Rosanne M. Baars
‘Never was there a time more suited for the dissemination of rumours. After all, people mostly follow their emotions; they forge and shape news reports as they like to favour their own party, by adding something, leaving fragments out, even by inventing news reports and re-creating them from their own imagination. I have caught very many guilty of doing just this.’
A Calvinist chronicler, Northern Netherlands, September 1590.
On 13 October 1572, a rumour ran in Antwerp that the king of France had been murdered. This however soon proved false. An Antwerp chronicler duly added ‘false afterwards’ to the diary entry stating this news. Historians of the Wars of Religion and the Dutch Revolt have long observed the interconnected nature of these two crises and have pointed at a mutual hunger for news among the French and the Dutch. They have stressed that contemporaries were well aware of the interdependency of the two conflicts. Yet these assumptions are primarily based on research into pamphlet production and diplomatic exchange. In my research, I have tried to determine what news the French and the Dutch received about the conflicts of their respective neighbours. How did they digest and interpret this news? How did such news fit it into a larger frame of reference? Who was to be trusted in times of civil wars? Whose authority was deemed credible in confirming rumours?
I have concentrated on a specific group of people who systematically recorded news about the neighbouring wars: chroniclers – predominantly male, well-to-do, urban citizens, often with a background in Law. Their writings offer a vivid insight into the news that crossed the borders. Oral reports, seemingly elusive, turn out to be not entirely intangible: studying a large amount of chronicles has yielded a fairly good picture of the news exchange between the two countries in the second half of the sixteenth century.
Religious strife and civil war charged news with a special urgency and furthered the use of propaganda. False news or disinformation was deliberately used as a weapon to discredit the enemy. Refugees fleeing violence brought disturbing reports about sieges, battles and massacres. Trustworthiness became even more essential than in peace time, and the chronicles I have studied testify of contemporaries learning to assess the reliability of news and the authority of its sources. By the turn of the seventeenth century, many inhabitants of both the Low Countries and France had grown up with partisan reports on the war and had been thoroughly trained in assessing the veracity of news.
Recent research into early modern news has greatly increased our knowledge of the infrastructure of news networks in Europe. It has also demonstrated the impact of war on the circulation of news. War was both an obstacle and an incentive for the dissemination of news. Unsafe roads through war-stricken regions impeded merchants, couriers, and others who carried mail and oral reports. At the same time, the threat of war made inhabitants in France and the Netherlands keen for news. Remarkably, the citizens of the largest cities such as Antwerp, Brussels, and Paris were not the only ones to be well-informed. Many inhabitants of the smaller towns, far removed from the large commercial and political urban centres, also regularly received foreign news reports, often in great detail.
The most important change can be discerned in the perception of the conflicts among chroniclers. In the course of the civil wars, both their outlook and their loyalties became more international. Although Netherlandish chroniclers in the 1560s and 70s displayed an interest in the French wars and expressed their sympathy for their persecuted coreligionists across the border, they did view the French troubles as a basically ‘foreign’ conflict. During the 1590s, however, Netherlandish diarists cheered Henry of Navarre and expressed their hopes that the Low Countries would be incorporated into the kingdom of France. And while French diarists initially were rather unconcerned with the rebels in the swamps up north, they did become more engaged as they applauded the invasion of Farnese in 1590. The declining authority of the legitimate rulers in both countries fostered an international outlook, in which religious loyalty replaced dynastic loyalty. At the same time, international loyalties almost always competed with, and usually had to yield to, local concerns.
A Public of Critical News Consumers
Chronicles in towns all over the Netherlands and France testify to an inquisitive and politically engaged public. Lawyers, artisans, and clerics deemed it of the utmost importance to be aware of, and chronicle, foreign events. The development of the wars themselves stimulated the news consumption of local citizens: political decentralization brought about by the civil wars rendered more of them involved in local politics, and it became therefore imperative for them to remain au courant, not only of local affairs, but also of international politics.
Chroniclers exhibited a sophisticated level of dealing with the uncertainty of news. They often recorded news that they suspected to be ‘false’. They did so because they realized that reports, whether true or untrue, always had an impact on people’s actions and the decisions they made. It was therefore imperative to remember that they had once believed in false news, albeit only for several days or weeks. Historians have stressed the role of propaganda and the common human inclination to believe news that is positive. However, many chroniclers, whether Protestant or Catholic, displayed an ambition to uncover the truth, no matter how inconvenient. They did not write down what they wished to believe, but expressed their uncertainty by scrutinizing the news reports that came to them. The French Wars of Religion and the Dutch Revolt stimulated the emergence of a public of critical international news consumers, eager to know what had really happened.
About the Author:
Rosanne Baars obtained her PhD at the University of Amsterdam in 2019. Her book Rumours of Revolt: Civil War and the Emergence of a Transnational News Culture in France and the Netherlands, 1561-1598, came out in May 2021 (Brill). She has also published on maritime history and Franco-Dutch-Ottoman diplomacy. Her research interests include the reception of news and media, diplomatic history, early modern France, and the Ottoman Empire. She currently works as a lecturer in Early Modern History at the University of Amsterdam.