Rumors in Transition: Uncertain Information in the Premodern Culture of News

Fama and Mercury (1790), from Wolfgang Behringer, Im Zeichen des Merkur: Reichspost und Kommunikationsrevolution in der Frühen Neuzeit(/em> (Göttingen, 2003), 688.

“Flying Tales” of War

Sometime in early 1523, the merchant Matthias Mulich (†1528) received a letter from his servant Matthias Scharpenberch. Mulich usually lived and worked in the Hanseatic city of Lübeck but was staying in Nuremberg at the time for family reasons. There, he regularly received letters that informed him about the situation in his northern German hometown.

[…] so know, dear sir, that our men have been to Hamburg before Christmas […]; but what they negotiated about I cannot write to you with certainty, except it is said that it was decided to no longer allow the king [of Denmark] the passage of mercenaries […]; as they say his Grace has about 2000 [mercenaries] […] and it is thought that he will bring many more mercenaries here […] also 400 horses, which shall still rest in Flensburg […]. Besides, you may also know, dear sir, that I have heard from people who know that the honorable council of Lübeck has not yet received any true news from the delegation since it left here, but all the news that has arrived here so far from Sweden and from the delegation are flying tales (floch mer).1

One can observe Scharpenberch’s desire to report to his superior all the news he received. Information regarding the so-called Swedish War of Liberation and the responses of the city of Lübeck appear to have been especially relevant. But he also notes he lacks definite knowledge about the events and admits that the news is solely comprised of “flying tales” that were circulating throughout the city – in other words, rumors. The letter illustrates the significance of rumors in the premodern culture of news.

Rumors, therefore, can be considered an important part of the history of information (and ignorance); moreover, business cultures, as the above example shows, are very well suited for illustrating forms and functions of rumors in premodern times. There is still a lot of work to do in order to understand how rumors worked, but this text can hopefully provide some thought-provoking impulses on how rumors can be examined in a fresh way, using sources that have remained untapped thus far for studying rumors in medieval and early modern times.

A Phenomenon Difficult to Grasp: Rumor as Communication of Uncertain Knowledge

Undoubtedly, rumors are among the most important communication phenomena of today’s societies. The same holds true for premodern societies in which rumors could have a great impact: they were able to put whole medieval armies in motion, had the power to destabilize city-states, and catalyzed witch hunts.2 However, what exactly is a rumor?

Even though – or maybe because – most people believe they understand the phenomenon, it is not easy to grasp. Instead of adducing grand theories about political or socio-psychological functions of rumors,3 let’s ask how we can identify a rumor and locate it in historical sources.

Research on rumors in premodern times primarily relies on sources in which contemporaries retrospectively describe certain acts of communication as rumors, such as court records in which particular accusations were dismissed as “mere rumor.” However, the communicative act itself, the rumor at work, often remains unseen. Its common denominators seem to be clear, though: an explicitly limited reliability of the given information and the reference to an anonymous source, mainly hearsay. Rumors, of course, are not inherently false – their potential to be true is part of what makes them interesting. They are rather a specific form of spreading and handling “uncertain knowledge.”4

The approach proposed here is to define rumors as what is labeled, perceived, and answered as such: rumor as a virtually anonymous communication of marked uncertainty. The labels used to flag rumors vary. Scharpenberch’s letter employs explicit labeling, such as “flying tales,” but he also uses verbs expressing uncertainty (“shall”), and references hearsay with phrases like “it is said.” By conceptualizing rumors in this manner, we can analyze them empirically and gain deeper insights into an everyday phenomenon that is otherwise often analyzed only from a distance and discussed with a heavy reliance on metaphorical terminology.

In his letter, Scharpenberch also shows an awareness of problems regarding the management of rumors. He distinguishes clearly between rumor and reliable news. The latter is characterized by a clear connection to individuals who witnessed the events they reported on in their letters firsthand. Accordingly, another of Mulich's correspondents critically stated: "So many lies arrive here, I don't believe it until I see letters.”5 Of course, then, each communication partner ultimately determines whether to label information as rumor or not. What one person regards as a mere rumor, another may share as fact.

