menantes, from the Latin minantes, threatening. Menage, however, derives it from the Italian menare, which signifies to lead at large, or spread afar.

We are indebted to the wisdom of Elizabeth and the prudence of Burleigh for the first newspaper. The epoch of the Spanish Armada is also the epoch of a genuine newspaper. In the British Museum are several newspapers which were printed while the Spanish fleet was in the English Channel during the year 1588. It was a wise policy to prevent, during a moment of general anxiety, the danger of false reports, by publishing real information. The earliest newspaper is entitled “The English Mercurie,” which by authority was “imprinted at London by her highness’s printer, 1588.” These were, however, but extraordinary gazettes, not regularly published. In this obscure origin they were skilfully directed by the policy of that great statesman Burleigh, who, to inflame the national feeling, gives an extract of a letter from Madrid which speaks of putting the queen to death, and the instruments of torture on board the Spanish fleet.

George Chalmers first exultingly took down these patriarchal newspapers, covered with the dust of two centuries.

The first newspaper in the collection of the British Museum is marked No. 50, and is in Roman, not in black letter. It contains the usual articles of news, like the London Gazette of the present day. In that curious paper, there are news dated from Whitehall, on the 23rd July, 1588. Under the date of July 26, there is the following notice:—“Yesterday the Scots ambassador, being introduced to Sir Francis Walsingham, had a private audience of her majesty, to whom he delivered a letter from the king his master; containing the most cordial assurances of his resolution to adhere to her majesty’s interests, and to those of the Protestant religion. And it may not here be improper to take notice of a wise and spiritual saying of this young prince (he was twenty-two) to the queen’s minister at his court, viz. — That all the favour he did expect from the Spaniards was the courtesy of Polypheme to Ulysses, to be the last devoured.“ The gazetteer of the present day would hardly give a more decorous account of the introduction of a foreign minister. The aptness of King James’s classical saying carried it from the newspaper into history. I must add, that in respect to his wit no man has been more injured than this monarch. More pointed sentences are recorded of James I. than perhaps of any prince; and yet, such is the delusion of that medium by which the popular eye sees things in this world, that he is usually considered as a mere royal pedant. I have entered more largely on this subject, in an “Inquiry of the Literary and Political Character of James I.”1

Periodical papers seem first to have been more generally used by the English, during the civil wars of the usurper Cromwell, to disseminate amongst the people the sentiments of loyalty or rebellion, according as their authors were disposed. Peter Heylin, in the preface to his Cosmography, mentions, that “the affairs of each town, of war, were better presented to the reader in the Weekly News-books.“ Hence we find some papers, entitled “News from Hull,” “Truths from York,” “Warranted Tidings from Ireland,” &c. We find also, “The Scots’ Dove” opposed to “The Parliament Kite,” or “The Secret Owl."— Keener animosities produced keener titles: “Heraclitus ridens” found an antagonist in “Democritus ridens,” and “The Weekly Discoverer” was shortly met by “The Discoverer stript naked.” “Mercuriua Britannicus” was grappled by “Mercurius Mastix, faithfully lashing all Scouts, Mercuries, Posts, Spies, and others.” Under all these names papers had appeared, but a “Mercury” was the prevailing title of these “News-books,” and the principles of the writer were generally shown by the additional epithet. We find an alarming number of these Mercuries, which, were the story not too long to tell, might excite laughter; they present us with a very curious picture of those singular times.

Devoted to political purposes, they soon became a public nuisance by serving as receptacles of party malice, and echoing to the farthest ends of the kingdom the insolent voice of all factions. They set the minds of men more at variance, inflamed their tempers to a greater fierceness, and gave a keener edge to the sharpness of civil discord.

Such works will always find adventurers adapted to their scurrilous purposes, who neither want at times either talents, or boldness, or wit, or argument. A vast crowd issued from the press, and are now to be found in private collections. They form a race of authors unknown to most readers of these times: the names of some of their chiefs, however, have reached us, and in the minor chronicle of domestic literature I rank three notable heroes; Marchmont Needham, Sir John Birkenhead, and Sir Roger L’Estrange.

Marchmont Needham, the great patriarch of newspaper writers, was a man of versatile talents and more versatile politics; a bold adventurer, and most successful, because the most profligate of his tribe. From college he came to London; was an usher in Merchant Tailors’ school; then an under clerk in Gray’s Inn; at length studied physic, and practised chemistry; and finally, he was a captain, and in the words of our great literary antiquary, “siding with the rout and scum of the people, he made them weekly sport by railing at all that was noble, in his Intelligence, called Mercurius Britannicus, wherein his endeavours were to sacrifice the fame of some lord, or any person of quality, and of the king himself, to the beast with many heads.” He soon became popular, and was known under the name of Captain Needham, of Gray’s Inn; and whatever he now wrote was deemed oracular. But whether from a slight imprisonment for aspersing Charles I. or some pique with his own party, he requested an audience on his knees with the king, reconciled himself to his majesty, and showed himself a violent royalist in his “Mercurius Pragmaticus,” and galled the Presbyterians with his wit and quips. Some time after, when the popular party prevailed, he was still further enlightened, and was got over by President Bradshaw, as easily as by Charles I. Our Mercurial writer became once more a virulent Presbyterian, and lashed the royalists outrageously in his “Mercurius Politicus;” at length on the return of Charles II. being now conscious, says our cynical friend Anthony, that he might be in danger of the halter, once more he is said to have fled into Holland, waiting for an act of oblivion. For money given to a hungry courtier, Needham obtained his pardon under the great seal. He latterly practised as a physician among his party, but lived detested by the royalists; and now only committed harmless treasons with the College of Physicians, on whom he poured all that gall and vinegar which the government had suppressed from flowing through its natural channel.

