Fake news: a very (early) modern problem

Fake news and misinformation have hit the headlines recently as concerns grow about its extent and impact. In this guest post, Dr Francis Young examines the parallels between contemporary digital fake news and English civil war newsbooks. Dr Young is a historian of early modern England and the Catholic Record Society’s Volumes Editor. You can follow him on twitter @SuffolkRecusant.

In the immediate aftermath of the US election, Facebook came under fire for allowing ‘fake news’ to dominate its platform, and there was much lamenting that traditional print media – which, in theory, at least tries to verifies sources and stories – has been replaced by social media as the source of ‘news’ for many people. The ‘fake news’ problem raises many profound and interesting questions about what ‘news’ really is, and what makes it ‘real’ as opposed to ‘fake’, but commentators have perhaps been too hasty in assuming facebook-fakesthat fake news is something new and something alien to the ‘traditional print media’. In fact, the pattern of user-generated news that we see on contemporary social media platforms is closer to the original pattern of dissemination of news in the first age of print.

Defining what counts as ‘fake news’ is not straightforward, given the traditional print media’s overt political bias, spinning of rumours, wilful misinterpretation of statistical data, and editorial decisions to foreground minor stories and ignore many newsworthy ones. However, a strict definition of ‘fake news’ would exclude speculative stories that might be true and are supported by anonymous sources. The reporting of such stories with the implication that they are fact may be dubious journalism, but it is the longstanding practice of the tabloid press. ‘Fake news’, in the strict sense, would have to be the kind of story that no conventional newspaper or news website would run because it directly contradicts easily verifiable fact: for instance, the report that Donald Trump won the popular vote in the US election as well as the votes of the electoral college. No conventional media would run with a story that is demonstrably false; to do so would run the risk of being discredited as a news outlet or sullying the ‘brand’ of a conventional newspaper. Continue reading

West Country Rebels

Mark Hailwood

A patchwork of conversations, thoughts and observations on the rebellious history of the South West of England, stitched together by a Somerset-born honorary-Devonian….

It’s a small world. On a recent archival trip to the Hampshire Record Office I got chatting to their immensely helpful Principal Archivist Sarah Lewin, and after a bit of biographical back-and-forth it transpired that I had done my undergraduate degree in her hometown of Norwich, where she grew up as good friends with my now MP – as a resident of Exeter – recent Labour Deputy Leadership candidate Ben Bradshaw.

Anyway, our conversation then moved on to the remarkable fact that the said Ben Bradshaw is now the only non-Conservative MP in the South West outside of Bristol (and you can take quite a broad definition of the South West here, encompassing Cornwall, Devon, Somerset, Dorset, Wiltshire and Gloucestershire). Whilst the Conservatives have long been the dominant party in the region, this is nonetheless a significant historical departure: few governments have ever been able to consider the West Country quite the stronghold that this one can.[1]

The remarkable Tory dominance of the South West, courtesy of BBC News website

The remarkable Tory dominance of the South West, courtesy of BBC News website

Continue reading

A revolution, an economic crisis and a very sarcastic clergyman

Brodie Waddell

Thomas Smith was not a man of the people. Although born to a London merchant, he made his name teaching Hebrew at Oxford, publishing a thesis on Aramaic in the Old Testament and spending several years in Constantinople hunting down Greek manuscripts. Smith was, above all, an uncompromising believer in a very particular brand of high-church Anglicanism, so when William and Mary captured the throne in 1689 he refused to take the oath to the new monarchs.

In the 1690s, Smith watched the aftermath of the Revolution unfold. It was not a pretty sight. Maritime trade was battered by war with France, taxes doubled within a few years, food prices rose dramatically and the people lost faith in the currency. Although Smith seems to have lived a fairly comfortable life and remained focused on his scholarly work, his correspondence reveals that he had a good eye for the problems that beset ‘the common people’ in this decade. Continue reading

Aspiring to a New Jerusalem: how to reform a society, Part II

Laura Sangha

Once you start looking, it is surprising how many politicians, poets and pioneers have found the answer to the question ‘what kind of society do you want?’ in Scripture, taking as their model the New Jerusalem described by John of Patmos in Revelation. John’s ecstatic vision predicts that following Judgement Day, New Jerusalem will be the earthly location where all true believers will spend eternity with God. This heavenly society became the model that people would evoke for centuries to come. Why was it so enduring?

Another aspirational model - Thomas More's Utopia.

