The Shock Of The Old (Part One) – Joad Raymond

By Tom

Sacred Decretall

Darren Hayman and & Short Parliament’s album Bugbears is a rare thing. It’s a vision of the 17th century, and particularly the civil wars that saw Britain turned upside down; but it’s done through music that, though it’s more-or-less folky, is not at all nostalgic. Modern folk and 17th century history: it could be a little offputting. Putting aside the question of folk music, why would anyone be interested in the 17th century?

Here are three reasons, three things that everyone should know about Britain during those times:

There was an information revolution. Really this began in mainland Europe with Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of movable type in the middle of the 15th century, which revolutionised printing. But in Britain it happened between the late 16th and 17th centuries. What happened? New communication media — cheap print — opened up new kinds of dialogues, speeding up communication, making great swathes of information that had previously been the preserve of educated elites available to a much broader public. At the same time many people worried about these new media: would they disrupt old ways of learning and traditional values? Would they undermine knowledge as much as they spread it? How could you know whether something in these new media was true?

Does any of this sound familiar?

Cheap print was in some ways the equivalent of the internet. It seemed exciting and threatening at the same time. In Britain pamphlets began to appear — short books that argued about politics and religion in popular, accessible writing. They were intended to change what the reading public thought about things. Governments were concerned about the way pamphlets and pamphleteering might turn the world upside down, and from time to time tried to quash them. Pamphlets could not only be read by cobblers and tinkers: they could be written by them (actually the few who were literate). Gradually, however, politicians and governments accepted that pamphlets couldn’t be eradicated entirely, and increasingly they became part of the conduct of ordinary, everyday politics. If you wanted people to take your side, you persuaded them through print.


Pamphlets were like blogs: pithy statements of fact and opinion, arguments with invisible enemies that sewed new ideas, explorations of popular religion that were not controlled or authorised by the church. Writers didn’t care who their anonymous readers were: this was a very public, perhaps democratic, form of engagement. With a pamphlet you could try to persuade people to take your side in an already polarised conflict; or you could just throw an idea out there and see if it floated. When the civil wars began — in 1637 or 1642 depending on how you look at it — pamphlets were part of the warfare. They were paper bullets.

Meanwhile weekly newspapers (which appeared in 1641) speeded up the news, and made more news accessible to more people. In a way they created the first news cycle (at least in Britain), because readers expected weekly updates. These days