Thursday, September 29, 2005

The Public and Politics

It would be wrong to assume that because late 17th century Britain was not a democracy, there was no such thing as a ‘public’ with political opinions. The later Stuarts also had to govern with public opinion in mind. But what was this public opinion and was it in any way unified. Was there one public voice or were there a variety of voices?

The German sociologist, Jürgen Habermas singled out England as the country where a 'public sphere' first developed. In this new sphere private citizens gained a public identity that prepared them for their later political role.

The Media
With the breakdown of censorship on the eve of the Civil War there was a dramatic extension of the output of the printed press (Harris, 2005, 16). Restrictions were re-imposed in the 1650s and again at the Restoration, but they were never wholly effective and in the political crisis of the late 1670s the political elite used all the media at their disposal to exploit the print medium. These included pamphlets, news-sheets and broadsides, often deposited in coffee-houses and other public places.

The first coffee-house opened in St Mark’s Square, Venice, in 1647. This was followed by the Café Procope in Paris (1660) and cafés in Vienna and Frankfurt. The first English coffee house began in Oxford in the 1650s. In the following two decades they spread to London, and by 1663 more than 82 had been set up. They served their customers chocolate, wine, brandy and punch as well as coffee. They had benches and tables and some had booths (snugs). Coffee houses were open to all ranks (but not both sexes) and were places of free expression, in which politics, religion and literature could be debated.

Literacy levels were not as low as we might expect. Average figures are not very meaningful as there were huge regional, occupational and gender variations. The evidence is also problematic as it is based on those who could sign their names. But as reading and writing were taught as separate skills, many who were unable to sign their names (women in particular) might have had basic literacy.In London by 1641-4 nearly 80% of the adult male population could sign their names. In Scotland in the 1670s and 80s about two thirds of males in the Lowlands and in urban centres were literate. Between 70 and 80% of Dublin craftsmen were literate (Harris, 2005, 17-18.

But even the illiterate could have access to printed literature. Ballads had tunes, and pictures and playing cards frequently conveyed political messages. Those who could not read could have pamphlets read to them. People also heard news by word of mouth and rituals, such as the Pope-burnings of the late 1670s, also reinforced political messages. The crowd was therefore an important player in the politics of the period and politicians ignored it at their peril.


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