When Newspapers Were New, or, How Londoners Got Word of the Plague

Daniel Defoe’s novel about London's 1665 plague can help us understand new media. No, really.

The plague was abroad.

Londoners knew not where it had come from, only that it was upon Holland. “It was brought, some said from Italy, others from the Levant, among some goods which were brought home by their Turkey fleet; others said it was brought from Candia; others from Cyprus,” Daniel Defoe wrote in the opening of his historical novel, A Journal of the Plague Year.

The book, which many read as something like non-fiction, bore the webby subtitle, being observations or memorials of the most remarkable occurrences, as well public as private, which happened in London during the last great visitation in 1665, and bore stamps of authenticity—it was “Written by a citizen who remained all the while in London”—and intrigue, having “Never [been] made public before.”

Which, as a journalist of the web era, made me think: that Defoe knew how to gin up some pageviews! And in fact, Defoe did. (If you can't see the translation to the headline argot du jour, allow me: 73 Amazing and Horrible Things That Happened During the Plague, From Someone Who Saw Them With His Own Two Eyes. And no, I didn’t count. But the point is: no one’s counting.)

That is to say, Defoe would have been a mean blogger. He rose to national prominence as a journalist in the burgeoning print-media scene of early 18th-century England. In part, he was so successful because he could crank out the copy. A biographer, Penn’s John Richetti, called him a “veritable writing machine,” and went on to say, “for sheer fluency and day-to-day pertinence and insight, there is nothing else in English political writing then or since quite like this extended and unflagging performance.” He had his own publication, the Review, which he wrote and published three times a week for nine years straight! It is so like a blog that a Defoe scholar actually recreated it as a reverse-chronological Wordpress site: defoereview.org.

And then, after publishing Robinson Crusoe in 1719, he produced the Journal in 1722, a strange little book based on nearly a decade’s worth of collecting facts, accounts, stories, and anecdotes about the plague that hit London when Defoe (then still-named Daniel Foe) was a child. As documented by Katherine Ellison, a literary scholar at llinois State University and an editor of Digital Defoe, the Journal is obsessed with how information, not just the plague, spreads. It’s fascinated by where authority comes from and how people make sense of news, and whether the message is the medium (not really, for the record). The Journal forms a pillar of Ellison’s book, Fatal News: Reading and Information Overload in Early Eighteenth-Century Literature.


On the very first page of his book, Defoe signals that information ecology will be a key subtext (emphasis added).

We had no such thing as printed newspapers in those days to spread rumours and reports of things, and to improve them by the invention of men, as I have lived to see practised since. But such things as these were gathered from the letters of merchants and others who corresponded abroad, and from them was handed about by word of mouth only; so that things did not spread instantly over the whole nation, as they do now.

There was something so contemporary about this observation, delivered through his narrator H.F. The arch language, the irony. The impossibility of narrowly distinguishing whether the author was for or against these newspapers. He was a creator of (the new) print journalism, and yet he does not know what to say about its impact on his world. I mean, who has not felt deep ambivalence about digital media while clicking away on Facebook or Twitter or Google News or TheAtlantic.com?

It could have stopped there. In fact, that was my plan for this post. Making fun of Vine, Ms. Vine User? Meet your ancestor, Daniel Defoe, patron saint of those who equivocate over their vocation.

But, this one phrase stuck in my head: “to spread rumours and reports of things, and to improve them by the invention of men.” It is brilliant. Positive words (improve, invention) end up attached to “rumours and reports,” and become deeply ambivalent. Improved rumors, invented reports, invented rumors, improved reports. (At least one of these things is not so bad.) The newspapers, then, pervert … not the simple facts, but “rumours and reports of things,” the stuff brought by merchants and letter-receivers, printed by pamphleteers, dreamed up in coffeeshops, posted in Bills of Mortality, given as decree by governments, divined in comet-visitations, or seen with one's own eyes. The newspapers, it would appear, perverted the melange that was late 17th-century news before the proliferation and formalization of newspapers. (A mix reflected in Defoe’s own publication, according to Defoe scholar Christopher Flynn.)

And yet, the deliberate secrecy of the government and the asymmetry of access to information (i.e., the rich hoarding intelligence) is portrayed as an evil. Mismanagement of information in the word-of-mouth networks carrying tidings led to (more) people dying. Wannabe prophets and medical quacks ruled because people lacked the information to discriminate reality from whatever else. In that way, papers that helped news “spread instantly over the whole nation,” might be ultimately redeemed. Life might be perverted as it was converted into information to be transmitted through this new medium, but maybe that was OK. Was the past perfect? No. Would the future be? No. But it could be better.

I had to know more about Defoe. I called up Katherine Ellison to ask her about Defoe and her book on information overload. Reading her criticism and talking with her on the phone, I found a wonderful and nuanced account of a media system in a state of change with Defoe acting as both mover and shaken. He was not alone. Her book situates him among several other literary authors -- John Bunyan, Aphra Behn, and Jonathan Swift -- who dealt with the rise of a new kind of information age while they were writing. Ellison shows how they demonstrated strategies for dealing with this "information overload," a state that existed despite the word's slow entrance into broader usage. As new media flourished, perhaps too vibrantly, these writers found ways to navigate the new arrangements. She writes:

What a close analysis of representative works by each author reveals... is an awareness that goes much beyond acceptance or resistance. Each work traces types of adaptation that readers can adopt to deal with the perceived proliferation of texts. Each demonstrates its own process of technological problem solving.