The royalists were not without their Needham in the prompt activity of Sir John Birkenhead. In buffoonery, keenness, and boldness, having been frequently imprisoned, he was not inferior, nor was he at times less an adventurer. His “Mercurius Aulicus” was devoted to the court, then at Oxford. But he was the fertile parent of numerous political pamphlets, which appear to abound in banter, wit, and satire. Prompt to seize on every temporary circumstance, he had equal facility in execution. His “Paul’s Church-yard” is a bantering pamphlet, containing fictitious titles of books and acts of parliament, reflecting on the mad reformers of those times. One of his poems is entitled ”The Jolt,“ being written on the Protector having fallen off his own coach-box: Cromwell had received a present from the German Count Oldenburgh, of six German horses, and attempted to drive them himself in Hyde Park, when this great political Phaeton met the accident, of which Sir John Birkenhead was not slow to comprehend the benefit, and hints how unfortunately for the country it turned out! Sir John was during the dominion of Cromwell an author by profession. After various imprisonments for his majesty’s cause, says the venerable historian of English literature already quoted, “he lived by his wits, in helping young gentlemen out at dead lifts in making poems, songs, and epistles on and to their mistresses; as also in translating, and other petite employments.” He lived however after the Restoration to become one of the masters of requests, with a salary of 3000l. a year. But he showed the baseness of his spirit, says Anthony, by slighting those who had been his benefactors in his necessities.

Sir Roger L’Estrange among his rivals was esteemed as the most perfect model of political writing. He was a strong party-writer on the government side, for Charles the Second, and the compositions of the author seem to us coarse, yet they contain much idiomatic expression. His Æsop’s Fables are a curious specimen of familiar style. Queen Mary showed a due contempt of him, after the Revolution, by this anagram:—

Roger L’Estrange,

Lye strange Roger!

Such were the three patriarchs of newspapers. De Saint Foix gives the origin of newspapers to France. Renaudot, a physician at Paris, to amuse his patients was a great collector of news; and he found by these means that he was more sought after than his learned brethren. But as the seasons were not always sickly, and he had many hours not occupied by his patients, he reflected, after several years of assiduity given up to this singular employment, that he might turn it to a better account, by giving every week to his patients, who in this case were the public at large, some fugitive sheets which should contain the news of various countries. He obtained a privilege for this purpose in 1632.

At the Restoration the proceedings of parliament were interdicted to be published, unless by authority; and the first daily paper after the Revolution took the popular title of “The Orange Intelligencer.”

In the reign of Queen Anne, there was but one daily paper; the others were weekly. Some attempted to introduce literary subjects, and others topics of a more general speculation. Sir Richard Steele formed the plan of his Tatler. He designed it to embrace the three provinces, of manners and morals, of literature, and of politics. The public were to be conducted insensibly into so different a track from that to which they had been hitherto accustomed. Hence politics were admitted into his paper. But it remained for the chaster genius of Addison to banish this painful topic from his elegant pages. The writer in polite letters felt himself degraded by sinking into the diurnal narrator of political events, which so frequently originate in rumours and party fictions. From this time, newspapers and periodical literature became distinct works — at present, there seems to be an attempt to revive this union; it is a retrograde step for the independent dignity of literature.

1 Since the appearance of the eleventh edition of this work, the detection of a singular literary deception has occurred. The evidence respecting The English Mercurie rests on the alleged discovery of the literary antiquary, George Chalmers. I witnessed, fifty years ago, that laborious researcher busied among the long dusty shelves of our periodical papers, which then reposed in the ante-chamber to the former reading-room of the British Museum. To the industry which I had witnessed, I confided, and such positive and precise evidence could not fail to be accepted by all. In the British Museum, indeed, George Chalmers found the printed English Mercurie; but there also, it now appears, he might have seen the original, with all its corrections, before it was sent to the press, written on paper of modern fabric. The detection of this literary imposture has been ingeniously and unquestionably demonstrated by Mr. Thomas Watts, in a letter to Mr. Panizzi, the keeper of the printed books in the British Museum. The fact is, the whole is a modern forgery, for which Birch, preserving it among his papers, has not assigned either the occasion or the motive. Mr. Watts says —“The general impression left on the mind by the perusal of the Mercurie is, that it must have been written after the Spectator“; that the manuscript was composed in modern spelling, afterwards antiquated in the printed copy; while the type is similar to that used by Caslon in 1766. By this accidental reference to the originals, “the unaccountably successful imposition of fifty years was shattered to fragments in five minutes.” I am inclined to suspect that it was a jeu d’esprit of historical antiquarianism, concocted by Birch and his friends the Yorkes, with whom, as it is well known, he was concerned in a more elegant literary recreation, the composition of the Athenian Letters. The blunder of George Chalmers has been repeated in numerous publications throughout Europe and in America. I think it better to correct the text by this notice than by a silent suppression, that it may remain a memorable instance of the danger incurred by the historian from forged documents; and a proof that multiplied authorities add no strength to evidence, when nil are to be traced to a single source.

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