Thursday, May 4, 2017

Early Pulp Press & Superstition by Katherine Pym

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 As a historical fiction author, I have accumulated a lot of data, and stored it for ‘just in case’. One such book I came across deals with pulp press during the 17th century.

Strange and Wonderful Woodcut from 17th century Press

Thanks to King Henry VIII, most news of the 16th and 17th centuries was surrounded by religion. The constant upheaval during these nearly 200 years must have been mind-boggling. Wars on the Continent, changes in regime in England, regicide, conspiracy theories and civil wars were nonstop. Even if England wasn’t at war with the Holy Roman Empire, battles bled into their waters. The English navy was always on the alert. 

Something to attract the eye
Due to these unsettled times, a big interest was divining the future, reading about ancient prophecies. Strange woodcuts were attached to these pamphlets and journals, used again and again. Most of the woodcuts did not match the story or article.

Even Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary of an incident where he met a gypsy in the street. She said, ‘The world will end Tuesday next,’ then she wandered off, leaving the poor man in a conundrum. Should he put his things in order or leave them be? After all, if the world ends, no one will want his things, his chest of money buried in the back garden. There won’t be anywhere to spend it. So, he turned away from the encounter and went about his everyday business. I don’t recall if he mentioned having lived through "Tuesday next" or not. 

Kings and queens of those centuries tried to suppress unauthorized stories coming from the press rooms but it was a flow of nature no one could stop. “A list of prohibited books first appeared in England in 1529.” A licensing system followed where printers had to gain permission from the Crown before publishing pamphlets, which overwhelmed the Star Chamber whose other responsibilities were soon dwarfed. Queen Mary finally gave that responsibility to the English Stationers Company. 

Example of a 17th century News-sheet
Nothing could stop the flow. Within a few years, London was near buried under satirical and blasphemous pamphlets that soon found their way into the countryside. As a result, strange apparitions and beasts returned from the countryside in the form of divining the future, blaspheming God and Country. 

The government tried to suppress these incoming and outgoing tides of strange and ungodly news. Men would haunt the lanes looking for unauthorized presses. 

Printers found ways to secretly print their pamphlets. They made the presses smaller, easier to handle, to dismantle and hide them when the government came looking. Authors had pseudonyms so they weren’t caught and fined, thrown in to gaol. 

As an example: one fellow collected 22 pamphlets in 1640, almost 1000 in 1641, almost 2000 a year later. By 1660 he’d collected “a total of over 22,000 pamphlets, newspapers, and news books.”

The really good thing about this is, the literacy rate increased throughout England. 


Many thanks to:
Wikicommons Public Domain & 
The Battle of the Frogs and Fairford’s Flies, Miracles and the Pulp Press during the English Revolution by Jerome Friedman, St. Martin’s Press, NY, 1993