- Dutch and Flemish Newspapers of the Seventeenth Century, 1618–1799 by Arthur der Weduwen
In our age of information overload and intense rivalry from social media the future of newspapers is unclear. A mass-media model appears no longer relevant and newspapers are moving towards niche versions. The debate on the role of the press has a long history. Goethe attacked the diversions offered by newspapers as a means of escape from social reality. Others offered a positive appraisal. Karl Marx [End Page 87] considered the press a mechanism for promoting democracy and civil liberties. News coverage was contested terrain. Some saw journalism as an instrument of enlightenment; others rejected it as a vehicle of mass deception. The activities of an irresponsible and/or biased press remains a disputed topic to this day, recently fuelled by the deplorable level of reporting leading up to the Brexit debacle. By the same token, the decline of print has put professional journalism at peril. The time has arrived for bibliographers and historians to step in and measure the socio-cultural impact newspapers have made over time.
In Dutch and Flemish Newspapers of the Seventeenth Century Arthur der Weduwen, a researcher at the University of St Andrews, presents a comprehensive account of the early modern periodical press in the Low Countries. Composed of two well-presented volumes, this survey provides bibliographical descriptions of forty-nine newspapers, surviving in over 16,000 issues. In paying tribute to this painstaking effort, I can only think of one Dutch word for which there is no English equivalent: monnikenwerk. The introduction to the bibliography offers a picture of a competitive news market in which readers show a growing awareness of political realities at home and abroad, and publishers who are responsive to public demands whilst harnessing themselves against interference (and taxation) from the authorities.
Commercial handwritten newsletters had circulated in Italy since the fifteenth century. These were fundamental to the promotion of trade. The first printed weekly newsletter was issued in 1605 in Strasbourg by Johann Carolus, who also ran a manuscript newsletter service. The printed newspaper was, initially, a mechanical imitation of the handwritten version. By the end of the century papers directed socio-political discussions in most European capitals. The Low Countries stood in the forefront of these developments. Antwerp was a centre of typography. The skilled manpower involved, the cost of machinery, and slow investment returns, made publishing a risky business. Printers not only needed financial backing, but also the means of communication to advertise their publications and the logistics to supply their agents. The city's dynamic economy created the operating conditions which attracted printers from far and wide. With the advent of the Reformation, Antwerp put religious controversy in print. Topicality was another aspect of typographic production. News sheets, mostly about political and commercial affairs, were spread in large numbers, usually by minor printers. Antwerp was the focus of information exchange in the sixteenth century. The Spanish sacking of the city in November 1576 brought about a mass migration of citizens to the northern Netherlands. The exodus of artisans, artists, printers, and publishers caused a shift in the balance of power within the Low Countries. Building on Flemish expertise, Holland created an unrivalled commercial, intellectual, and artistic empire.
News gathering and information distribution moved to Amsterdam where a number of Dutch and multilingual courantoes were published. From 1618 onwards, an avid readership was informed by the appearance of weekly (sometimes bi-or tri-weekly) newspapers in broadsheet format at a time that, significantly, was gripped by religious and political controversy in the Republic. Such periodical publications had been preceded by—and for a considerable time ran parallel with—the folded news pamphlet. Because they dealt with topical issues, papers and pamphlets found their way through increasingly large segments of (urban) society. Their content was [End...