John Milton and “Pamphlet Pandemonium”

This post will digest some of my recent archival research into a story about one of the foremost canonical authors in the English tradition and his entanglements with an untrustworthy category of Renaissance printed matter – the pamphlet.

Pamphlets, now and then. As the Oxford English Dictionary begins to tell us, “pamphlet” encompasses a variety of meanings. I think we most commonly encounter pamphlets today at information desks or doctors’ offices – they are small, brief, and often ephemeral textual materials that relate information on a specific topic (Arthritis, for instance). “Book” is usually another matter. Few would categorize an intentionally literary publication like a novel, hard-bound and for sale in a Barnes and Noble, as a pamphlet (except, perhaps, for the sake of ridicule). In short, we have in our minds a very comfortable distinction today between “book” and “pamphlet.”

However, for John Milton and his seventeenth-century contemporaries, this distinction was less stable. Beginning in the 1640s, England saw an unprecedented increase in the number of titles published, which means that printers were not necessarily working more diligently, but that they had uncovered and had begun to exploit a market for short publications. These square-shaped, quarto “pamphlets” were usually less than 96 pages long, but often much shorter, and they were very affordable, costing no more than a few pennies. In addition, pamphlets were also often associated with sensational subject matter including monstrous births, terrifying weather, or gruesome murders. (Think of the tabloids at your local supermarket – cheap and often trashy.) For Renaissance readers, the term “pamphlet” could thus refer to the physical characteristics of a publication, its number of pages, the nature of its contents, its genre, its price, or a combination of these things. As a term, it was quite flexible.

The outpouring or “explosion” of printed pamphlets in the 1640s resulted from a number of factors, including the official disbandment of the Star Chamber, the governmental office responsible for licensing and registering printed matter. Joad Raymond has written extensively about these pamphlets, and has spent much time in the archive studying their material characteristics. According to Raymond,

Oral dialogues echoed with the innovative accents of novel pamphlets, with imperative and ever-fresher news and criticism, and the presses creaked and the bookstalls groaned under the weight of pamphlets and short, pointed books. (204)

This might be an exaggeration, but it describes what was truly a substantial change in the culture of communication technology. Large, studied, and ambitious books in folio became less of a priority as an unprecedented volume of news and criticism in quarto flew off the press and towards an increasingly literate English audience. It seemed to promise a “public sphere” of communication characterized by disagreement and discussion, rather than the established and hierarchical structures of the University or the Church.

Pamphlets and problems. If these pamphlets promised a communicative democracy in print to some, they represented the threat of uninformed and hacked-together noise to others. John Minsheu, a scholar who exhausted nearly all his money and savings in publishing a massive, eleven-language dictionary, defined the pamphlet as “a fool’s diminutive performance.” John Taylor, known today as one of the most frivolous hack-poets in Renaissance England, comically drew a connection between a pamphlet and . . .

Taylor, 'Whore and Pamphlet'

Clearly, Taylor wanted no one to miss his joke. He is hardly being serious, satirically capitalizing on the prevalent anxiety among authors about the circulation of once-held-private writings among an anonymous or “impersonal” public. Pamphlets often were deemed just as foolish as they were promiscuous. This “pamphlet pandemonium” was discussed recently in a talk by Newberry Library President David Spadafora.

So . . . all very interesting. But where does John Milton, the famous poet known and studied mainly because of Paradise Lost, fit into this story?

Milton, divorce, and pamphlets. Decades before the Christian epic saw print, Milton became deeply entangled in the controversial pamphlet culture of the 1640s. First writing against the authority of the English bishops in five quarto publications, Milton turned in 1643 to the subjects of marriage and divorce, a project that would occupy him for two years. Scholars once speculated that Milton’s unhappy marriage to the royalist Mary Powell sparked some of his interest in this issue, a supposition that has been contested and since reconsidered. In any case, within this short period of time, Milton collaborated with his printers Thomas Paine and Matthew Simmons to issue a succession of publications on the topic. By 1645, there were seven circulating in London:

1) The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce. 1st ed. London: T. P. & M. S., 1643.
2) The Doctrine and Discpline of Divorce. 2nd ed. London: [Thomas Paine & Matthew Simmons], 1644. (A transcribed edition is available in Thomas Luxon’s Milton Reading Room.)
3) The Judgement of Martin Bucer. London: Matthew Simmons, 1644.
4) Tetrachordon. London: [Thomas Paine & Matthew Simmons], 1645.
5) Colasterion. London: [Matthew Simmons], 1645.
6) The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce. 3rd ed. London: [Thomas Paine & Matthew Simmons, 1645.
7) The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce. 4th ed. London: counterfeit copy, 1645.

The Newberry Library holds all but one of these publications (#6), and so I was able to get an adequate feel for the material artifacts as they most likely appeared to their first readers in London (of course, taking into account some important changes made to them since by collectors and curators). The first edition and the second edition appear side-by-side below, and one can immediately notice some distinct differences in the typographic delivery, including but not limited to the extended title, the presence or absence of author’s and printers’ initials, Scriptural verses, etc. You can click on the image to study some of the differences on your own, as I have; interestingly, the substantial differences between the two editions remained mostly invisible to scholars before the 1950s (that’s more than 400 years!).

