Renaissance News Reporting

Information is so abundant and readily available today through the internet and social media, it can be difficult to imagine the glacial pace of news reporting in the distant past, before the advent of printed newspapers and organized postal services. In the Middle Ages, long-distance travel occasionally enabled such news reporting through oral and written accounts. By the fifteenth century, personal letters and news sheets written on paper, readily available and far less expensive than parchment, facilitated dissemination of international news by merchants, diplomats, soldiers, clergy, and other travelers. Information included in personal letters could be repackaged or aggregated in news sheets, at first handwritten and later printed, to report on current events of broad geopolitical and economic interest. The Manuscripts Division has examples of both types of news media, complementing other holdings in the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections.

The Ottoman Empire’s challenges and threats to the Christian West was a recurrent news theme from the fifteenth century and is the subject of the best-known international news report in the Manuscripts Division: Testament de Amyra Sultan Nichemedy (Garrett MS. 168), an elegant manuscript, decorated with the royal arms (see below), was produced in Bruges (ca. 1482) and then bound by the Caxton Binder in Westminster. The manuscript was for Edward, Prince of Wales (b. 1470), who ascended the English throne briefly as King Edward V (r. 9 April–25 June 1483), under the control of his uncle, the Lord Protector, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, who ascended the throne as Richard III (r. 1483-85). The text of this manuscript, available in print, is a French translation of an anonymous Italian letter of 12 September 1481, concerning the death and funeral of the Sultan Mehmed II (r. 1444-46, 1451-81), whose conquest of Constantinople in 1453 marked the the fall of the Byzantine Empire. The text also concerns the civil war faced by his successor, Beyazid II (r. 1481-1512).

From the mid-sixteenth century, news reporting by personal letter came to be complemented by organized scribal copying and dissemination of news sheets. The Manuscripts Division recently acquired a handwritten Genoese news sheet of around 1535 (Princeton MS. 239). This 21-line avviso, labelled “Copia de litera di Genoa de 22 Iulii,” offers an Italian news report, copied by a scribe on the recto of an unwatermarked paper sheet (28.3 x 19.5 cm) in a rapid cursive script, with abbreviations and corrections. The news sheet was presumably copied from a manuscript exemplar and dispatched to its intended reader by hand or post. The subject is the imminent defeat of the Ottoman Turkish Admiral Hayreddin Barbarossa (d. 1546) and death of the feared Turkish naval commander Aydin Reis (d. 1535), known as “Cacciadiavolo.” In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Genoa and Rome were close rivals of Venice in gathering and disseminating news. By the time it was written, news was already being circulated by printed news sheets, presumably in press-runs of 200 or more copies.

More common in the Manuscripts Division are personal letters conveying international news, such as a recently acquired three-page letter of 11 October 1480, with traces of a red wax seal (Princeton MS. 138.76). In it the Venetian merchant shipper Antonio Soranzo conveyed breaking news to Ierolimo Venier, member of an old Venetian noble family. The news was from the Greek fortress of Methoni, a town that the Venetians called Modon, located in the southwestern Peloponnese. Soranzo’s news dispatch concerned recent Ottoman military assaults by the forces of Sultan Mehmed II. Ottoman attacks were against a fortress known as the Castle of St. Peter (or Petronium) to the Knights Hospitalers of Saint John, and as Bodrum Kalesi to the Ottomans. The fortress built by the Knights Hospitalers was in the southwestern Turkish port city of Bodrum. They also had a fortress on the Greek island of Kos, twenty-four kilometers to the southwest. The Knights Hospitalers were able to resist attacks on both fortresses. Soranzo was a member of a Venetian family of merchant shippers, whose firm specialized in the importation of Levantine cotton from the Syrian ports of Hamā, Latakia, and Tripoli, for use in the European textile industry.

Italian news and diplomatic reports are found in other collections. A recent acquisition (Princeton MS. 138.77) is an anonymous Italian report dispatched from France around March 1552 to convey intelligence about the military preparedness of King Henry II (r. 1547-59), early in the Italian War of 1551-59. From stations across Europe and in the Ottoman and Persian empires, Venetian ambassadors prepared and submitted detailed diplomatic reports, which were later transcribed from archival copies for dissemination as bound sets of relazioni, such as Princeton MS. 157, dating from the last quarter of the sixteenth century. The Seventeenth-Century Italian Letters Collection (C0920) contains 97 letters and documents of various Italian church and political figures, primarily in Florence, Pisa, and Rome, 1598-1699. Many letters contain information about military and diplomatic history, focusing on the Farnese dukes of Parma, Spanish occupation of Milan, and political ambitions of the Holy See. Reporting on current events can also be found among the letters of Ottavio Falconieri (1636-75), the Papacy’s diplomatic internuncio in Flanders. His papers include 135 autograph drafts and secretarial copies of outgoing letters to Cardinal Francesco Barberini (1597-1679) and others, chiefly written from Brussels between February 1673 and December 1674. This correspondence covers many subjects, including church affairs, international politics, books and learning, and everyday life. Also found in the papers is Affari d’Inghilterra, a 23-page political report on England (C1305).

International news reporting was not restricted to Italy. Many German, Dutch, English, and French printed examples in the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections are preserved in the Folke Dahl Collection of Early Newsbooks, Corantos, and Newspapers, 1512-1787. The oldest example in this collection is a report by the German humanist and historian Michael Köchlin (or Coccinius) of Tübingen (1478-1512), De rebus gestis in Italia (Strasbourg: Johann Grüninger, 1512), a 24-page news sheet, which covered the Spanish siege of Bologna, the Venetian occupation of Brescia, the Battle of Ravenna, and other recent events. Printed news sheets can also be found by searching the online catalog under the subject heading “Newsbooks.” Printed news continued to coexist with personal news dissemination. For example, found in the Radcliffe Family Papers (C0926), of Hitchin, Hertfordshire, are twenty-seven business letters written from the Turkish city of Galata (near Istanbul) and eleven other letters from Aleppo (modern Syria), ca. 1703-57, relating in part to current political conditions that impacted trade and commerce between England and the Ottoman Empire.

For more information about holdings of the Manuscripts Division, consult the online catalog and finding aids site or contact Public Services,

Garrett MS. 168, folios 14v-15r