6 March 2014

Guest blog: Re-publishing the Mercurius Civicus (Serena Jones, Tyger's Head Books)

A printing of Mercurius Civicus from 1645.

The beginnings of English journalism could be said to lie in the newsbooks that originated in the 16th century. Early incarnations often focussed on news from abroad, and it was not until the rapid proliferation during the English Civil War that newsbooks came to focus heavily on domestic issues. Pamphlets such as the Royalist Mercurius Aulicus and the Parliament-supporting Mercurius Britannicus brought the conflict into print by aiming to score propaganda victories, with an estimated 300 different newsbooks appearing at various times during the 1640s.

Publisher Tyger's Head Books recently re-published the first two volumes one of these titles, Mercurius Civicus (1643-46). In this guest article, editor Serena Jones explains more about the origin and format of mid-17th century newsbooks, the challenges for researchers in accessing them, and the origins of the re-publication project ...

‘I shall endeavour to undeceive the people in that particular, and to give as true and perfect account (as far as I can credibly informe my selfe) of all such remarkable occurents as shall weekly happen from Thursday to Thursday, which also shall be known by Mercurius Civicus, that so I may occasionally refute the presumptuous untruths which are vented ... which being premised once for all, I shall proceed with truth and candor.’ (Mercurius Civicus, May 1643)

"Mercurius Civicus
was a London newsbook published between 1643 and 1646, during the first English Civil War. Although its printer is known (Thomas Bates of Snow Hill, who was named at the end of each issue), its author is uncertain, although he is widely believed to have been Richard Collings, also the author of The Kingdome’s Weekly Intelligencer. A 1643 reference in the Intelligencer to his being ‘drawne into the field to attend Martiall affairs’, and warning that this issue ‘like to be the last’ (KWI no. 30, August 1643), reveals that the author was at least a member of the Trained Bands, if not a professional soldier.

Newsbook authors obtained their news from wherever they could glean it, however Civicus drew on a variety of good quality sources, including a regular vein of captured Royalist letters. Collings rarely gives the impression of being short of news, and frequently chooses not to include choice news items because they are already abroad elsewhere in the London press. It seems likely he had good contacts not only with senior military figures – a likelihood in any case, if he was a long-serving soldier – but also members of the Houses of Parliament: occasionally he intimates that his anonymous source is personal and high-level. A couple of references in 1644 suggest that he also had a contact inside Oxford, who brought him the Royalist news.

Civicus was by no means the only London newsbook, however (although it was one of the most regular and long-lived), and whilst Collings spent much of his time attacking the Royalist paper Mercurius Aulicus, there was no love lost between him and his fellow Parliamentarian authors. Usually he merely accused them of inaccuracy, but he went as far as charging Humphrey Blundon and his Speciall Passages with Royalist sympathies, saying that the paper ‘[had] been often observed to favour much of the malignant spirit’ (MC no. 5, June 1643). Neither was Collings averse to including his own editorial on a variety of subject matter. In particular he was prone to outbursts of religious diatribe against Catholics and non-conformists, for example describing Antinomians (who believed that the doctrine of ‘salvation by faith alone’ freed them from moral restrictions) as potentially ‘great Enemies to the Kingdome’, who may prove ‘dangerous and pernicious ... unto the State’. However he declared that ‘I delight not to rake in the Dunghill of their errours. I shall therefore leave them to be corrected and suppressed by lawfull Authority’ (MC no. 24, November 1643).

Newspapers are generally classed as ‘ephemera’: their existence is fleeting and the survival of a particular edition is not guaranteed. We owe the survival of a large swathe of 1640s news output to George Thomason (d.1666), who began collecting printed items as England, Scotland and Ireland fell into a state of war in the late 1630s and early 1640s, and continued collecting throughout that decade and into the Interregnum. Thanks to Thomason we have near complete runs of major newsbooks such as Civicus, Aulicus, and Britanicus, and extensive runs of many others. The existence of many other publications is only known because Thomason happened to pick up a single issue during the 1640s. Undoubtedly many more titles were lost altogether, but thanks to the thousands of issues that Thomason saved we have an excellent grasp of English news output during the mid-seventeenth century.

