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Author: St Haffemeyer
Title: Data processing and the Analysis of Gazettes From the Ancien R
Publication Info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
April 1999

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Source: Data processing and the Analysis of Gazettes From the Ancien R
St Haffemeyer

vol. 2, no. 1, April 1999
Article Type: Article

Data processing and the Analysis of Gazettes From the Ancien Régime, an Account of the Work

Stéphane Haffemayer

Associate Professor of History
Doctor of the University of Grenoble II in Modern History ( [1] )

(English Version revised April 1, 1999)

Studied from the standpoint of a geography of information the gazettes of the Old Regime reveal a European space of news exchange whose periodicity was articulated in structured networks. Its working have been brought to light through a data base of 20,327 news items published in the Gazette of Renaudot from 1647 to 1663, the parameters of a vast statistical study of information ( frequence of insertion, linear volume, time lags between news emission and publication ). This reveals a coherent distribution system, as well as a sum of discontinuities and ruptures specific to a commodity sensitive to conjuncture. A cartographic presentation reveals both the structure and the development of European news exchange. This approach opens possibilities for comparative analysis over several years and with other periodicals. Particularly noteworthy is that, besides geographic constraints, the study shows the considerable influence of political choice on the organization of circuits of information and the modalities of publication.

For about twenty years, the specialists of XVIII century literature gave ever increasing attention to the study of the press of the Ancien Régime ; the work of Keith Michael Baker and Roger Chartier, to quote but a few of them ( [2]), only underlined the rise to prominence and the revolutionary role of print concerning public opinion. With the spectacular development of newspapers in the XVIII century, periodical information, in its new and tempting form, became the new barometer of a critical expression with regard to this policy. This growing role of the press in political life led such philosophers as Voltaire in the Calas ( [3]) affair to start to bring to bear against monarchical power the formidable counterweight of public opinion. This counterweight , at the time, was not yet an actual reality, but no more than a new concept.

It was this cultural context which led inescapably to the revolutionary opposition. But the creation of the press at the beginning of the XVII century does not benefit from such scholarly interest. Like others, historians are still far from numerous in being interested in the process of this evolution ( [4]), for two reasons.

Firstly, the rewriting of information by the editor of the Gazette in fact makes it an extremely delicate source to handle. The driving belt of the monarchical project, it is readily presented as an instrument of propaganda in the hands of established power ( [5]); too near sometimes to literature, it conveys the values and the social imagery of an elite fascinated by the chivalrous ideal of heroic novels. This function of "representation" diverts historians away from a study in which they rarely see any value in teaching the facts.

The second challenge is constituted by the phenomenal quantity of information which the first periodicals delivered to an avid public wishing to know and to share, for the first time, the news of the world. The example of the Gazette of Théophraste Renaudot, founded on May 30, 1631, is evocative. Between 1647 and 1663, it consisted of 22,202 pages in quartile format, that is to say 1,783 extraordinary accounts and 20,327 ordinary news items! ( [6]) As much as his rather low reputation, such a methodological obstacle is, do not doubt it, the major reason for the absence of study until now ! But any analysis should first tackled the previous methods of examination! Given this mass of information, only data processing can help us get there.

Discredited for its servility, the information in the Gazette has not yet been the subject of a systematic and exhaustive study. However, it immediately met with important success, so much so that it led to counterfeits. In Grenoble, between 1647 and 1663, the registers of the Nicolas bookseller drew up the list of 171 subscribers faithful to the texts reprinted from Lyon ( [7]). Each week, the Gazette brought to them 12 pages of ordinary news coming from more than twenty localities spread throughout all of Europe, as well as extraordinary news, accounts of a battle or an event to the glory of the monarchy. The recording of each news item on a digitized data base makes it possible to create a key concept in the analysis of a periodical, that of the space and time through which its information is distributed: mapping of data.

Initially, it is advisable to organize the data base as we have done, in accordance with a certain number of criteria related to the nature of the periodical. Its year of publication, the name of the publication (Gazette, Ordinary News, Extraordinary), the date of the publication, the transmitting locality of the news, its date, the country concerned, the number of lines, the timing of the publication of each news item, etc. These all make it possible to establish all the statistical parameters of news per year, country, city, periodical, etc. The power of the spreadsheet enables us to then calculate the informational volume of the periodical (number of news items), the geographical distribution of its information, the frequency with each locality provides news, the density of each publication, of each locality (number of lines), the time delay of publication, etc.

Finally, the last stage of this analysis of the structure of the periodical consists in the mapping of the data by means of software which accepts the importation of data from the spreadsheet ( [8]).