“Fama malum,” often portrayed as a menacing beast, highlights the characteristics of and many dangers associated with rumors: the many eyes and tongues and the big ears visualizing the omnipresent hearsay; the split tongue referencing the problematic credibility; the winged boots and many arrows symbolizing the fast but also uncontrolled dissemination of rumors (16th century), from Peder Hegelund, Susanna og Calumnia, edited by S. Birket Smith (Copenhagen, 1888–1890), 149.

But the Mulich correspondence, among many others, also shows that rumors were not disregarded as dangerous or useless information but quite the opposite. Rumors spread quickly and were often among the earliest forms of news that people received – an advantageous trait, especially concerning commercial investments. Clearly, a study of rumor as a communicative practice must acknowledge its ambivalent nature. It should not be considered a phenomenon solely of deficiency but also of potential usefulness.

But where can we look for rumors? Scharpenberch’s letter leads us in an intriguing direction. Merchants’ correspondences provide a lasting, information-focused, and action-guiding means of communication that has been passed down since the late Middle Ages.

Rumors in Premodern Business Cultures

Merchants engaged in long-distance trade can be considered experts in “navigating the news stream.”6 Their letters constituted one basis of the development of the early modern news system.

In many merchant-portraits, letters figure most prominently as symbols of the profession. Painting of Hanseatic merchant Georg Gisze (1497–1562) by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1532, Gemäldegallerie Berlin.

Merchant letters were the primary tool that facilitated long-distance trade as it had been conducted since the late Middle Ages and delivered a broad spectrum of news that was directly or indirectly relevant for business. As a result, they contained various kinds of rumors. Some examples from four centuries may illustrate this. For such an extended period, one cannot speak of one business culture. Hanseatic merchants of the fifteenth century conducted business under completely different circumstances than New England merchants 300 years later. Therefore, these examples are solely used to illustrate some common types of rumors and to demonstrate the general significance of the phenomenon.

In April 1737, Robert Pringle (1702–1776) from Charleston, South Carolina, wrote to a partner in London about a man named Henry Warner who, he heard, had “some time agoe gone off the Province by Land to the Northward,” but he did not know exactly where he went.7 Uncertain news of people’s locations, departures, and arrivals were very common, especially in correspondences among merchants, like Pringle, living in relatively remote places. Confirming rumors about individuals’ whereabouts or even their mere existence could be exceedingly difficult. For example, London merchant Joshua Johnson (1742–1802) “was informed” about the death of one James Gibbs. As he doubted the accuracy of the news, he “began a diligent inquiry [but] could not succeed.” But at last, he heard where Gibbs had previously lived and therefore “wrote and directed there which produced [him] a letter from the dead man in a few days and which has opened a correspondence ever since […].”8

Furthermore, rumors could contain sensitive information about a merchant’s character and behavior. For instance, Pringle informed his brother in London:

Capt. Hoare here is not yet paid & am afraid never will. Hoare is very poor & Indolent, & [I] am told his Wife & he are bad Managers & both given to Liquor […].9

Such harmful rumors were a dreaded concern as they could affect a merchant’s reputation, which was crucially linked to credit and economic success. Moreover, transmitting harmful information in the form of rumors dissociated the message from the sender. Robert Pringle did not state that Capt. Hoare was an incapable drunkard – he simply informed his brother that some people said so. Therefore, the sender could not be held as liable for what the content, precluding, say, as slander suits. For contemporaries, incorrect news in the form of rumors started deliberately and with bad intentions – what we might call “fake news” – were also a big concern. Yet, it is hardly possible to identify these specific kinds of rumor in the correspondence as we mostly only encounter the last person in the rumor chain. In addition, suspected rumormongers rarely explicitly stated their intentions.

