Die Anfänge der Zeitungen

The Origin of Newspapers

Neue Zeitung vom Rhein
Martin Luther, 1542
Luther Digital, Lutherjahr 1996 in Worms

William Hoffman
German 3512
University of Minnesota
March 16, 1981

The newspaper is the messenger of modern life. Unlike Hermes, the messenger god of Greek mythology, the newspaper is not always graceful and swift, shrewd and cunning. And unlike Athena, Hermes' half sister who sprang full grown and armored from the head of Zeus, the newspaper came into being through the process of evolution rather than by a single creative act. Scholars have logged many miles and penned many words in attempting to track down the first genuine newspaper, only to get bogged down in definitions and semantics. The search has had chauvinistic overtones. Among the nations laying claim to the first newspaper are Germany, England, Hungary, Holland, and Italy, though in each case the candidate is as remarkable for its uniqueness as for its similarity to the others. While the search for the first newspaper is like to continue, it is generally agreed that the development of newspapers is international. The press is not a gift of any one nation to the world.

The newspaper is a feature of modern history. It followed soon and naturally from the invention of printing [detail from the Gutenberg Bible, 1554-55, 80K] and from the public appetite for information stimulated by the Renaissance and Reformation, and from the growing demands of the young marketplace. Its early development occurred simultaneously with the commercial expansion of Europe overseas and the burgeoning interest in travel literature and tales from afar [John Mandeville, Itinerarium, Augsburg 1481, 51K]. And it represented a release from the medieval preoccupation with personal salvation. The newspaper is the vital link in chains of information present in all societies, much as the food chain in nature:

Perhaps no country contributed more to the early development of newspapers than Germany. Indeed, the word "newspaper" is encountered for the first time in a German newsletter in 1508, though most scholars agree that genuine newspapers do not occur for another century. "Copia der Newen Zeytung auss Presillg Landt" was published in Augsburg and described conditions in newly discovered Portuguese Brazil and the prospects of navigating a passage around it to the East. Like most early news publications, it deals with a single event and is illustrated with woodcuts. The narrator does not identify himself. (The German mathematician Johannes Schöner bases his 1515 map and globe on the account.) (2).

The 16th century witnessed the proliferation of forerunners of the newspaper in Germany, the center of printing. The main publications were the flugblatt and the flugschrift, but they served quite different purposes. Just as books were properly the concern of the Gelehrten, pamphlets were largely the concern of the Gebildeten, and leaflets of the Volk who coult not be expected to pay attention beyond a single page: "Die Menge verlangte nach dieser Peitsche, und der Verkünder neue Ideen oder der Erzähler bewegender Ereignisse griff mit Leiderschaft nach diesem Mittel." (3) The flugblatt appeared in striking colors, with woodcuts and copper engravings to illustrate what amounted to very little text. It served for 16th century mass readership the same purposes that the National Enquirer serves today:

The printers of these leaflets worked "mit einem Geheimnis, das heute noch das worksamste Mittel der Presse ist, mit dem Mittel der Übertreibung." (5) They produced in living color and bold letters news that people were most curious about: miracles, storms, murder, adultery, war, and witch burnings.

The flugschrift, in contrast, was not circulated as widely and it placed greater demands on the reader, explaining a subject in greater depth, though it too was prone to exaggeration. Some flugschriften run to 300 pages--a small book--but most are less than one hundred pages. The Reformation was a great stimulus to the development of the flugschrift. Luther used it to great effect in theological disputation. Among the new publications it played perhaps a larger role in the circulation of politcal ideas than did the others:

Other publications of note were the einblattdruck, or broadside, and the relation. The former was a single leaf printed on one side only, ordinarily in folio size. It was used for public proclamations and posters, indulgence letters, and ecclesiastic and legal declarations. (7) The relation, which evolved into the English coranto in the early 17th century, contained a single story often summarized on the frontispiece. It served the dual function of news and propaganda.

By the early 17th century, several factors made conditions ripe for "die periodische, gedruckte Zeitung":

The principal figure in the news process was the printer. He collected news as his source of income and sold the newspaper himself. Sometimes it was a family affair. Usually printing a newspaper involved the skills of Formschneider, Briefmaler, Illuministen und Patronisten, and required the assistance of Schreiber, Sekretäre, Ärzte, Geistliche, Postmeister, kurz Leute, "die durch ihren Beruf zur Kenntnis aktueller und allgemein interessierender Nachrichten gelangten."(9) The sale and distribution of newspapers was handled by the printer himself, the Formschneider and Briefmaler, and by the Umträger, Krämer, and Boten, as well as by the Buchhandel, the booksellers. The price was seldom stated, depending on the Umfang and the Ausschmuckung of woodcuts and copper engraving. Of course, a license to print was required by law: "Privilegien fur Einzelzeitungen find sich schon zu Beginn des 16. Jahrhunderts angegeben."(10) And obeisance was paid to those in control:

