by Grant Wong

Ruby Lowe completed a postdoctoral fellowship at The University of California, Berkeley and is commencing a John Emmerson Research Fellowship at The State Library of Victoria. She spoke with Grant Wong about her recent article in JHI’s April 2024 issue, “The Speech without Doors: A Genre, 1627–1769.” They discuss the “speech without doors,” a type of English print pamphlet that assumed the form of a parliamentary speech and its mode of direct address; Lowe emphasizes the genre’s importance to seventeenth- and eighteenth-century British print culture and politics.

Grant Wong: In your article, you define a new genre: the speech without doors. Used by political outsiders to criticize the exclusivity of parliamentary politics, it was also appropriated by the establishment to respond to them. What do we miss when we overlook these sources? What do we gain by recognizing them as a distinct genre?

Ruby Lowe: Thanks for this question, Grant. There is so much work to be done on the popular print culture of seventeenth-century Britain. In the British Library’s Thomason Collection alone there are approximately 24,000 titles from the period of the civil wars to the Restoration. Generally, scholars return to the same small number of authors and works to represent the major shifts during this period in politics and the production and consumption of new forms of media. By identifying a distinct genre, the speech without doors, within the rivers of print that flowed through Britain during the 1640s, I was able to follow one print conversation from the 1640s until the late eighteenth century.

This project began when I was reading John Milton’s Areopagitica, and I had the sense that the liveliness of this work and its structure as a printed speech was not a product of Milton’s genius alone. Rather, he was re-occupying a position that had already been carved out. Milton’s famous speech is part of the practice of printing parliamentary speeches in Britain; the speech without doors is but a small subset of this corpus. This genre begins its life in manuscript form in the 1620s, and was repurposed for print by the popular poet George Wither in the 1640s. In The Speech Without Doore, Wither dramatizes his position “without” or outside the doors of parliament, turning this liminal place into a new space for addressing parliament and the nation simultaneously.

When I discovered the speech without doors genre, it gave me access to authors and pamphlets that rarely get a look in literary and historical accounts of the seventeenth century, such as the works of Edmund Hickeringill, George Wither and a vast array of anonymous pamphlets. Of course, there is a lot of important work on popular print culture, including the writings of David Como, David Norbrook, Joanna Picciotto, Sharon Achinstein, Joad Raymond, Mark Knights and Paula McDowell, to name a few. One of the interesting aspects of identifying a genre that was used by a spectrum of authors is that it gives view into the kinds of intellectual exchanges that a fast print environment facilitated.

As you mention, the speech without doors genre was employed and appropriated by opposing sides in a number of print stoushes during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. I was moved by the kinds of intimacy adversaries cultivated in the act of appropriating one another’s formal modes. For example, when John Birkenhead and William Blackstone use the form of a printed speech to argue against the printing of parliamentary speeches, their use of this oral form of print counter runs counter to their contentions; and yet they still employed the form as a way of getting close to their adversaries in an attenuated print media environment. While print opponents might not be arguing with each other in the same room, the speech without doors genre allows them to be present in the same space. This genre provides a window into moments of great intimacy and cross-pollination between opposing sides and major and minor authors in the adversarial print culture of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

GW: As you trace the evolution of the genre, you argue that the speech without doors “not only demonstrates the longevity of the printed parliamentary speech and its capacity to deliver the news of parliament to the nation but also isolates within this tradition an important subset of works that reflected on the role of the printed speech in British political culture.” In turn, you emphasize that the speech without doors was as prolific as it was because of the unique role it assumed within the context of the rapid growth of printing in England from the 1640s on. How does the history of the speech without doors inform our understanding of British print culture?

RL: I became fascinated with how the speech without doors genre hosted a series of debates about the legitimacy of the printed speech. One of the intense moments in the genre is when Birkenhead demands “I speak only to the printed paper,” arguing that the published form of M.P. Thomas Chaloner’s speech did not represent what occurred within the closed parliamentary session. Birkenhead’s speech contains some highly entertaining tangles which paradoxically delineate the value of the printed parliamentary speech. The question of the political legitimacy of printed speech remains important to the print speech makers throughout the life of the genre, commenting on speakers’ capacity to be heard in print. This genre demonstrates that printed speeches played a vital role in British political culture and were used to amplify parliamentary arguments so that they can be heard beyond the doors of parliament.

GW: Throughout your analysis of the speech without doors, you identify the body politic as “the central metaphor and political concern of the works,” used rhetorically by print speechmakers to “articulate their right either to enter public discussion or to censor others from doing so.” Why was the body politic such a central trope to the speech without doors? Additionally, what caused it to fall out of fashion? Should we think about the trope’s decline and the end of the speech without doors as connected events?

