Broadsides: the Posts and Tweets of Renaissance England
When I moved to Edinburgh in 1995, I experienced something of a cultural shock. The language was different than anything I’d be taught at school (ach, hawd yer whisht, my good friend Mike might say to this). TV programs were delightful, compared to Greek ones. And yellow press articles were sensationalist and, well, filled with lies at worst, and wild inaccuracies at best.
I now realize this latter bit is part of a proud British tradition, having its origins in the so-called broadsides; single incendiary sheets of paper that were sold on the streets of Britain as early as the 15th century and were single-topic fliers of songs, advertisements, and announcements that were often written anonymously. As Natalie Zarrelli of Atlas Obscura points out in an excellent post on the subject, these differ little from today’s Facebook posts and Tweets that share people’s personal tragedies with voyeuristic delight. Take for example this charming woodcut from “The Crying Murder” (1624):
Broadsides were usually one page long, but longer tales were released in sets of two or folded into multi-page pamphlets featuring a single woodcut illustration. These typically contained longer, juicy stories with gratuitous, gory scenes. “The Crying Murder” above reports of a group of four men and women who disemboweled, murdered, and decapitated a man named “Mr. Trat.” The defendants maintained their innocence, and Mr. Trat, whose body parts are liberally strewn all over the place in the woodcut, was reportedly seen alive. Despite that fact, the alleged murder inspired the unknown artist with the creative image above to accompany the sensationalist text.
An early form of journalism
Similar to zines or today’s social media posts, anyone with an opinion and the means could distribute their ideas, or print stories of local witches, murderers, robbers, and scandals. Once the slips of paper were in hand, a broadside reader would spread news, songs, and legends by word-of-mouth and even literally post the documents on their walls. Broadsides were the posts and tweets of their day.
A fine example concerns a series of brutal murders that took place in 1635. Broadsides detailed the gory exploits of Thomas Sherwood, a.k.a “Country Tom”, and his accomplice Elizabeth “Canbery Bess” Evans, who were thought to be the culprits. These were eventually hung “For being flushed with human blood, They thirsteth still for more,” as the broadside put it. Titled “Murder upon Murder”, the broadside begins:
“List Christians all unto my song,
’Twill move your hearts to pity,
What bloody murders have been done,
Of late about the city:”
Interestingly enough, right before the story begins, the reader is informed that they can sing this bloody account “To the tune of Bragandary Downe,” a well-known ballad of the day.
Some broadsides tell tales of faraway adventures; The Caesar’s Victory describes a merchant ship fighting pirates in the East Indies. Others preached about social matters; one pamphlet called “Look on Me London” from 1613 warns young men to avoid scams in the city: “you must be armed with more experience than the capacity of your young years, or else, assure yourselves, repentance will unloose your fetters,” the author says. Another argues the immorality of attending the theater in “A Shorte Treatise against Stage-Playes”, and in 1616 “A Discourse Against Painting and Tincturing of WOMEN,” denounced any woman who scandalously painted their faces with lip tint and rouge. “Do not take away God’s picturing, and assume the picture of a harlot,” it warns.
In a similar vein, another popular topic at the time was witches. One pamphlet from 1589 announces the “Apprehension and Confession of three notorious Witches.” The similarly named Joan Cunny, Joan Prentiss and Joan Upney were hanged for harming and murdering men women and children. The broadside described the women training imps to do their horrible bidding; Cunny had two black frogs named Jack and Jill, Prentiss had a blood-sucking ferret named Bidd, and Upney kept a toad and a mole. A woodcut image that accompanies it, titled “a witch and her imps” shows the hanged women, including one before her hanging, lovingly surrounded by their devilish familiars.
In a strange form of poetic justice, one broadside reports the adventures of “Matthew Hopkins, Witch Finder,” a lawyer who was hung for his scam of finding and apprehending witches, mostly because he must have been a wizard himself to find them all.
As Zarrelli points out, while no longer posted on the walls of local pubs or passed around with glee and horror, broadsides provide a perfect snapshot of what your everyday English Renaissance person thought was important, even if fleetingly so. As the Internet ensures that nothing we post will ever be lost, maybe our own voices will be studied and archived in the future in a similar vein!