Rather than a categorical pro- or anti-printing technology stance, these writers figured out ways to work with the new things the technology allowed and society attempted. They gave literate citizens different reading, organizational, and genre strategies.
“People didn't respond solely enthusiastically about the technology. They did not respond only with unbridled enthusiasm or only with horror, saying, ‘We're going too fast, we’re going too fast,’” Ellison told me. “What you see the literary authors doing is already grappling with the consequences and strategies for coping with this perception of being overwhelmed.”
(I would say that the archness we see in the Journal’s take on newspapers is one of those strategies itself. Two aphorisms come to mind: 1) Don’t get high on your own supply and 2) Don’t believe your own press.)
But he goes further. H.F., Defoe’s narrator, models how to interpret the information that the government puts out regarding the state of the plague. His book is filled with notices of the dead in the city, the Bills of Mortality, which serve to chart the rise of the disease outbreak. But he takes this quantification and inflects it with the reality of the human production of statistics.

The next bill was from the 23rd of May to the 30th, when the number of the plague was seventeen. But the burials in St Giles's were fifty-three—a frightful number!—of whom they set down but nine of the plague; but on an examination more strictly by the justices of peace, and at the Lord Mayor's request, it was found there were twenty more who were really dead of the plague in that parish, but had been set down of the spotted-fever or other distempers, besides others concealed.

Many times throughout the book, Defoe’s narrator watches a crowd try to make sense of something, say the appearance of a comet, or an apparition, and he keeps a critical distance, you might say. Maybe even a journalistic distance:
And no wonder, if they who were poring continually at the clouds saw shapes and figures, representations and appearances, which had nothing in them but air, and vapour. Here they told us they saw a flaming sword held in a hand coming out of a cloud, with a point hanging directly over the city; there they saw hearses and coffins in the air carrying to be buried; and there again, heaps of dead bodies lying unburied, and the like, just as the imagination of the poor terrified people furnished them with matter to work upon.

So hypochondriac fancies represent
Ships, armies, battles in the firmament;
Till steady eyes the exhalations solve,
And all to its first matter, cloud, resolve.

In another instance, the narrator watches a person tell a crowd about an angel with a flaming sword that she sees in another cloud. The people begin to join in on her hallucination. “I looked as earnestly as the rest, but perhaps not with so much willingness to be imposed upon,” he writes, “and I said, indeed, that I could see nothing but a white cloud, bright on one side by the shining of the sun upon the other part.”
Defoe shows how not to be “imposed upon” by the information that exists all around him in the city of London. That information emanates from many sources: the texts released by governments, the rumors of the people, or the possible signs in the environment itself. Defoe's narrator reads all these kinds of information in the same way, with healthy skepticism, and an unwillingness to be like the crowd, “terrified by the force of their own imagination.” Indeed, Ellison notes that other Defoe scholars had shown “that oral messages, printed texts, and manuscripts cannot be thought of simply as separate media.” These communications were promiscuous and tended to cross boundaries (then as now, e.g., “OH:”).
The one thing about Defoe's approach to information that will probably strike more secular, modern ears as strange is his commitment to seeing the signs of God's will in the information around him. As the narrator wavers between leaving London like all the rich people or staying like the servants and some businesspeople, he keeps seeing signs that God wants him to stay, even if his brother wants him to leave. In a Puritan context, Ellison said that this type of question, of decrypting the world, occupied Defoe. “For him it’s a very spiritual question,” she told me. “What is God trying to tell me?”
There’s been a considerable amount of scholarship into the idea that technology is the religion of our times. Say, David Noble’s The Religion of Technology: The Divinity of Man and the Spirit of Invention, or more subtly, David Nye’s American Technological Sublime. Take the conceit (skeptically, of course) that technology could be the new religion.
Now, we watch what happens to our relationships, how we use our smartphones, the emergence of emoji, the phenomena of online dating, the mechanics of digital journalism, and just about anything else that could take a prefix like cyber, digital, smart, or online—and we look for signs about what technology wants. Looking at Twitter or Facebook, or how well certain BuzzFeed posts do, or Politico’s reporting model, or drone warfare, we ask, “What is technology trying to tell me?”
The messiness of the world out in all its everyday augmented reality becomes a complex cipher for what the Internet or technology might mean or "how they're changing the world." (Is technology separating darkness from light? Or is technology resting? Perhaps letting the land produce vegetation?) In the divination process, we lose the actual texture that makes life interesting. So, when Timothy Egan writes against “the Internet” in The New York Times, he makes tech a powerful force, omnipotent and omnipresent:

The Internet is the cause of much of today’s commitment-free, surface-only living; it’s also the explanation for why someone could tumble head-over-heels for a pixelated cipher.

And then we read that perhaps there were culturally specific reasons rooted in Samoan culture (perhaps!) that could partially explain Te’o’s behavior. Technology may have opened the door through (newfangled) telephone networks and texts, but very specific circumstances of a young person's life allowed him to walk through it. Of course, Te’o and Egan are not really the point. These apparitions occur every five minutes, approximately, and there is always someone to vigorously point out Technology’s role—good or bad—in any situation.
Perhaps we can take some direction from Defoe, from his irony and from his skepticism about reading too much into the world. Sometimes a cloud is just a cloud. Sometimes the cloud is just the cloud. There does not have to be a teleology. No one has a good track record predicting the path or impacts of technological change. Yet many people have very specific, concrete reasons for promoting certain futures as inevitable.
And this medium we’re all co-creating to “spread rumours and reports of things,” this grab-bag of tools we call the Internet? Let us not forget the double meaning Defoe gives to the words “improve” and “invention.” These are not simple things. They have costs, which are different, but not categorically distinct from, the solutions that came before them. As we endeavor to build something new and better, I recommend the dose of humility for our times that Ellison delivers as the first line of her book, “Every age has been an information age.”