In order to illustrate this point, MAP 1 offers a global vision of this European news space in the Gazette between 1647 and 1663. Nearly 800 transmitting localities testify to the wealth of the news printed by the periodical during these 17 years.

Map 1

Firstly, their locale underlines some characteristics of European communication in the modern era. The news space of the Gazette is centered on urban Western Europe, primarily continental (for nearly 56% of the localities) ; the Mediterranean accounts for only 25% of them, the Atlantic 15% and the Baltic 4%. It is obvious, the emission of news was restricted in certain ways. It followed the routes taken by merchants and armies. Most of the news about the Empire concerned troop movements during the last two years of the Thirty Years' War. News very often followed the course of river valleys, natural transportation routes, before being taken over by the networks of the post office. In other words, the system of news of the periodical is based initially on a grid of localities, each with good accessibility, which gives Europe the image of continual movement, a Europe unaware of the borders between nations.

But beyond these general features, the cartography of news also offers an interesting reconstruction of the zones of political and military tension. Each week, the readers attentively follow the series of military operations on the continent between France and Habsbourg (Empire, Netherlands Spanish, Milanese, Catalonia, inside the kingdom during and after the Fronde). The more distant wars also have their places there : the English Civil War, the Anglo-Dutch War, the Northern Wars between Sweden and Poland, the Ottoman's attack against Christendom, the attacks of the Cossacks against the Muscovites, etc. contribute fully to the informative richness of the periodical press. Conversely, the area's distant wars and similar exchanges appear rather seldom, as is testifed to by the paucity of news coming from the Spanish peninsula.

On the whole, this study of ordinary news makes it possible to bring up to date the relatively stable and regular processes by which news was transmitted under the Ancien Régime. Map 2 makes an assessment of this geography of ordinary information by country : the result is surprising. Italian news is clearly ahead of French news! Since Charles VIII (1843-1498) , France is dominated by the political and cultural attractions of Italy.

Map 2

On the other hand, the geography of the Extraordinaries is completely different (Map 3). Great Britain provides but about 38% of the accounts. That is explained by the interest of the French towards the animated political life on the other side of the English Channel, the English Civil War, marked by the execution of Charles I and the evolution of the government of Cromwell. In 1648, all this contributed to the inception of the struggle in the Parliament of London against Charles I and the Fronde.

Map 3

But the origins of the news is also explained by the attraction of foreign printed materials to periodicals as a strategy for securing news of interest to their readers. The Parliament of London — Cromwell had understood well the essential role of print - —is itself the origin of a considerable print production via its edicts. There is already, then, a French public passion for the accounts of English political life, which are prelude to the anglomania of the XVIII century. But this interest is not reciproctated; the news of the Fronde left the English relatively indifferent.

In sum these findings moderates the view of the geography of news as determined according to the centres of interest of French foreign policy. The periodicals knew how to meet the tastes of their public, even when that did not tend to favour monarchical authority. The Gazette delivers edifying accounts of English origin which accuse Charles I of political incapacity or treason and even which explicitly calls into question his divine rights, one of the pillars of absolutism. This geography of news thus follows carefully the ebbs and flows of current events. It needed to be thus as to conform to the tastes of a scholarly and demanding public, and to effectively compete with the private networks of epistolary information.

However, readers were not quickly informed of what occured in Europe; the average lag between events and the publication of some 20,327 news items studied is slightly less than 18 days. Globally, the north-west of Europe (7 to 15 days), gets news quicker than that coming from the south (between 3 and 5 weeks ). Except when the political utility of the news necessitated a rapid publication, the news distributed by the Gazette has a time delay superior to that of the post. Such a latency is imposed by the weekly rhythm of the publication, the work of rewriting the news, the filter of ministry approval, etc. But the important thing is that the chronological precision of information and its dating became, with the advantage of periodicity, the essential elements in the public judgement of its quality. A little worn, the news of the Gazette comes out of the narrow circle of the epistolary network of elites to be shared out amongst the greatest number. But after a basic comparison with the Nouvelles Ordinaires de Londres by Cromwell, it nevertheless appears that the French reader was twice as quickly informed as his neighbour on the other side of the English Channel.

The study of the geography of periodical news is thus a key element of its identity. Year by year, the cartography of news emphasizes the need for a network of correspondents, and illustrates changing national concerns. But beyond the evolving perception of international relations that it offers to its readers, it is possible to establish a visible image on this chart of the central places of information (Map 4). Between 1647 and 1663, only about twenty transmitting localities monopolized no less than 60% of the volume of all ordinary information. The importance of these centres of information is related to their function as exchanges (Amsterdam, Venice, Genoa), or also to their role as political capitols (London, Paris). This small number of localities constitutes to some extent the backbone of the periodicals' news networks.