Einzelzeitungen is the term used by Adolf Dresler to describe "alle Drucke des 15. bis 19. Jahrhunderts, die uber gleichzeitige Ereignisse irgendwelcher Art Bericht erstatten," whether they be Neue Zeitung, Bericht, Beschreibung, Brief, Copia, Dialogus, Geschichte, Gespräch, Historia, Nachricht, Schreiben, Sendbrief and Relation. All are characterized by a title, a table of contents, an empty back page, ornamentation by woodcut or copper engraving, and the date, printer and publisher (often the same).(12) Regular publishing arrived with the Wochenblätter in Strassburg and Augsburg in 1609, according to Dresler. It involved a few changes: "Erst allmählich bildet sich ein stehender Title mit Titelkopf heraus, rückt der Text von der dritten auf erste Seite vor, werden die Nummern und die Seiten fortlaufend beziffert."(13) And with the arrival of the weekly newspaper the role of the printer as the news gatherer and publisher faded: "Ihre Tätigkeit wurde auf die technische Arbeit beschränkt. Dafür bildete sich der Stand der Berufsjournalisten aus, das Verlagswesen entfaltete sich, der Vertrieb im Einzelverkauf und durch den Buchhandel wurde später durch den Postbezug ergänst."(14) The Wochenblätter paved the way for the practice of journalism:

Naturally, journalism could not have arisen without a manifested need for it and a growing appreciation for the language. "Das organische Erwachsen der periodischen, gedruckten Zeitungen aus ihren Vorformen beweist nichts besser als die Tatsache, das ihr Entstehen keine literarische Würdigung erhalten hat."(16) No sooner had the Wochenblätter or Wochenzeitungen started appearing--in such places as Strassburg, Augsburg, Nürnberg, and Leipzig--when political events transpired that greatly stimulated their development, primarily the Thirty Years' War:

Besides serving as a vehicle for information, public and private, the Wochenzeitung reported on political and social change. Following the Thirty Years' War, Germany experienced the rise of absolutism and new social classes, which required a mode of regular communication: "Die periodische Zeitung wurde über ihren rein informatorischen Charakter hinaus zum Bildungsmittle weiter Kreise....Recht und Pflichten waren ständisch verteilt, und jeder Stand wehrte sich gegen Übergriffe eines anderen."(18)

Let us now examine some early 17th century newspapers. One of the earilest to publish at regular intervals over the couse of years was titled: "Relation: Aller Furnemmen Und Gedeckwurdigen Historien, So Sich Hin Und Wider In Hock Und Nieder Deutschland, Auch In Frankreich, Italien, Schott Und Engelland, Hisspanien, Hungern, Polen Siebenbürgen, Wallachey, Moldaw, Türckey, Etc. In Diesem 1609 Jahr Verlauffen Und Zutragen Möchete. Alles Auf Das Trewlichste Wie Ich Solche Bekommen Und Zu Wegen Bringen Mag, In Truck Verfertigen Will." The publisher, a Strassburg printer named Johann Carolus, was well known in book publishing and "Speaks of having printed ordinarii avisa for some years and as hoping, by God's grace, to continue."(19) The "Relation," which was printed at least until the end of the Thirty Years War and perhaps longer, contained news items from such distant vistas as Rome, Antwerp, Venice, Vienna, Prague, Cracow, Amsterdam, Brussels, and Lyons. A news item of extraordinary interest, linking the beginning of modern journalism with the beginning of modern science [emphasis added], is reported from Venice in the weekly "Relation," dated September 4, 1609:

Another Wochenzeitung, published in Augsburg by Lucas Schulte, also was launched in 1609. The title of the first issue was: "Avisa Relation Oder Zeintung, Was Sich Begeben Und Zugetragen Hat, In Deutsches Und Welschland, Spanniern, Niederlandt, Engellandt, Franckreich, Ungarn, Osterreich, Schwenden, Polen Und In Allen Provintzen, In Osts Und Westindien Etc." It is interesting to compare how the "Avisa" handles the news of Gallileo:

There is evidence that the item appeared earlier in the Avisa than in the Relation, suggesting that the Bot stopped in Augsburg before heading to Strassburg and points west. In the early 1620s printer Schulte moved his operation to the neighboring city of Oettingen, where it eventually became the München-Augsburger Abendzeitung.(22)

Frankfurt and Hamburg were also important centers for early journalism. The "Frankfurter Journal" was the enterprise of bookseller Egenolph Emmel, who started it in 1615, and was the forerunner of the Frankfurter Nachrichten. Another paper, the "Postavisen," became the ancestor of the Frankfurther Postzeitung of the 19th century. It was especially significant in the history of journalism because, with it, litigation entered the newspaper office. One Johann von den Birghden came to Frankfurt to represent the House of Taxis, the nobles of which line conducted the German postoffices in the 16th and 17th centuries. "In 1617 he founded a weekly paper and soon in a lawsuit started by Emmel, Birghden asserted an alleged right as postmaster to a monopoly of newspaper publication. This alleged principle of law plagued German journalism for a long time."(23) In Hamburg, Johann Meyer founded the "Wochenliche Zeitung" in 1616, the same year that postmaster Christoph Frischmann founded the "Zeitung ausz Deutschlandt, Welschlandt, Frankreich, Hungard, Niederlands und anderen Orten" in Berlin.(24)

The newspaper thrived through the course of the 17th century, and by the beginning of the 18th century it had become a permanent fixture of German, and indeed of European society. In Germany the actions of the press continued to be circumscribed by the state. Censorship was a recognized fact of life. Moreover, the newspaper, as property, merely reinforced the practice of ideas and property as comfortable bedfellows: "Die standische Gliederung ging historisch immer mit der Monopolisierung ideeler oder materieller Güter zusammen. Das gilt auch für die Zeitung."(25) It was not until the Aufklärung that notions of free expression were seriously discussed, and powerfully opposed:

Germany was an important center for the early development of newspapers, principally because it was the home of early printing, but also because of political, social, and religious ferment releasing the individual from the spiritual bondage of medieval life and allowing him to take an active part in society. But it would be centuries before the concept of a free press would enable him to speak his mind.