Review of “Manuscript Circulation and the Invention of Politics in Early Stuart England”

Noah Millstone, Manuscript Circulation and the Invention of Politics in Early Stuart England (Cambridge University Press, 2016). xvi + 358 pp. ISBN: 978-1107120723.

In the last quarter century or so, scholars have been busy uncovering a rich manuscript culture in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England too long overshadowed by print.  It is now clear that print did not spell the end of manuscript as a significant medium in early modern England. Most recent scholarship has focused on poetry and other forms of imaginative literature, but manuscripts relating to politics are also receiving attention.  Given the political upheavals of seventeenth-century England, it is not surprising to find a rich manuscript culture here as well. Historians have long known about parliamentary separates (manuscript copies of speeches and other documents)—the term was coined almost a century ago, and most separates have been printed in modern compilations of early seventeenth-century parliamentary proceedings.  Verse libel and newsletters, both of which proliferated in the period, have engaged scholarly attention more recently. All this still leaves room for Noah Millstone to explore the relatively untilled ground of what he calls “scribal pamphleteering” in early Stuart England (p. 2). His definition of pamphlet is broad and includes tracts as well as a range of other genres, including separates, letters, and judicial arguments and opinions.  Historians, apparently assuming that only what was printed mattered in the seventeenth century, have for the most part ignored these manuscripts and might have been largely unaware of their existence. Millstone aims to “restore an enormous, influential, and often-radical literature back into early Stuart history” (p. 4).

In the second chapter of the book, titled “The social life of handwriting,” Millstone describes the conditions that enabled the proliferation of manuscripts in early seventeenth-century England.  “The possibility of scribal pamphlet production,” he posits, was “partly a side effect of transformations in the late Renaissance economy and state” (p. 28). The growth of commerce, credit, and litigation created “a veritable army of scriveners” (p. 17).  Professional scribes along with amateur copyists provided the labor for an “enormous … handwriting industry” (p. 26). While scribal pamphlets were produced for commercial distribution, they were also shared or exchanged through sociable networks. Unlike some forms of poetry, their circulation was not confined to a coterie—they could easily leak into other milieus and reach wider audiences—but they did not reach “a promiscuous, undifferentiated ‘public sphere’”(p. 29).  

Authors of political pamphlets had more reason than poets to resort to manuscript circulation since the pre-publication censorship of early Stuart England would likely prevent the printing of anything controversial.  An obvious advantage of manuscript circulation over print is that it was much harder to police. Only occasionally did early Stuart governments even try to crack down on producers of manuscript pamphlets. In these conditions, controversial manuscripts proliferated, expressing ideas that could not be expressed in print, or at least only with difficulty, and taking innovative forms.  Manuscript pamphlets, Millstone notes, “were systematically different from contemporary print. Entire genres of prose texts—notably, examples of English-language oratory—were more or less confined to handwriting” (p. 2).

Millstone’s research reveals survival of scribal pamphlets in surprising numbers.  He has identified more than 6,000 copies of scribal parliamentary pamphlets (the separates), mostly from the 1620s, in more than thirty repositories (p. 95-9).  The opinions of the twelve judges in the famous ship money case (1637-8) survive in more than twenty copies each, with one surviving in sixty-seven copies (p. 267-8).  Most printed pamphlets of the time survive in many fewer copies than that. These numbers probably represent just a portion of what was produced since most copies of scribal pamphlets have no doubt perished over time.  Millstone seems fully justified in saying that the numbers of surviving copies imply a vast readership (p. 4).