Map 4

Such an approach to the structures of a periodical again lends much importance to its thematic study. From the time of Renaudot to the middle of the XVII century the informational contents that such a study contributes to a thematic analyses proves infinitely richer than the common notion. In accordance with the wishes of the founder who saw information as an instrument of social cohesion and not merely a scene-setting for monarchical glory. In effect the step taken by Renaudot was positive and functional. Like many contemporary scholars (Renaudot was a doctor trained at the school of Montpellier), he had probably been struck by the circulatory theories related to the discoveries of William Harvey (1628) concerning the circulation of blood. There followed from those discoveries a mechanistic vision of society in which information was seen as like a vital flow of blood. Information, just like blood, had to ensure a harmony of operation between the various parts of the social body. Thus, in the eyes of Renaudot, the creation of the Gazette, just like the establishment of its address offices and meeting-places, was a social need, a tool of natural regulation before a political instrument.

The creation of Renaudot would never have had such a success if it had not met to a formidable need of his contemporaries. This public passion for the Gazette underlines the taste for a new profane and national culture, as well as an awareness of politics which reading the periodical developed and enriched. It is this that made it a cultural phenomenon of great depth. And one thinks of the piece Les véritables prétieuses of Antoine Baudeau de Somaize (1660) in which it is affirmed that the people henceforth hold "Conseil d'eftat aux coins des rües, & fur le Pont Neuf [...] & qu'il y gouverne, non feulement la France ; mais encore l'Europe" ( [9] ). There is no doubt that it is the fashion for periodical information which is the cause. Because of the breadth which the geography of information reveals, the Gazette produces a formidable amplification of the political field which from then on became "a public affair". In this manner, the periodicity of information constitutes a true cultural rupture, much as did the translation of the Bible into vulgar languages at the beginning of the XVI century which involved a transformation of religious thought.

Above all, while being subjected to the periodic requirement to communicate, power was probably never exposed as much as at the front of the periodicals' stage. For on one side, the Gazette is a demonstration of monarchical authority, testifying to its exercise and to the centralization of power. But also, in a much less controlled way, this need to communicate was also a formidable concession to the public's demands for political information. All things considered, the creation of the press rather goes against the assertion of the absolutism of divine right. It places the acts of power under the attentive glance of men and reveals to readers a certain mechanical form of politics. By doing this, by conceding to this first sharing of information, it opens up a field of reflection and criticism which will end by being fatal for the monarch.


1. [Presse périodique et développement de l'information dans la France du milieu du XVIIe siècle : la "Gazette" et ses lecteurs dauphinois de 1647 à 1663, 3 vol. 935 p., thesis elevated at Grenoble, 1998.]

2. [ Keith Michael Baker, Inventing the French Revolution, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge-New York, 1990. Roger Chartier, Les origines culturelles de la Révolution française, Paris, Le Seuil, 1990, trad. The cultural origins of the French Revolution, Duke University Press, 1991.]

3. [ Théodore Besterman, Voltaire, Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1969, 3e éd.,1976, p. 466.]

4. [ See the international symposium of Lyon, 5-7 June 1997: "Les gazettes et l'information politique sous l'Ancien Régime". Publications de l'Universite de Saint Etienne, 1999, 443 p.]

5. [ See Henri-Jean MARTIN and Roger Chartier ( dir. ), Histoire de l'édition française, 2 parts , Paris, Promodis, 1982, p. 419.]

6. [ See Hubert Carrier, Les Muses guerrières. Les Mazarinades et la vie littérature au milieu du XVIIe siècle : courants, genres, culture populaire et savante à l'époque de la Fronde, Paris, Klincksieck, 1996. Pierre Rétat and Jean Sgard, Presse et histoire au XVIIIe siècle, l'année 1734, Paris, 1978.]

7. [ An earlier study carried out by Henri-Jean Martin and Martine Lecocq only found 125 readers : Livres et lecteurs à Grenoble. Les registres du libraire Nicolas ( 1645-1688 ), Geneva, Droz, 1977.]

8. [ This method is detailed in Stéphane Haffemayer's "Les gazettes de l'Ancien Régime. Approche quantitative pour l'analyse d'un "espace de l'information", Histoire & Mesure, CRH-CNRS, volume X11, n°1/2, 1997, pp.69-91.]

9. [ "Council of state on the corners of roads, & on the Pont Neuf [...] & who it governs, not only France ; but again Europe ".]