The Power of Pamphlets: A Brief History

As the Reformation passes a milestone, a look at a key weapon of change

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

The Reformation began on Oct. 31, 1517, when Martin Luther, as legend has it, nailed his “95 Theses” to a church door in Wittenberg, Germany. Whatever he actually did—he may have just attached the papers to the door or delivered them to clerical authorities—Luther was protesting Catholics’ sale of “indulgences” to give sinners at least partial absolution. The protest immediately went viral, to use a modern term, thanks to the new “social media” of the day—the printed pamphlet.

The development of the printing press around 1440 had set the stage: In the famous words of the German historian Bernd Moeller, “Without printing, no Reformation.” But the pamphlet deserves particular recognition. Unlike books, pamphlets were perfect for the mass market: easy to print and therefore cheap to buy.

By the mid-16th century, the authorities in France, Germany and England were fighting a rear-guard action to ban pamphlets. Despite various edicts in 1523, ’53, ’66 and ’89, the pamphlet flourished—and gained some highly placed authors. Although she professed disdain for the medium, Queen Elizabeth I contributed speeches to a 1586 pamphlet that justified her decision to execute Mary, Queen of Scots. Two years later, the Spanish printed a slew of propaganda pamphlets that tried to turn King Philip II’s failed invasion attempt of England into a qualified success.

By the 17th century, virulent “pamphlet wars” accompanied every major religious and political controversy in Europe. By then, pamphleteers needed an exceptionally strong voice to be heard above the din—something even harder to achieve once newspapers and periodicals joined the battle for readers as the century matured.

What is a pamphlet, anyway? One popular source says 80 pages; Unesco puts it as five to 48 pages. Shortness is a pamphlet’s strength. Though the work did little to ease Ireland’s poverty, the satirist Jonathan Swift opened English eyes to the problem with his 3,500-word mock pamphlet of 1729, “A Modest Proposal,” which argued that the best way to alleviate hunger was for the Irish to rear their children as food.

Half a century later, Thomas Paine took less than 50 pages to inspire the American Revolution with his “Common Sense” of 1776. A guillotine killed Marie Antoinette in 1793, but often-anonymous pamphlets had assassinated her character first in a campaign that portrayed her as a sex-crazed monster.

Pamphlets could also save reputations—such as that of Col. Alfred Dreyfus, the French-Jewish army officer falsely convicted in 1894 of spying for Germany. After realizing that Dreyfus was a victim of anti-Semitism, the writer Émile Zola published in 1898, first in a newspaper and then as a pamphlet, a 4,000-word open letter, “J’accuse…!” which blamed the French establishment for a vast coverup. His cry, “Truth is on the march, and nothing will stop it,” was ultimately proved right; Dreyfus won a full exoneration in 1906.

What Zola achieved for religious equality, Martin Luther King Jr. did for the civil-rights movement with his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” written after his arrest for civil disobedience. Eventually published in many forms, including a pamphlet, the 1963 letter of about 7,000 words contains the famous line, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” The words crystallized the importance of the struggle and made tangible King’s campaign of nonviolent protest.

Not everyone has lost their belief in pamphlet power. Today, the best-selling “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century” clocks in at about 130 pages, but the author, Yale history professor Timothy Snyder, said he’s comfortable with calling it a long political pamphlet.

‘WHAT BOOK would historian Amanda Foreman take to a desert island?’ – The Daily Mail

Historian Amanda Foreman shares that she is currently reading The Dry by Jane Harper

. . . are you reading now?

The Dry, by Jane Harper. The hero, Aaron Falk, is a Melbourne-based federal agent, whose life has settled into a narrow furrow of work and more work.
However, he harbours a dark past that comes back to haunt him after his childhood friend inexplicably kills himself and his family.
Falk reluctantly returns to his home town and finds a seething community that’s suffering from more than just a prolonged drought. A complete page-turner.

. . . would you take to a desert island?

J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings. One of the reasons people love the LOTR so much is because it’s both familiar and strange at the same time.

Tolkien was an expert on Anglo-Saxon and Middle English and, when he wasn’t writing about elves and hobbits, he was analysing Beowulf and other epics. He poured all his scholarship into LOTR and then disguised it through layers of mythology and imagination. Continue reading…

‘Best reads of 2016: RN presenters share their picks’ – Radio Australia

'A World on Fire: Britain's Crucial Role in the American Civil War' by Amanda Foreman. Random House. 958 pp. $35. (Random House).