Milton, 2 eds. of D&D

As these title pages begin to indicate, The Doctrine and Discipline attempts to establish continuity between Mosaic Law (which allows divorce) and the doctrine of Christian Charity as articulated by St. Paul. It’s a tricky bit of Scriptural interpretation; Milton’s ultimate goal is to overturn the English prohibition of divorce according to the outdated “bondage of Canon Law.” He claims that the suffering one endures in an unhappy marriage need not be borne with, especially if it drives Man and God apart (more than a few scholars have recognized the pamphlet’s masculinist leanings).

Milton thus saw his divorce pamphlets as a serious effort to further the mission of the Reformation, and although he never referred to these or any of his other publications as “pamphlets,” the integrity of his argument was compromised in part because of the material conditions of their production and dissemination. Milton invited his readers to seek “a friendly conference with the author, who would be glad and thankfull to be shewn an error, either by privat dispute, or public answer” (Bucer, B2v). However, the public responded not with “friendly conference,” but rather with bitter judgement and scorn. No one referred to his divorce pamphlets as “whores” sincerely or in jest, but Milton was criticized from the pulpit and in print as a “libertine” who advocated “divorce at pleasure.” In fact, an anonymous pamphleteer penned An Answer to a Book, Intituled, The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce (1644), a vituperative response to the first edition of Milton’s initial divorce argument. For many Englishmen, Milton’s arguments differed only marginally from the other quarto pamphlets on sensational topics or heretical controversies. And physically, as they appeared in the marketplace, they were almost identical.

The multiple market presence of Milton’s argument on divorce evinces his attempts to defend his project from the promiscuous reputation of the printed pamphlet, although it simultaneously increased its circulation and exchange within the same market. The argument in the second edition is greatly enlarged and subdivided into two books and multiple chapters; it thus loses much of the personal or anecdotal quality of the first pamphlet and grows into a more scholastic and exegetical project, distancing itself from the ephemeral pamphlet trade. In The Judgement of Martin Bucer, a translation and adaptation of a sixteenth-century book that confirms his claims, Milton associated his pamphlets with an authoritative Reformation scholar. In Tetrachordon, Milton composed his most substantial divorce publication of all; because of its bulk, it surpasses the physical category of the pamphlet altogether. On the other hand, Milton engaged his attacker’s Answer head-on in Colasterion with a brief and rather snobbish argument that co-opts the chaotic and impassioned language of the pamphlet trade to defeat his opponent on his own terms. Milton’s engagement with the pamphlet exchange of the 1640s left him forlorn and misunderstood, and scholars believe that his turn to more serious poetry in 1645 owed something to these problematic experiences in Renaissance print culture.

Back to the future. Although this dispute about the early modern pamphlet, its circulation, and the threats it posed to authority took place nearly four hundred years ago, we live today in an era characterized by reconfigurations of the same debate. Pamphleteering then, blogging now, and the historian Robert Darnton has commented on some of these connections already. According to pundits, journalists, and academics alike, the U.S. presidential election of 2012 witnessed an unprecedented volume of commentary in the seemingly ever-widening digital sphere. Newspapers, radio broadcasts, and televisions programs were hardly the only sites of political debate. The burgeoning infrastructure of independent blogs and websites, as well as the circulation of articles and videos through social media platforms including but not limited to Facebook and Twitter, enabled Americans from any geographical, socio-economic, or political background to register their opinions and respond to those of others. While these channels of opinion and commentary promised a more democratic exchange of ideas to some, they posed the problem of uninformed noise to others, not entirely unlike the printed pamphlets that John Milton and his contemporaries used for their polemical projects during the Renaissance.

So, in my publishing these words online and your reading them here, we take our places in yet another stage in the historical definition of the public sphere and its relationship to technologies of communication.

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The images in this post come from John Taylor’s All the vvorkes of Iohn Taylor the water-poet (London, 1630), STC 23725 [Bodleian], and from John Milton’s The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce (London, 1643), Wing M2108 [British Library] and The Doctrine & Discipline of Divorce (London, 1644), Wing M2109 [British Library]. The images are used here in accordance with the fair use policy included in the ProQuest/EEBO licensing agreement. For future posts I will seek permission to include archival materials from research libraries like the Newberry to provide a richer story.

To further satisfy your curiosity on Milton, pamphlets, and the print marketplace, see:

Darnton, Robert. “Blogging, Now and Then.” History Weekend Lecture. Raleigh, NC. 18 February 2012.

Dobranski, Stephen. Milton, Authorship, and the Book Trade. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999.

Halasz, Alexandra. The Marketplace of Print: Pamphlets and the Public Sphere in Early Modern England. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997.

Raymond, Joad. Pamphlets and Pamphleteering in Early Modern Britain. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003.

Parker, William R. Milton’s Contemporary Reputation. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1940.

Zaret, David. Origins of Democratic Culture: Printing, Petitions, and the Public Sphere in Early-Modern England. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2000.

