What Makes a Pamphlet?

On January 30, 2013 by admin


Joad Raymond

Though already venerable the word pamphlet prospered in the 1580s, as its meanings shifted and it entered into common use. In 1716 Myles Davies claimed it as ‘a true-born English Denison’, a native idiom, ‘of no longer a Date than that of the last Century, since ’tis almost certain its Pedigree can scarce be trac’d higher than the latter end of Queen Elizabeth’s Reign.’[i] Davies offered a range of meanings for the term, at the root of which was the small ‘stitch’d’ (not bound) book, tending to calumny or scandal. It was perhaps, he noted, etymologically related to Pan = all and I love: ‘signifying a thing belov’d by all: For a Pamphlet being of a small portable Bulk, and of no great Price, and of no great Difficulty, seems adapted for every one’s Understanding, for every one’s Reading, for every one’s Buying, and consequently becomes a fit Object and Subject of most People’s Choice, Capacity and Ability.’

The term first appeared in Anglo-Latin writing in the fourteenth century, and in English in the fifteenth. It derived from Pamphilus seu de Amore, a popular twelfth-century Latin amatory poem. Thence, with the diminutive ending –et, it became a familiar appellation for any small book. Following the spread of printing, the term began to specify a ‘separate’, a small item issued on its own, usually unbound, not substantial enough to constitute a volume by itself. In a minor usage the word described a collection of literary items, in poetry or prose, which were produced to be disposable rather than enduring. These were produced for the market of gentleman readers who sought entertainment or titillation. The printer’s prefatory epistle in George Gascoigne’s poetic anthology A Hundreth Sundrie Flowres (1579), referred to ‘the publication of these pleasant Pamphlets.’ Here pamphlets refers not to the poems themselves (Gascoigne writes: ‘I may not compare Pamphlets unto Poems’), but metonymically describes separates collected into a volume.[ii] This usage continued into the next century: Robert Anton, in Vices Anotimie Scourged and Corrected in New Satirs (1617) complained of ‘obsceane and shallow Poetry’ produced by and for the university graduate who ‘murders the Presse with fellonious Pamphlets stolne from the imperfections of their dearest friends’.[iii]

During the 1580s the meaning of the word pamphlet coalesced with frequent use: it usually referred to a short, vernacular work, generally printed in quarto format, costing no more than a few pennies, of topical interest or engaged with social, political or ecclesiastical issues.[iv] By the 1590s it had found a range of uses: the noun ‘pamphleter’ (and later pamphleteer), the verb ‘to pamphlet’, ‘pamphletary’ meaning pertaining to pamphlets; attributive uses were subsequently coined, including ‘pamphlet Treaties’, ‘Pamphlet-Forms … Pamphlet-Subjects’, and ‘pamphlet war’.[v] These frequently carried pejorative overtones. Pamphlets were unreliable. A character in Henry Holland’s dialogue A Treatise Against Witchcraft (1590) complains that ‘many fabulous pampheletes are published, which give little light and lesse proofe’.[vi]

Pamphlets were closely associated with slander or scurrility. This meaning has a discernible trajectory in the second half of the sixteenth century, and can be found in legal contexts. In 1559 Queen Elizabeth issued to the Court of High Commission, the supreme ecclesiastical court of the country, a set of recommendations and instructions regarding their duties. The fifty-first article of these Injunctions charged the Archbishops of Canterbury and York and the Bishop of London with responsibility for supervising the press: ‘And bycause many pampheletes, playes and balletes, be often times printed, wherein regard wold be had, that nothinge therin should be either heretical, sedicious, or unsemely for Christian eares: Her majestie likewise commaundeth, that no manner of person, shall enterprise to print any such, except the same be to him lycensed’.[vii] John Leslie, Bishop of Ross, was interrogated by the queen’s ministers in 1570; he had written a book, defending the honour and legitimacy of Mary Queen of Scots, entitled A Defence of the Honour of the Right Highe, Mightye and Noble Princesse (1569). Leslie justified himself, ‘that nothing was intended but a defence of her honour against so many blasphemous “treateis” and “pamflettis” as have been set abroad both in England and Scotland, which are printed at London …’[viii] In 1579 John Aylmer, who as Bishop of London bore responsibility for supervising the output of presses, wrote to secretary of state William Cecil, Lord Burghley: ‘I have founde out a presse of pryntynge with one [William] Carter, a very Lewd fellowe, who hath byne Dyvers tymes before in prison for printinge of Lewde pamphelettes.’[ix] In 1580, drafting an act to control ‘the licentious printing selling and uttering of unproffitable and hurtfull Inglishe bokes’, the lawyer William Lambarde spread his net wide to include ‘sundrie bookes, pamfletes, Poesies, ditties, songes, and other woorkes, and wrytinges, of many sortes and names serving … to let in a mayne Sea of wickednesse .. and to no small or sufferable wast[e] of the treasure of this Realme which is thearby consumed and spent in paper, being of it selfe a forrein and chargeable comoditie.’[x]