‘A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War’ by Amanda Foreman. Random House. 958 pp. $35. (Random House).

A World on Fire by American historian Amanda Foreman is a nice, big fat book for summer reading.

It’s a tale of affection, rivalry, suspicion, hostility and at times outright love set against the backdrop of the American Civil War, but really it’s about the relationship between Britain and the United States.

Foreman writes with authority, humour and a taste for detail, introducing us to the many Britons who gave their support, and sometimes their lives, to both North and South. Continue reading…

“Netflix Review: ‘The Ascent of Woman’ — Making Women Part of the Narrative” – Women’s Voices for Change

by

In the smash Broadway musical Hamilton, Alexander’s wife Eliza begs him, “Let me be a part of the narrative.” This heartbreaking scene has to do with their marriage and his obsessive work on behalf of the new country he’s helping to build. But, it can also be interpreted as a broader plea. In the American Revolution, as in France’s and later Russia’s, women worked alongside their husbands to attain independence, only to find that when the dust settled, they were back where they started. One patriarchy had simply been replaced by another.

Continue reading…

‘HER STORY THE SUBJECT OF THE ASCENT OF WOMAN – NETFLIX NOTES’ – Blasting News

dr-amanda-foreman-leads-us-on-the-journey-of-women-through-the-ages_712041“Powerful, inspiring, and important” states Telegraph, of four-part series by Dr. Amanda ForemanDr. Amanda Foreman leads us on the journey of women through the ages. Dr. Amanda Foreman leads us on the journey of women through the ages.

It strikes me as odd that The Times described this innovative and fascinating chronicle of women’s history as “ballsy”. Actually, it’s more than that. I imagine a few “old boys” sitting around the newsroom tossing out descriptors for Dr. Amanda Foreman’s study and guffawing when they came up with this one. The irony is not lost. Continue reading…

‘A Life in the Day: Amanda Foreman, historian’ – The Times

 

REX/SHUTTERSTOCK

REX/SHUTTERSTOCK

By Sarah Maber

Words of wisdom

  • Best advice I was given: “You can do anything, but you can’t do everything”
  • Advice I’d give: “Be kind”
  • What I wish I’d known: “As a teenager, I wish I’d know that I wouldn’t always feel as lonely as I did at that age”

Born in London, Dr Amanda Foreman, 47, went to several boarding schools, then to the US to study at the Sarah Lawrence College and Columbia University, before returning to the UK for her doctorate at Oxford. Her first book, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, later became a film starring Keira Knightley. A mother of five, Foreman is also a TV documentary-maker. Continue reading…

‘Historian Amanda Foreman upends the story of civilization to give women their due’ – The New York Times

BY LINDA KINSTLER

The Ascent of Woman

The Ascent of Woman

Enheduanna. Hatshepsut. Empress Wu. Murasaki Shikibu. These ancient women were the first feminist trailblazers, yet they’ve been largely expunged from the historical record.

Enheduanna, daughter of Sargon the Great of Sumer, became the world’s first recorded author in the third millennium BCE. Hatshepsut ruled the Kingdom of Egypt for 20 years, adopting the full regalia of a male king — beard included — before her successor had all signs of her reign erased. Empress Wu, also known as Wu Zetian, united the Chinese empire and reigned as sole monarch for fifteen years before her successors also tried to obliterate her achievements. Murasaki Shikibu wrote the world’s first novel, the Tale of Genji, between 1001-1010 AD. Her real name and personal details remain largely unknown.

These influential women are just a few of the female iconoclasts featured in The Ascent of Woman, Dr. Amanda Foreman’s four-part BBC documentary that premiered to U.S. viewers on Netflix earlier this month. The series aims to “retell the story of civilization with women and men side by side for the first time,” as Foreman declares in the introduction. Reinscribing women into their rightful places in the human story, the documentary corrects the erasures of history’s male heirs. Continue reading…

“Embrace your Femininity and Watch ‘The Ascent of Woman'”

'The Ascent of Woman'

‘The Ascent of Woman’

“In this series, I want to retell the story of civilization with men and women side by side for the first time.”

That’s one of the opening lines of Amanda Foreman’s BBC series, The Ascent of Woman. The series, which is now on Netflix, focuses on inserting women back into history. The four-part docu-series covers women’s role in everything from ancient civilization to modern day, making this the perfect crash course on feminism. So if you’ve even wondered about feminism and female oppression pre-Judith Butler but are too lazy to actually do any research, you now have a streaming option. Continue reading…