Some First Thoughts

Ciao, world!

Because this is my first post on this blog, I’ll establish some helpful facts about who I am, what I do, and what you can learn about from this website. From then, I’ll write an introduction of sorts.

Who I am. My name is Andrew. I live in Chicago and I am a doctoral student in the Department of English at Northwestern University. Before coming here to work with Northwestern’s Renaissance specialists, I lived and studied in Boston (where I earned my B.A.) and North Carolina (my home state, where I also earned my M.A.).

What I do. I often think about language and literature, but I really like to read and study old books. More specifically, I examine artifacts published in Europe between 1500 and 1700. I’ve been involved already in the “bookish” academic groups at both the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC and Rare Book School at UVa. Nowadays you can often find me propping up a seventeenth-century folio in the reading room at Chicago’s Newberry Library. (I’ve also begun a collection of unusual, autographed, or hard-to-find books, centered mainly around a few first-edition Hemingways – but nothing too rare, really.) In the spirit of my book-historical approach, I am also getting involved with a few online textual analysis tools (I’ll mention these later).

What you can learn, or find out. The title of this blog is “Vade mecum,” which is Latin for “go-with-me.” In that sense, this website is designed to be a handy and useful window into the wonderful world of rare books (mostly in the Chicago area, mostly at the Newberry) and the oddities I encounter there. I’m therefore writing somewhat in the tradition of the Folger Library’s blog The Collation (which I highly recommend). If you’re involved in an academic community somehow, then you might learn about a particular artifact that could be of interest for your research. If you’re simply a lover of books and curious about the mysteries (and often, headaches) associated with dusty, hands-on archival research, well, this place is for you, too.

Something of an introduction.  We live in a remarkable time as human beings. I’ll clarify with the help of Ralph Waldo Emerson:

“If there is any period one would desire to be born in, is it not the age of Revolution; when the old and the new stand side by side and admit of being compared. . . . This time, like all times, is a very good one, if we but know what to do with it.”

The “age of Revolution” is a very compelling idea. Elizabeth Eisenstein, a historian of early modern printing, commented on one revolution in particular, the “print revolution,” and suggested in her book The Printing Press as an Agent of Change (1979) that the invention of printing was responsible for remarkable and momentous developments in religious, scientific, and cultural history. However, as scholars since have noted, the introduction of moveable type did not fully supplant or render useless the “technologies” of manuscript culture. Scribal culture and print culture complemented each other in significant ways, no matter how important the introduction of moveable type was. Both of these communication “technologies” – and it is essential to think of them as technologies – had distinct characteristics that rendered them more or less private, authentic, or valuable, depending on the context at hand. My account here is heretical in its simplicity, but I only mean to show that during the Renaissance, print could be simultaneously praised as a heavenly gift from God and scorned as a promiscuous cheapening of the authentic. In Emerson’s words, it was a time when the old and the new stood side by side, an “age of Revolution.”

My reasons for keeping this blog call to my mind a number of similar issues that attended early modern writers and thinkers. In our own “age of Revolution,” the “Information Age,” as some have called it, we are witnessing our own historically contingent configuration of the Renaissance’s “stigma of print.” Except now, this time, the tension lies not between the manuscript and the printed book, but between the printed book and the e-book (or Nook, or Kindle, or iPad – the picture is obviously complex). Advertisements, conversations I overhear on the train, small-talk on frivolous TV morning shows – they all provide evidence that this is the case. 400 years after Shakespeare’s time, we are undergoing an important and uncomfortable change in communication technology. The president of the American Historical Association, William Cronon, recently published his anxieties about this transition on the AHA website. Cronon seems to join a number of scholars who have declared the physical book “dead” in an era that is increasingly digital, increasingly immaterial, and threatening to our sense of self. But – returning to Emerson – if we know what to do with the age of Revolution, it is a very good time to live in.

I hope it is a very good time to live in. I write from a somewhat vexed position as a graduate student in the humanities during a particularly challenging economic period in American history. The academy is changing, many think for the worse, into a neoliberal system characterized by videotaped lectures and adjunct faculty positions. I admit these frustrations, and I obviously do not approve of some of the truly shameful budgeting decisions in the public university system (If you’re interested in this, read Christopher Newfield’s book). But, if we know what to do, I think that there is a way to navigate a transition that is not an overnight change but a gradual movement. Things can change for the better in the academy, but we must first be vigilant and knowledgeable about the conditions of scholarly communication today (not in the sense that we must all become computer programmers – more on this later, maybe).

So, my decision to write this blog comes in part from a recognition that academic research, like journalism, is undergoing some important changes that, in a way, establish us as kindred spirits with writers of the Renaissance – men and women to whom the printed book was not an invisible container of authentic words, but a material technology with recognizable properties beyond the meaning of the words within. But if that seems too ambitious, I also want to use this space to share some photographs, thoughts, and suppositions about the dusty volumes in the archive in the hopes that someone might be as curious or intrigued as I am about that amazing technological device- the Renaissance book. Which, to me, is very much alive.

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