In 1583 a group of stationers complained to the Privy Council that the lack of codified rights to ownership of texts (or ‘copy’) was undermining their profitability. A commission appointed to investigate the privilege warned the Council that, unless some remedial action was taken, ‘onelie pamflettes, trifles and vaine small toies shall be printed, and the great bokes of value and good for the Chirch and Realme shold not be done at all’.[xi] A 1588 royal proclamation, concerned with the import of catholic propaganda into England, requested that all officers should ‘inquire and search for all such bulls, transcripts, libels, books and pamphlets, and for all such persons whatsoever as shall bring in, publish, disperse, or utter any of the same.’[xii] By 1588 pamphlets were disreputable, potentially dangerous works that needed to be monitored.

An obsolete, early-sixteenth-century term, ‘pamphelet’, meant a prostitute. This may have coloured the name for a cheap book, available to any in return for a small payment. John Taylor drew the analogy bluntly in a comic poem:

For like a Whore by day-light or by candle,

’Tis even free for every knave to handle:

And as a new whore is belov’d and sought,

So is a new Booke in request and bought.

When whores wax old and stale, they’re out of date,

Old Pamphlets are most subject to such fate.

As whores have Panders to emblazen their worth,

So these have Stationers to set them forth.

And as an old whore may be painted new

With borrowed beauty, faire unto the view,

Whereby shee for a fine fresh whore may passe,

Yet is shee but the rotten whore shee was.

So Stationers, their old cast Bookes can grace,

And by new Titles paint a-fresh their face.

Whereby for currant they are past away,

As if they had come forth but yesterday.[xiii]

Even in its late-sixteenth century usage, the word pamphlet was deprecatory. Pamphlets were small, insignificant, ephemeral, disposable, untrustworthy, unruly, noisy, deceitful, poorly-printed, addictive, a waste of time. As the form of the pamphlet emerged the name given to it was, like ‘Puritan’, an insult. In his preface to Robert Greene’s Menaphon (1589), Thomas Nashe dismissed the uninventive offerings of unashamedly commercial ‘Pamphleters, and Poets, that make a patrimonie of Inspeech’.[xiv] In Pierce Penilesse (1592) Nashe railed against Gabriel Harvey: ‘thou Pigmie Braggart, thou Pamphleter of nothing but Peans’.[xv] Harvey responded in Foure Letters (1592) with a complaint against ‘those, whose owne Pamflets are readier to condemne them, then my letters forwarde to accuse them.’[xvi] Other people write pamphlets. Thus Barnaby Rich in 1606: ‘What a number of Pamphlets haue wee by our new writers of this age, whereof the greatest part are nothing else but vanitie’.[xvii] As if to say: pamphlets insult the readers’ intelligence, but this, dear reader …[xviii] The lawyer Sir Edward Coke denounced in 1608 the unauthorised publication of an inaccurate paraphrase of one of his speeches: ‘little doe I esteeme an uncharitable and malitious practise in publishing of an erronious and ill spelled Pamphet [sic]’.[xix] In the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries a stereotypical pamphleteer was an idle exploiter of the credulous vulgar; by the mid seventeenth century he would cease to be merely frivolous, and become greedy and malicious.

