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Noah Millstone, Manuscript Circulation and the Invention of Politics in Early Stuart England
by Alastair Bellany

Millstone, Noah. Manuscript Circulation and the Invention of Politics in Early Stuart England. Cambridge UP, 2016. xvi + 358 pp. ISBN: 978-1107120723. $120.00 cloth. 

Over the past quarter century, Early Modern literary scholars and historians have learned a great deal about the continued cultural and political significance of scribal publication in the age of the printing press. Noah Millstone’s excellent new book on the politics of the “manuscript pamphlets” written, circulated and collected in astonishing numbers in early Stuart England is a brilliant addition to this body of work. His astonishingly broad research in numerous collections great and small on both sides of the Atlantic has unearthed nearly ten thousand contemporary copies of these underexplored political writings, which range in form from parliamentary speeches to transcripts of banned books, from trial proceedings to secret histories. Millstone’s goal is “to restore” this “enormous, influential, and often-radical literature back into early Stuart political history” (4), and he succeeds splendidly. His discovery of the true scale of early Stuart manuscript pamphleteering is a colossal achievement on its own; but his book does much more than catalogue volume. Millstone offers a series of compelling arguments about the nature of early Stuart politics while posing fascinating questions about the long-term origins of the English Revolution. Lucidly written, robustly argued and theoretically informed, this is one of the most impressive debuts I have read in many years.

Millstone situates his project in what we might (facetiously) term the “post-post-revisionist” moment in early Stuart political historiography. Since the mid-1980s, political historians have paid increasingly productive attention to the (often illicit) circulation of news and critique in early seventeenth-century England, effectively demolishing once-fashionable revisionist claims that most contemporaries were disengaged from high politics. Some of these historians of news, inspired by the cultural turn, have further attempted to decode the meanings of the (often bizarre) political discourse and perception that shaped, and was shaped by, the circulation of these underground texts. Millstone pushes beyond these approaches in important ways. Where some historians have focused on the rise of political media as an index of increasing political awareness, Millstone wants to interrogate what we mean when we speak of “political awareness,” and he urges scholars to more fully historicize the “political,” and thus to recognize the different modalities of “political awareness” produced at different moments in time. He is skeptical too of a synchronic cultural history overly concerned with the decoding of meaning, and argues that we need to pay more attention to practice—“historically specific ways of doing things: analytic, symbolic, social, physical, and material” (15)—and to ground political culture more firmly in the material and social world, “to build inequality, distinction, and commerce into the heart of the analysis” (16). His book thus emphasizes the social, material and symbolic contexts that conditioned the production of manuscript pamphlets; focuses on how texts were made, used and read; decodes the political discourses that shaped and then were reproduced by these texts; and analyzes the particular form of political awareness that emerged in their wake.

The book has three parts. The first few chapters explore the “conditions of production” for manuscript pamphlets, and document the rise of “an enormous, yet almost invisible, handwriting industry” (26)—an army of scriveners and clerks with a tremendous appetite for work—in the wake of social, economic, legal and political changes that made handwritten documents more central to the everyday business of commerce, credit, litigation and government. Millstone emphasizes that the hierarchical structures of this handwriting industry made manuscript pamphlets socially amphibious—they not only circulated in elite networks and sites of gentle sociability, but spilled over into other social worlds through the intermediary roles of the “servants and subordinates” (48) whose job it was to copy out political material for their masters.

But attitudinal and cultural shifts were equally significant factors in the rise of a vibrant system of manuscript production and circulation. Millstone emphasizes the role of specific “cognitive technologies,” ways of thinking about how politics works, that emerged first among the state elite and its learned experts before spreading to other social and political spheres. Key here was the emergence of related ways of thinking politically: the logic of “reason of state” and the habit of “politic” analysis, both of which shaped how royal counselors approached the challenges of government in a loosely centralized state dependent on the cooperation of its subjects. Convinced by politic reasoning that perceptions mattered, officials and counselors came to understand both that strategic publicity was essential to eliciting consent and that in order to manipulate perception, a truly politic governor had to be prepared to mask motives, misdirect attention and be more than a little economical with the truth. Millstone illustrates this emergent Early Modern mode of governmentality through a fascinating case study of the Jacobean regime’s attempt to sell the 1614 voluntary contribution, a scheme of potentially dubious legality devised to raise money after the acrimonious collapse of the Addled Parliament. But as the state devised new techniques of “subtle publicity” (68) to help mold perceptions of the levy, its critics were learning to play the same game. Oliver St. John thus questioned the levy’s legality by circulating an open letter to local officials; this challenge was profound and public enough that the crown resorted to aggressive counter-publicity to make its case for the levy by putting St. John on trial in Star Chamber.

Millstone argues that the production of manuscript pamphlets was also stimulated by the peculiar place of Parliament in the Early Modern political imagination. A huge proportion of surviving manuscript pamphlets concerns Parliamentary proceedings, documenting royal speeches and messages, the two houses’ major statements and protests, as well as high-profile speeches delivered by MPs. Using a sample of over six thousand surviving texts, Millstone quantifies the increasing scribal coverage of Parliamentary affairs that peaked in the later 1620s, and he notes how manuscript pamphlets constructed a skewed, but massively influential, image of what Parliament was and what it did. An assiduous collector of this material would thus learn virtually nothing about parliamentary legislation, and get very little sense of the cut and thrust of debate documented by the contemporary diarists. Instead, his picture of Parliament was defined by the dialogic exchange between the crown (and its spokesmen) and the two Houses, and by the rhetorical performances of its members. Millstone uses this evidence to explain how the institution of Parliament, with its peculiar rules about free speech and its privileged communication between subject and sovereign, generated a need and demand for manuscript reportage, but the implications of his findings go much further, suggesting how we might study the parliamentary politics of the 1620s not only through the eyes of the MP diarists, but also through the distorted scribal re-presentation of events at Westminster to a nation of readers.