After describing the conditions of manuscript production and circulation, Millstone discusses a number of specific episodes in early Stuart pamphleteering.  Chapter 3 focuses on a manuscript tract by Oliver St. John arguing against the benevolence of 1614, an attempt by the government of James I to collect a contribution after the parliament meeting in 1614 had failed to pass the usual subsidy.  The story also presents a rare instance of an author of a manuscript pamphlet being punished, even if the most severe penalties against St. John were not enforced. Parliament, Millstone notes, was a privileged zone where free or frank speech not ordinarily tolerated was allowed, and in chapter 4 he discusses how this privilege “slightly mysteriously” extended to written copies of speeches made there (p. 122).  Most of the parliaments that met in the 1620s were highly contentious and, as noted above, produced a remarkable quantity of scribal pamphlets. Millstone’s next chapter concerns the feud between the Earl of Bristol and the royal favorite the Duke of Buckingham over both relations with Spain and their positions at court in the mid-1620s. This conflict produced a scribal pamphlet war that included the publication of many hitherto private letters.  Chapter 6, on “Historians of the present” discusses the ways that contemporary readers and collectors of scribal pamphlets “treated the texts … as forming a sort of politic history of their own times” (p. 167). In chapter 7, Millstone examines the pamphlets produced by the circle around the famous antiquary Sir Robert Cotton and the politician Sir John Eliot (who died in the Tower of London while imprisoned for his activities in the House of Commons in 1629).  Chapter 8 describes the pamphlets produced by the ship money case, the greatest political cause célèbre of the 1630s. In addition to the judges’ opinions already noted, the lawyers’ arguments in the case circulated widely in manuscript. The last substantive chapter of the book describes scribal pamphlets produced in the crisis of 1640 that would ultimately lead to civil war.

Unfortunately, there is little direct evidence about the effect of all this scribal pamphleteering.  Not much is known about how the pamphlets were read, and generalizations cannot be made from the minimal evidence that survives.  As scholars of reading know, readers make their own meanings of what they read. Millstone is generally cautious about describing the effects of scribal pamphlets on early-seventeenth century readers, but he suggests that “the collapse of the early Stuart regime in 1640-1 partly reflected the interpretations and preoccupations fostered by decades of scribal pamphleteering and internalized by provincial observers” (p. 17).  General acceptance of these interpretations, especially those embodied in the writings of Cotton and Eliot, seems to be borne out by the House of Commons’ adoption, at the end of 1641, of the lengthy indictment of Charles I’s regime known as the Grand Remonstrance. But it is worth pointing out that the vote was close, 159-148, which meant that many members had not read the pamphlets, had not been persuaded by them, or did not believe that the threat described in them was more dangerous than the threat posed by a weakened monarchy.  

My major reservation about Millstone’s account is his treatment of manuscript pamphleteering in isolation from other media.  This is a book about manuscripts, and it would not be fair to tax him for not giving equal attention to print and oral discourse or for not discussing the interaction of the three media at length. However, manuscripts were only one of the ways, albeit perhaps the most significant, that English people learned about politics in the early seventeenth century.  In acknowledging the role of other media only minimally, Millstone is led perhaps to overstate his case. Only in chapter 6, which discusses the influence of historians such as Tacitus and Guicciardini, does he provide a sense of how print and manuscript related. The Grand Remonstrance, which itself was printed, was not solely a product of reading manuscript pamphlets.  By the time the remonstrance was adopted, England was awash in printed pamphlets. By 1640 Scottish covenanters had flooded England with printed propaganda (Millstone only briefly mentions this), and then in 1641 the lapse of licensing in England loosed the presses at home. Even before its lapse, censorship had not prevented subversive works from being printed abroad and smuggled into England.  In their 2015 book The Murder of King James, Alastair Bellany and Thomas Cogswell discuss such a work at length.  A 1626 pamphlet titled The Forerunner of Revenge upon the Duke of Buckingham made the sensational claim that the Duke of Buckingham had killed King James by poisoning him.  Published in English and other languages in Brussels (with a false Frankfurt imprint), copies made their way to England, where, Bellany and Cogswell argue, the work “exerted a near-continuous influence on British political culture for the next thirty-five years.”  The pamphlet might have interested Millstone because many manuscript copies were made of it (the copying of printed books by hand was a widespread phenomenon in the period but Millstone does not touch on it). The “invention of politics” was not solely the result of scribal pamphleteering but also of print and of political gossip.        

In suggesting that in certain ways Millstone might overstate his case, I do not mean to underestimate the importance of scribal pamphlets in early Stuart England or Millstone’s achievement in bringing them to the fore.  For too long, historians have paid insufficient attention to this rich political literature. Millstone has done his part to restore it to its rightful place in early Stuart politics. Future historians of early Stuart England will be worse than remiss if they do not find a place for it in their accounts.  

Eric Lindquist
History, American Studies, Classics, and Religion Librarian
McKeldin Library
University of Maryland 


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