English press: then & now

The XVIIIth century witnessed the origin of modern-day journalism.
The Tatler and The Spectator are the forerunners
of modern newspapers and magazines:
greatly admired in Britain,
they became popular in the rest of Europe and in Italy, too.


The Age of Journalism

Class 4B


A Coffee-house

(anonymous painting,
The British Museum)

A London coffee-house in the XVIIIth Century

Coffee-houses were fashionable meeting places for political, philosophical and cultural debates.
Politicians and businessmen could sit, discuss and read newspapers.

  The age of journalism, as form of expression and communication of news and ideas, began in England with the first weekly magazine “A Current of General News”, published in 1622/23. Throughout the 17th century other magazines (“Mercurius Britannicus” was the most famous one) and, mainly, political pamphlets and moral tracts were published cheaply and distributed widely. These magazines opened the way to a fuller development of the periodicals, reviews and newspapers of the next century. The abolition of the Licensing Act in 1694 put an end to the heavy censorship that had previously prevailed to the detriment of free speech and press, and allowed journalists greater freedom to criticize and debate, although some forms of punishment such as fines, the pillory and even, sometimes, imprisonment, remained for libel towards the highest institutions, namely the Monarchy, Parliament and Church (in other European countries, censorship wasn’t abolished till 1848).   Read more about:
  • The greatest novelists were also journalists, since they often started their careers as journalists.
    The first important periodical was The Review”, published single-handedly by
    Daniel Defoe from 1704 to 1713; Jonathan Swift publishedThe Examinerfrom 1710 to 1711.
    Later, also Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding contributed to newspapers.

    More about Defoe and the Review...

In the first part of the 18th century, called the “Augustan Age”, England enjoyed internal stability and prosperity after the wars and strife of the previous century. The technological progress in the field of industry and agriculture, the expanding colonial empire, the flourishing economy and trade, made of England not only a leading political and commercial country, but the greatest economic power in the world. The new middle class who had created the wealth of the country consisted mainly of traders, merchants, entrepreneurs, bankers and other professional men: they were constituted by a large and wealthy merchant and manufacturing class in the towns and big landowners in the country: they were growing in both power and prestige. There was also a new lower middle class composed by shopkeepers, craftsmen, richer farmers, workers in the fields of administration and commerce who could write and read.
Now these middle-class people developed an interest for education and for news. The increased literacy caused journalism to boom, with a proliferation of newspapers and periodicals, which became very popular both with upper and middle classes. Thanks to the growth of the reading public, among whom also women, the writers of this time started to break free from the patrons and become professional; their employers were now the publishers and booksellers. Since it was this middle class who bought books and other publications, culture began to be identified with the middle class, whose tastes and needs the writers tried to meet. The Augustan Age was also called, from a literary point of view, the Age of Prose (see for instance ”The dictionary of the English language” by Samuel Johnson, who also wrote several essays for The Idler and The Rambler). Moreover, the novel and the periodicals were addressed to the same readers and expressed the same bourgeois values and ideals.

Greatly and imitated in Britain, the first periodicals
became also very popular in the rest of Europe and in Italy, too
(La Gazzetta Veneta, L'Osservatore, La Frusta Letteraria, Il Caffè ).

Links to external sites:

  • The Lady's Magazine; or Entertaining Companion for the Fair Sex was one of the most enduring and influential periodicals of the late eighteenth century.