Very prevalent in the letters are reports of events that were bad for business, such as military campaigns, as in Scharpenberch’s letter, or natural disasters. From 1737 to at least 1743, the most frequently disseminated rumor in Pringle’s correspondence was that Spanish troops were constantly expected to invade Georgia and South Carolina. News about hurricanes seems to have been omnipresent as well, as a letter to Jacob David (1640–1689) suggests, wherein a partner of his dismissed news about a hurricane in Barbados as it had “already come too often.”10 Nevertheless, this news could be important because it had direct consequences. If a hurricane threatened to sink a ship, it was sometimes possible to purchase last-minute insurance, as Benjamin Scheller showed for late medieval traders.11 Merchants needed the fastest available news to be able to pull this off – and before the age of telegraphy almost nothing was faster than word of mouth communication and, thus, rumors!

One drawback was that merchants had to bet on the accuracy of the rumor. Among other factors, experience, trust in the correspondent, and verification through other information channels were significant factors of generating evidence. The same applies to the rumors most prominent in merchant correspondence: prognostic rumors about sales markets, prices, or the quality and quantity of shipped goods. Most of them seem fairly unremarkable. Their possible influence was only demonstrated when merchants acted upon them, which could sometimes lead to erroneous outcomes. For example, in 1668 rumors circulated in Hamburg about low-priced galls (also called “oak apples” and used for producing iron gall ink) in London. However, these rumors were later proven false and the prices for galls were not actually low. Nevertheless, Hamburg merchants, guided by hearsay, stocked up on a two-year supply of the commodity at inflated prices.12 This kind of rumor played a crucial role in catalyzing speculative bubbles like the infamous Dutch Tulip mania of the 1630s or the South Sea Bubble of 1720.

Rumor Prospects

Once we acknowledge the potential relevance of rumors in such correspondence, more questions come to mind: How prevalent were rumors? What topics were communicated through rumors? How were rumors assessed, and what evidential criteria were applied? Were they disseminated, to whom, and who was excluded? How were they framed? To what degree were rumors, like other information, utilized in decision-making and as causes for action? Which secondary social and communicative functions did they fulfill, such as trust-building, legitimizing certain actions or self-presentation?

These questions indicate that understanding the “management” of rumors requires consideration of developments of the culture of news and the availability of information more generally. For the premodern period, the Communication Revolution can be regarded as the most important process.13 From the fifteenth century until approximately 1800, rising literacy rates and advancements in the postal system, along with the European media landscape becoming more dense due to the invention of the printing press and the establishment of newspapers, led to a continuous increase in the accessibility of information for most individuals – maybe even an "information overload.”14 Not unlike today, the increase in available information in the late Middle Ages led, seemingly paradoxically, to a rise in news skepticism. Analyzing rumors in this context would enable us to empirically reassess this thesis and evaluate the impact of these processes on individual news consumers.15

Jörg Requate stated that “research on rumors ultimately is, or at least should be, research on communication as a whole.”16 Accordingly, analysis of rumors as a practice of dealing with uncertain knowledge – or even non-knowledge17 – can shed light on how uncertain information was handled in the premodern European culture of news more generally.

Jan Siegemund is a postdoctoral researcher at the Department for Premodern History at Bielefeld University. He finished his dissertation on libels in the sixteenth-century public sphere at the Collaborative Research Center 1285 “Invectivity. Constellations and Dynamics of Disparagement” at the TU Dresden. His research concerns the early modern history of communication and the public sphere, history of crime, and economic history.