Part two of Millstone’s book begins with the strategic use of manuscript publicity in one of the nastier disputes to roil the 1620s’ court: the clash between John Digby, Earl of Bristol and George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham over the collapse of the Spanish Match in 1623. This struggle, which played out in the Parliaments of 1624 and 1626, saw both men deploy manuscript publication to argue their case to various publics. Millstone stresses how much of this publicity was anchored in a “politic” style of analysis: whatever had happened in Madrid in 1623 had involved plot and deception, and both protagonists claimed to possess hidden proofs—intercepted letters, privileged documents—that would unmask the plotters and reveal the truth. These kinds of claims, set out in widely available scribal texts, had the effect, Millstone argues, of familiarizing “a large and growing audience with the regime’s own style of politic analysis” (163-4).

How deeply contemporaries had begun to absorb this mode of politic analysis becomes clearer, Millstone suggests, when we turn to the surviving evidence of how manuscript pamphlets were read. Contemporaries were not passive consumers of political media; they read, collated, revisited and reassessed these pamphlets, searching for patterns that would reveal the hidden motors of political life. The essence of early Stuart “political awareness,” Millstone concludes, was the sense that politics was, as the collector William Drake put it, “a Theator of Fiction and disguise” (180), and that the key task was to unlock the secret motivations that drove the often-confused outward surface of events. The readers of manuscript pamphlets were thus self-fashioning politic statesmen who read to make sense of their world by (in effect) writing the histories of their own times.

Millstone concludes with three richly researched, subtly argued case studies of canonical events in early Stuart history—the catastrophic conclusion to the 1628-9 Parliament, the Ship Money debates of the 1630s, and the pre-revolutionary crisis of 1640-1. In each case, manuscript publicity was central to the events’ dynamics; and in each case manuscript pamphlets helped frame events within a potent master narrative—a conspiracy was at work, hatched by corrupt royal counselors who aimed to alter the frame of English government, displacing Parliament, augmenting conciliar and royal power, and thus compromising English wealth and virtue. This narrative—Millstone calls it “the myth of the changing constitution”—first took shape in the 1610s, but began to exert a tighter hold on the political imagination in the later 1620s when it became central to the writings of Sir John Eliot and his allies in the circle around the antiquarian Robert Cotton (222). The narrative would continue to shape political perception and action throughout the Caroline Personal Rule and into the crisis that led to civil war.

Impressively integrating intellectual, media, and political history, Millstone’s three case studies offer fresh readings of well-known events and personalities, providing a long-term genealogy for some distinctive features of the revolutionary politics of the early 1640s, and taking seriously Early Modern plot talk as a historically-constituted habit of mind rather than dismissing it as an embarrassing pathology. Millstone’s chapter on Eliot and Cotton recovers a logic and daring to Eliot’s politics missed by generations of scholars, and his retelling of the Ship Money story goes beyond the debate on the levy’s legality to explore how Ship Money became situated by its critics within the bigger narrative of plots to change the constitution, in which the king’s claim of “necessity” was unmasked as a politic sham designed by his evil counselors. Millstone’s reading of the 1640-1 crisis not only makes clear the continued importance of manuscript pamphleteering to political action and mobilization, but also how profoundly the myth of the changing constitution, normalized by over nearly two decades of scribal publications, shaped the Long Parliament’s assault on the Caroline regime.

This rich, provocative book models important new ways of reframing and answering vital questions about the causes of the English Revolution. Its emphasis on political practice and habits of mind rooted in socio-economic, material and intellectual contexts helps to identify linkages and causal motors that will enhance our ongoing search for the Revolution’s long-term cultural origins. Some key challenges remain. Some are theoretical—can we integrate approaches inspired by Geertz and Habermas with those inspired by Bourdieu? Some are historical. Millstone’s privileging of the politic mode of perception needs a lot of further testing. We need to revisit other early Stuart political media (verse libels, stage plays, etc.) to gauge how deeply the politic mode inflected other genres of writing. We need to know how the politic mode in the manuscript pamphlets related to and interacted with other contemporary discourses or cognitive technologies both within the pamphlets and elsewhere. Did it coexist with moralizing political discourses of virtue, honor, or godliness? Did it supplement or undermine the widespread providentialist reading of hidden divine intentions in political events? Can we compare William Drake, the quintessential politic reader of scribal pamphlets, with his contemporary Nehemiah Wallington, the godly London Puritan who read and collected manuscript media of his own, but looked for different hidden patterns?  Noah Millstone’s forthcoming digital edition of many of the surviving early Stuart manuscript pamphlets will make some of this further work much easier. For now, his marvelous book is a timely reminder of the deep roots of some of our own political obsessions, and thus of the continued contemporary relevance of England’s century of revolution.


Alastair Bellany
Rutgers University


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Cite as:

Alastair Bellany, "Noah Millstone, Manuscript Circulation and the Invention of Politics in Early Stuart England ," Spenser Review 47.3.47 (Fall 2017). Accessed May 23rd, 2024.
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