Among the many prophecies about the century we have just entered, we hear a great deal about the information age. The media loom so large in our vision of the future that we may fail to recognize their importance in the past, and the present can look like a time of transition, when the modes of communication are replacing the modes of production as the driving force of history. I would like to dispute this view, to argue that every age was an age of information, each in its own way, and that communication systems have always shaped events.
That argument may sound suspiciously like common sense; but if pushed hard enough, it could open up a fresh perspective on the past. I would begin with a simple question: What is news? Most of us would reply that news is what we read in newspapers or see and hear on news broadcasts. If we considered the question further, however, we probably would agree that news is not what happened—yesterday, or last week—but rather stories about what happened. It is a kind of narrative, transmitted by special kinds of media. That line of reasoning soon leads to entanglement in literary theory and the World Wide Web. But if projected backward, it may help to disentangle some knotty problems in the past.
I would propose a general attack on the problem of how societies made sense of events and transmitted information about them, something that might be called the history of communication. In principle, this kind of history could be applied to any time and place. In practice, it must be worked out in case studies. So I would direct the question to my own field of study and ask: How did you find out what the news was in Paris around 1750? Not, I submit, by reading a newspaper, because papers with news in them—news as we understand it today, about public affairs and personalities—did not exist. The government did not permit them.
To find out what was really going on, you went to the Tree of Cracow. It was a large, leafy chestnut tree, which stood at the heart of Paris in the gardens of the Palais-Royal. It probably acquired its name from heated discussions that took place around it during the War of the Polish Succession (1733-1735), although the name also suggested rumor-mongering (craquer: to tell dubious stories). Like a mighty magnet, the tree attracted nouvellistes de bouche, or newsmongers, who spread information about current events by word of mouth. They claimed to know, from private sources (a letter, an indiscreet servant, a remark overheard in an antechamber of Versailles), what really was happening in the corridors of power—and the people in power took them seriously, because the government worried about what Parisians were saying. Foreign diplomats allegedly sent agents to pick up news or to plant it at the foot of the Tree of Cracow. There were several other nerve centers for transmitting …