Another aspirational model – Thomas More’s Utopia.

Ideal Aspirations for All

As we saw in the previous post, the concept of a New Jerusalem is not static, it is a flexible idea that is taken up and defined according to the historical context it is used in, and in line with the intentions and aims of the person evoking it. It can be used to support the establishment of racial equality, the welfare state, or (perhaps?) resistance to industrialisation. But in each of the examples I discussed, you can see that the New Jerusalem is something to aspire to, it is an ideal society, a target, a goal. It is a place where injustice, discrimination and fear have no place, and where people can develop to the full, in co-operation with others. Continue reading

Aspiring to a New Jerusalem: how to reform a society, Part I

Laura Sangha

James II

James II: funny, entertaining, shocking

Since September last year, I have spent four hours a week discussing, with sixteen University of Exeter students, what it meant to be a Protestant in England from the Reformation right through to the early eighteenth century (thus partly explaining why I have had so little to say on the monster recently). Those 168 hours have been intellectually exciting (Calvinist consensus, avant-garde conformity, objects as sources), sometimes funny (‘performing’ sermons, ballad recordings, James II), hopefully entertaining (puritans vs the alehouse, museum visits, James II), perhaps dull (Ralph Thoresby’s sermon notes, burial patterns as excel spreadsheets), often shocking (king killing, Diggers, James II) and always immensely rewarding. Two central ideas have underpinned our exploration of English religious cultures of the time, encapsulated in the unwieldy module title:

‘A New Jerusalem: Being Protestant in post-Reformation England’.

Half inspired by Alec Ryrie’s excellent study of the ‘lived experience’ of Protestantism up to 1640 (Being Protestant in Reformation Britain, 2013), it is the concept embedded in the other half of the title that I want to offer some reflections on in this post. As usual a small idea rather grew in the writing, so today I will look at some examples, whilst in a second post at the end of the week I will provide some summarising thoughts. Continue reading

We the People, 1535-1787: Who were ‘the people’ in early modern England? Part III

Brodie Waddell

In 1787, a rag-tag band of rebels and revolutionaries gathered in Philadelphia to write a constitution. They decided to begin the document with a phrase that has since become rather famous: ‘We the People of the United States’.

We the People - Constitution_of_the_United_States,_page_1About 250 years earlier, in the 1530s and 40s, there were a series of new translations of the Bible into English that included an intriguing phrase amongst the Psalms: ‘Let us knele before the LORDE oure maker. For he is oure God: as for us, we are the people of his pasture, and the shepe of his handes.’ The phrase was integrated into the new Book of Common Prayer in 1549, so from then on English congregations would routinely sing this together, collectively declaring themselves to be God’s people. Continue reading

Who were ‘the people’ in early modern England? Part II: Some evidence from manuscripts

Brodie Waddell

According to a crude survey of published texts, ‘the people’ were invoked frequently in print in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, especially in times of political turmoil such as the 1640s and 1688-89. However, published texts are notoriously unreliable representatives of actual contemporary discussion. They were produced by the literate, for the literate, often using carefully crafted rhetoric.

Manuscripts can bring us slightly closer to a less skewed view of ‘the people’. Although obviously they too were only produced by the literate elite, they occasionally purport to record the voices of the illiterate and they tend to be less polemical as they were not intended to influence a wide audience. Unfortunately, there is no manuscript equivalent of the huge sample of published texts that have been transcribed by the Text Creation Partnership, though the Folger Library is giving it a go with its own manuscript collection. The State Papers Online is also promising, but only the calendars, rather than the original documents, have been transcribed. The closest to an equivalent to EBBO-TCP is probably the corpus of 240,000 transcriptions on the wonderful London Lives site, though these only cover the period 1690 to 1800 and the early material has many irregular transcriptions.

I’ve mostly drawn on my own little collection of notes from various archival documents (and published editions thereof), amounting to just over 600 pages in total, in which I found about 70 mentions of ‘the people’. Of course my notes are heavily biased in all sorts of ways, with a notable focus on the late 17th century, thanks to my current obsession with the ‘hard times’ of the 1690s. Still, it’s better than nothing. (In what follows, I have not included references, but I’m happy to supply them upon request and I have included links to any quotations taken from London Lives.)

The people enjoying a nice day out at Tyburn?

The people enjoying a nice day out at Tyburn?

So, with that methodological stuff out of the way, who are ‘the people’ in these sources? Continue reading