The term pamphlet was not used pejoratively without exception, nor always to refer to someone else’s writing. Nashe refers to his Strange Newes (1592) as ‘my Pamphlet’, but only after describing Harvey ‘giving mony to have this his illiterat Pamphlet of Letters printed (whereas others have monie given them to suffer them selves to come in Print)’. Nashe is defiantly answering a fool after his own folly, and thus is prepared to denigrate the status of his own two-sheet quarto.[xx] Harvey dances a symmetrical caper in Foure Letters, when, after haranguing Nashe, he refers to his own work as ‘this impertinent Pamflet … this slender Pamflet’, before beseeching writers ‘not to trouble the Presse, but in case of urgent occasion, or important use’.[xxi] Nashe, conscious of his dependence on his readers, modestly admits: ‘I must not place a volume in the precincts of a pamphlet’, meaning to let it grow beyond its proper stature.[xxii] A similar feint of humility appears in John Taylor’s Nipping and Snipping of Abuses (1614), where he admits ‘I have at idle times some Pamphlets writ’, and refers to his quarto volume of poetry as ‘This little pamphlet’.[xxiii] Taylor, a waterman and popular writer, uses the term both negatively and neutrally as part of a deliberate attempt to represent himself as a modest, self-educated, and honest author. A 1591 news pamphlet regretted that ‘this Pamphlet’ had been held up by other ‘apish Pamphleters’.[xxiv]

In all these uses the term pamphlet hints at ambivalence; a commercial or pragmatic compromise has been made, a small bark floats on a sea of scurrility. In the hands of Elizabethan pamphleteers, ‘pamphlet’ is a complex term, but is essentially an insult.


[i]           Davies, Athenæ, vol. 1, section 2: A Critical History of Pamphlets, p. 1.

[ii]           Flowres, sig.A2v, p.50; Arthur F. Marotti, Manuscript, Print, and the English Renaissance Lyric (Ithaca and London, 1995), pp. 227-8, 302-3n.26; on the licensing history of this text and its censored sequel, see Clegg,  Press Censorship, pp.103-22.

[iii]          Robert Anton, Vices Anotimie Scourged and Corrected in New Satirs (1617), sig. B1r.

[iv]          Oxford English Dictionary: vide ‘pamphlet’, n., 2.

[v]           These examples, between 1571 and 1730, from the very useful entry in OED; some of the examples given below predate those in OED for the sense of ‘pamphlet’, n., 2.

[vi]          Henry Holland, A Treatise Against Witchcraft (1590), sig. E3v. Theophilus refers to debates over the devil’s delusory empowerment of witches.

[vii]         Quoted in Edward Arber, ed., An Introductory Sketch to the Martin Marprelate Controversy, 1588-1590 (1879), pp. 49-50.

[viii]         Calendar of State Papers Relating to Scotland, 3 (1903), p. 160.

[ix]          Edward Arber, ed., Transcript, 2: 749-50.

[x]           Arber, Transcript, 2:751.

[xi]          Greg, Companion, p. 127.

[xii]         Paul L. Hughes and James F. Larkin, Tudor Royal Proclamations, 3 vols. (New Haven & London, 1964-69), 3:13-17.

[xiii]         The Penguin Book of Renaissance Verse 1509-1659, selected by David Norbrook, ed. H. R. Woudhuysen (1982), p. 740.

[xiv]         [Greene], Menaphon (1589), sig. A3r.

[xv]          Nashe, Pierce Penilesse (1592), in The Works of Thomas Nashe, 5 vols., ed. Ronald B. McKerrow (1904-10), 1:196.

[xvi]         The Works of Gabriel Harvey, ed. Alexander B. Grosart, 3 vols. (1884-5), 1:155.

[xvii]        Barnaby Rich, Faultes, Fault And Nothing Else but Faultes (1606), reprinted ed. Melvin H. Wolf (Gainesville, FL, 1965), sig. 39v.

[xviii]       Cf. A. R. True and Wonderfull. A discourse (1614), sig.A3r; Thomas Bedwell, Kalendarium viatorum generale (1614), sig.A4v; Joseph Swetnam, The Araignment of Lewde, Idle, Froward, and Unconstant Women (1615), sig. A4v.

[xix]         Quoted Peter W. M. Blayney, The Texts of King Lear and their Origins, vol. 1: Nicholas Okes and the First Quarto (Cambridge, 1982), p. 64; I am grateful to Peter Blayney for this reference.

[xx]          Works of Thomas Nashe, 1:258-9.

[xxi]         The Works of Gabriel Harvey, 1:220-21, 231.

[xxii]        Nashe, The Unfortunate Traveller and Other Works, ed. J. B. Steane, (Harmondsworth, 1972), p. 224.

[xxiii]       Taylor, The Nipping or Snipping of Abuses (1614), sigs. B3v, L4r.

[xxiv]        G. B., Newes out of France [?1591], sig. A4r-v.


Joad Raymond is Professor of Renaissance Studies, Queen Mary, University of London.

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