RL: In the context of early modern England, the most widely discussed examples of the body politic can be found in the writings of William Shakespeare and Thomas Hobbes, however the body politic was writ large in the popular print culture of this period. The body politic was one of the most commonly used topoi for discussing England’s structure of political representation and was routinely employed to legitimise new forms of governance. During the Civil Wars and Revolution, the body politic became a contested ground between Parliamentarians and Monarchists, who would use it to support their alternate models sovereignty. Joanna Picciotto has provocatively argued that the “topos provided a more functional model of the public than any that came after.”

The body politic does a lot of work in the speech without doors pamphlets, especially in the genre’s earlier years. Wither uses it to legitimate his entire speech in a historical moment when the privilege of freedom of speech was limited to the times of Parliament, the location of the houses of Parliament and the office of the M.P. As a non-office bearer, Wither explains, “For, though I am not of the representative body of this Kingdome, I am a member of the Body represented, to whom (when the well-being of it is concerned) there belongs times, and places, and privileges of speaking.” By making the claim that he can represent the body politic in times of war, Wither proposes a radically new structure of political communication in England. By contrast, a writer such as Edmund Hickeringill references the body politic continually throughout his speech and yet his use of the trope fails to cohere into a comprehensible argument, let alone offer a scaffold for his speech.

The genre certainly begins to struggle when the body politic is displaced from its center.  By the late eighteenth century, the new concept of the “public credit” has almost fully replaced the body politic. A midpoint in this process is A Speech Without Doors Concerning Forty Thousand Landsmen (1702) where the author argues that “money is the sinews of war”: in this phrase we can hear both the history of the use of the body politic in the genre, and the future uses of metaphors of financial stability to assess the health of society. After the trope of the body politic has lost its valency in the genre—or, rather, purchase in the public imaginary—to define who gets to speak and how they might do so, the speech without doors slowly ceases being used to instigate public debates about political representation and communication. However, before it disappears, the genre plays one last key role in the John Wilkes election scandal of 1769.

GW: I was intrigued by your discussion of the concept of the microgenre, which, as you note, is typically associated with electric technologies but has been traced back by English scholars to pre-electronic forms of media. As you argue, “the microgenre is thus a way of attending to voices that have been neglected within the fields of intellectual history and literary studies and expands the range of authors called upon to represent seventeenth- and eighteenth-century political thought.” How does your work address these disparities? And lastly, where do you plan on taking your research from here?

RL: I introduced the concept of “microgenre” into this article as a provocation. I wanted to provide a new way of thinking about the vast quantity of pamphlets that were being published in mid seventeenth-century Britain, and how readers used old and new genres to navigate this flood.

After the collapse of England’s complex structure of censorship in the 1640s, the printing houses diverted their resources from producing long codices to rapidly publishing short pamphlets that were often political in nature. Arguments, replies, and counter-replies were published in consecutive weeks and even days. During this fertile moment, new genres and forms coalesced and dispersed rapidly for both political and commercial reasons. While there are many microgenres that pop up in this time, I ran into a problem when trying to discuss the Speech without Doors pamphlets as a microgenre. As I discuss in the article, the speech without doors genre was not bound to a single political moment, like most microgenres, but rather emerged and remerged as a means of addressing the public for almost two centuries.

When I give conference papers and teach my work on print oratory, I am often asked how it relates to our contemporary media environment. I hesitate to answer this question because I am a scholar of early modern media revolutions, not our own. However, my sense is that the fast-paced media environment that we are currently living through is quite distinct from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. While brevity is certainly at stake in a 15-second TikTok video and in a 5-page pamphlet from the seventeenth century, the kinds of focus and attention that readers provide to these forms and their structures of dissemination are radically different. Nonetheless, contemporary media developments provide an opportunity to go back and think about changes that were occurring four hundred years ago. A category such as the microgenre is useful for the early modern period, but it shouldn’t erase the alterity of the past. The category of a “microgenre” does not quite fit the speech without doors pamphlets, I think there is a lot more work to be done on the many genres and microgenres that emerged in this period.

Thanks, Grant, for asking about my current work. I am preciously close to finishing my first monograph entitled The Speech without Doors: John Milton and the Tradition of Print Oratory. This work provides an introduction to the ancient practice of circulating speeches in manuscript form, the humanist tradition of printing orations, and Milton’s incorporation of these modes into the popular practice of printing parliamentary speeches in England. I argue that the liveliness of Milton’s prose and late poetry is derived from the skills he honed in the fast-paced print environment of the civil wars and Republic. I am also developing a new research project which explores the exchanges between the popular print cultures of England and the Caribbean in the seventeenth-century Atlantic world.

Grant Wong is a History Ph.D. candidate at the University of South Carolina, where he studies twentieth century United States popular culture and consumerism. His research focuses on how capitalist market demands and discourses of taste affected the production and reception of pop and rock music in the post-Second World War U.S.

Featured Image: Portico of the Temple of Romulus, from “Speculum Romanae Magnificentiae,” Anonymous, CC0 1.0 (Public Domain).