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Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Writers in the 17th century were obsessed by character

A jobbing writer in the 17th century, just like me, was obsessed by characters. This is because the News Sheets of the day from London were dull and factual, designed to inform rather than entertain.
The Weekly News and the London Courant were the first papers (1622),  followed by the London Gazette in 1663. But none of these papers ran what we would call today "human interest" stories.

So a new wave of character writing sprang up to give the public what we would call entertainment, or tabloid stories. Wycherley the playwright lists the common targets of this new breed of writer:

"lying jests against the common lawyer; handsome conceits against the fine courtier,delicate quirks against the rich cuckold and citizen."

Also popular subjects were ridiculing the fads and fashions of the day, as in this pamphlet about ridiculous fashions, The World Turned Upside Down.In order to get material, the seventeenth century writer
"frequents clubs and coffeee houses, the markets of news, where he engrosses all he can light upon: and if that not prove sufficient, he is forced to add a lie or two of his own making.." (Samuel Butler)

So, not so different from tabloid journalists of today then. The writer of the 17th century  was mostly printed in pamphlets and chapbooks, pocket sized thin booklets that could be easily carried for sale on the street. On the left you can see a peddlar with a tray of books and chapbooks. The upright citizen's greatest fear was that he would feature in one of these and his reputation be ruined, a fact I exploited in my book The Gilded Lily.I used some of the larger than life characters in my book too - the avaricious pawnbroker, and the swaggering rake, as described by Rochester:
Room, room for a Blade of the town,
That takes delight in roaring,
Who all day long rambles up and down,
And at night in the streets lies snoring.

That for the noble name of Spark
Does his companions rally,
Commits an outrage in the dark,
Then slinks into an alley.

Apart from characters, the sensational and unbelievable made easy subjects, often with lurid woodcut illustrations. See below for The Mowing Devil and  The Womanish Man.

Today pamphlets and chapbooks are popular for poetry, but there is a whole range of possibilities inherent in this  medium, for a few ideas about chapbooks today, visit - The Book Designer
For more in depth  information on 17th century pamphleteering I recommend The Function of the New Media in the 17th Century

Thanks to The Newberry, Chicago
Bodleian Library Collection article


  1. So very interesting and the onset of realism in writing, you know, personality and satirical writing so aimed at personlaities and I never realised that this began so early in the 17thC.

  2. So friggin' cool! Don't you just love doing research? I know I do. Makes me tempted to read your book, if only to read about the tawdry broadsheets, and about the colorful hawkers that sold them.

  3. Thank you for this, another example of what's old is new again (or what's new is old again?). Fascinating.

  4. interesting piece! I think the world turned upside down was referring to a much larger anxiety about changing social, cultural, religious, gender roles, especially during Civil Wars. A lot of good-natured ribbing too, as you suggest. Fun stuff, to be sure.