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Seventeenth-Century Newsbooks

The intriguing subjects of these “newsbooks”—from winter storms and the catastrophic Great Fire of London to a horned lady—are typical of the explosion of domestic news in seventeenth-century England. Small, quickly printed pamphlets that ranged in length from as few as four to as many as 40 pages, newsbooks were only one form of popular journalism. Others included broadsides and ballads.

The texts of these and other newsbooks show the predecessors of today's journalists hard at work buttressing their accounts with specific details—the classic who, what, when, where, and why. "It may be, upon the first View of the Title of this short Relation, thou wilt throw it down with all the carelessness imaginable, supposing it to be but an idle and impertinent Fiction," begins the 1678 account of the horned lady, before describing her as the 76-year-old widow of one Henry Davies, and providing a London address where doubters might go to see her. Her horns, "in shew and substance much like a Ramms Horns, solid and wrinckled," were a medical misfortune that the anonymous writer attributed to "wearing a straight Hat." The hat, it is reported, led to sores from which horns grew on four separate occasions, for which the years are provided.

Unlike any modern-day journalistic report is Samuel Wiseman's newsbook on the 1666 Great Fire of London, which is presented in rhymed verse. By Monday morning—two days after high winds started the fire—Wiseman writes, "The spreading Flames now conquer all they meet, / And walk in Triumph through the frighted streets, / And finding in their fury such success, / Outragious grew, and become merciless." A final list of statistics—273 acres laid waste inside the city, 130,200 houses burned, 89 parishes and churches burned, 11 parishes remaining—lends point to the horror.

The wonders of this windie winter. London, 1613

A Brief Narrative of A Strange and Wonderful Old Woman that hath A Pair of Horns Growng upon her Head. London,1670.

Samuel Wiseman. A short and serious narrative of Londons fatal fire. London, 1667

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To find similar stories about other items from the Folger collection, look for Infinite Variety: Exploring the Folger Shakespeare Library.

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