The Age of Exchange: Translation, News and the European Public Sphere in the 16th and the 17th centuries

José María Pérez Fernández, University of Granada, Spain 

The international turmoil created first by the wars of religion during the second half of the sixteenth century and then by the Thirty Years War in the early decades of the following century stirred what Geoffrey Parker has called an ‘obsession with rapid change’, which in turn fuelled demand for news. In parallel with the exchange of goods and currency, the development of financial capitalism, and the growth of diplomatic networks, news acquired the status of an increasingly valuable, albeit intangible, commodity. This paper aims to sample some case studies to illustrate the emergence of an early modern European public sphere facilitated by agents of exchange that included translators, publishers, and newsmongers. 

The first weekly newsletter was published in Strasbourg in 1605: Johann Carolus’ Relation aller Fürnemmen und gedenckwürdigen Historien covered subjects that ranged from armed conflict to religion, politics and science. In the Netherlands, printers published newspapers in French and English which were then exported to other countries and regions. In the 1620s London saw the publication of domestic news pamphlets and translated foreign corantos, all of which appeared on an almost weekly basis. Many of them came from Amsterdam, which was strategically located to send news coming from the areas in conflict, i.e. German-speaking central Europe. During these decades the fluctuations of the English political establishment had come to depend to a large extent on the circulation of news and on the sort of changes that they could operate on the state of public opinion. 

More traditional ballads sung in alehouses and other public spaces coexisted with these new printed newsletters, with pamphlets on religious and political controversies, and also with new public spaces such as those devoted to the performance of popular plays. Significant among these were the new commercial theatres that sprang up in large cities like London and Madrid. The circulation of news and opinion through the channels provided by corantos, popular publications and public spaces like the commercial stage predates the famous coffee-houses of the late seventeenth century. 

This growing mass of consumers of printed matter and popular drama naturally raised serious concerns among the authorities, who feared their power to shape the opinion of the vulgar multitude, and consequently sought to harness its potential in their own benefit. 

A more detailed study of these complex and heterogeneous exchange networks will provide a comprehensive view of material conditions and above all of the virtual scaffolding that shaped and sustained the European public sphere during this period. A close analysis will prove that translation played a fundamental role that can be approached from a general theory of communication.