Old St. Paul's churchyard. Many of the church-owned buildings in and around the churchyard were sold off after the Dissolution to printers and booksellers, with the area becoming a centre for newsbook production in the 1640s. The medieval cathedral stood until the Great Fire of 1666.

Furthermore, his collection was at risk of destruction by the authorities on numerous occasions, and we owe him a further debt for his repeated efforts to move it to safety. After his death the pamphlets made their way through the hands of various caretakers and collectors; numerous attempted sales of the collection fell through, and it is perhaps only by extreme good luck that it remained largely intact. Eventually in the eighteenth century it was purchased on behalf of George III, who donated it to the British Museum, where it stayed until transferred to the British Library in the 1970s.

Despite being a vital source for the English Civil War, Interregnum and early Restoration, the newsbooks have never been easily available outside academia. Whilst as publicly sold news items they are public documents, and so access has never been formally restricted as, say, private letters may be, access has been made difficult by their only being available in libraries or repositories where membership/prior booking/readers ticket is required. Consequently frequent trips to these institutions are necessary to study the documents in any depth.

Their physical format is also a problem for researchers: although they are printed, not handwritten, poor print quality often makes them difficult to decipher with the human eye, and the age and inconsistency of the fonts makes them impossible to reliably OCR. Finally there are no indices, so searches for a particular name or event are at best a lottery, requiring a researcher to read through every single issue. In any case, spellings are so variable that the task of indexing could not be done by machine. For this reason the Tyger’s Head publications of Mercurius Civicus are indexed manually, as only a human with a good reference library and a degree of knowledge of the individuals involved can reliably determine who is who. Even then, the identity of many individuals mentioned by Collings remains elusive.

The first two volumes of the re-published Mercurius Civicus (Photo: Tyger's Head Books).

In recent years the problem of newsbook access has been somewhat alleviated by microfilm copies being made and distributed to major world libraries in the 1970s, and more recently, PDF copies of the filmed documents being made available electronically to academia via Early English Books Online. However, as only visitors to a major national library such as the British Library, or individuals with a university or research library membership, can access these electronic copies, gaining access for research purposes is still a major hurdle for the majority of non-academic researchers whose ongoing work, although informal, is vital to increasing our understanding of the past.

As such a researcher, frustrated by the practical difficulties of source access, I wondered a few years ago why the newsbooks had never been republished, as they are free of copyright; coincidentally, at the time I considered this question, print-on-demand technology was beginning to emerge, and it became possible for individuals and small organisations to print niche items cost-effectively for themselves, rather than fruitlessly attempting to catch the interest of existing publishing giants.

The solution to the source access problem was suddenly apparent, and Tyger’s Head Books came into being, with the aim of making newsbooks and other vital seventeenth century texts easily available to anyone who needed them. Complete transcription from the originals was the only practical route to republication, but this offered the opportunity to add explanatory footnotes and, for the first time, an index. It seems fitting that the fruit of the explosion of small-scale printing in the 1640s should be disseminated again through the explosion of small-scale printing in the twenty-first century.

Tyger’s Head Books released Mercurius Civicus Volume I (1643) in February 2013, and Volume II (1644) the following December. The first 2014 release will be the long-awaited biography of Colonel George Lisle; then Civicus Volume III (1645). Planned future output includes other newsbooks – including a new transcription of the Royalist Mercurius Aulicus, which was reportedly published in the early 1970s but no longer seems to be available – and numerous contemporary lists, catalogues, battle accounts, and useful small items long-buried in the mass of mid-seventeenth century printed matter."


Many thanks to Serena for sparing the time to write this guest article. All of Tyger's Head's publications are available from their website (below). Tyger's Head also publish the Reporting the English Civil War website, a 'daily news service' taken from contemporary newsbooks, chronicling the war from the Battle of Edgehill in October 1642.


Reporting the English Civil War
The Thomason Tracts
London Booksites - Places of Printing and Publishing before 1800

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