  1. Matthias Scharpenberg to Matthias Mulich, 1/8/1523, in “Briefe an Matthias Mulich, geschrieben im Jahre 1523,” edited by C. F. Wehrmann, Zeitschrift des Vereins für Lübeckische Geschichte und Altertumskunde 2 (1867): 296–347, letter no. 2, 307–308, translation by Jan Siegemund. ↩︎
  2. Florian Hartmann, “Das Gerücht vom Tod des Herrschers im frühen und hohen Mittelalter,” HZ 302 (2016): 340–62; Elizabeth Horodowich, “The Gossiping Tongue: Oral Networks, Public Life and Political Culture in Early Modern Venice,” Renaissance Studies 19 (2005): 22–45; Pamela Steward and Andrew Strathern, Witchcraft, Sorcery, Rumors, and Gossip (Cambridge, 2004). ↩︎
  3. The most famous one probably is the collective-interpretation approach: Tamotsu Shibutani, Improvised News: A Sociological Study of Rumor (Indianapolis, 1966). For its impact, see Pamela Donovan, “How Idle Is Idle Talk? One Hundred Years of Rumor Research,” Diogenes 213 (2007): 59–82. ↩︎
  4. Sebastian Jobs, “Uncertain knowledge,” Rethinking History 18 (2014): 1–8. ↩︎
  5. Hans Castorp to Matthias Mulich, 1/8/1523, in “Briefe an Matthias Mulich,” 1867, letter no. 4, 309. ↩︎
  6. The term is borrowed from an eponymous series of workshops organized by Julia Bruch (Cologne) and Jessica Nowak (Wuppertal). ↩︎
  7. Robert Pringle to John Richards, 4/2/1737, in Walter Edgar, ed., The Letterbook of Robert Pringle, Vol. 1: April 2, 1737–September 25, 1742 (Columbia, 1972), 9. ↩︎
  8. Joshua Johnson to John Davidson, 12/2/1771, in Jacob Price, ed., Joshua Johnson’s Letterbook, 1771–1774: Letters from a Merchant in London to His Partners in Maryland, London Record Society Publications 15 (London, 1979), letter no. 18, 20–21. ↩︎
  9. Robert Pringle to Andrew Pringle, 10/22/1742, in Edgar, ed., Letterbook of Robert Pringle, 439. ↩︎
  10. J. A. Fonck to Joshua David, 12/14/1675, in Henry Roseveare, ed., Markets and Merchants of the Late Seventeenth Century: The Marescoe-David Letters, 1668–1680, Records of Social and Economic History 12 (Oxford, 1991), letter no. 264, 386. ↩︎
  11. Benjamin Scheller, “Experten des Risikos: Informationsmanagement und Wissensproduktion bei den Akteuren der spätmittelalterlichen Seeversicherung,” in Wissen und Wirtschaft: Expertenkulturen und Märkte vom 13. bis 18. Jahrhundert, ed. Marian Füssel, Philipp Knäble, and Nina Elsemann, 55–78 (Göttingen, 2017). ↩︎
  12. Roseveare, Markets and Merchants, 55–56. ↩︎
  13. Wolfgang Behringer, “Communications Revolutions: A Historiographical Concept,” German History 24 (2006): 333–74. ↩︎
  14. Daniel Rosenberg, “Early Modern Information Overload,” Journal of the History of Ideas 64 (2003): 1–9. ↩︎
  15. The most prominent example of this approach is Brendan Dooley, The Social History of Skepticism: Experience and Doubt in Early Modern Culture, The Johns Hopkins University Studies in Historical and Political Science 117 (Baltimore, 1999). ↩︎
  16. Jörg Requate, “‘Unverbürgte Sagen und wahre Fakta’: Anmerkungen zur ‘Kultur der Neuigkeiten’ in der deutschen Presselandschaft zwischen dem 18. und der ersten Hälfte des 19. Jahrhunderts,” in Kommunikation und Medien in Preußen vom 16. bis zum 19. Jahrhundert, Beiträge zur Kommunikationsgeschichte 12, ed. Bernd Sösemann, 239–54 (Stuttgart, 2002), 240. ↩︎
  17. Cf. Cornel Zwierlein, “Introduction: Towards a History of Ignorance,” in The Dark Side of Knowledge: Histories of Ignorance, 1400 to 1800, ed. idem, 1–50 (Leiden, 2016), 26. ↩︎
Suggested Citation: Jan Siegemund, “Rumors in Transition: Uncertain Information in the Premodern Culture of News,” History of Knowledge, November 8, 2023,