Graduate student contribution

Pamphlets in Early Modern England

The scurrilous connotations of the term pamphlet crept in early in its history. According to the OED, the English word is derived via Middle French from the name of a twelfth-century Latin erotic poem, Pamphilus, seu de Amore. Pamphilus, a proper name, meant beloved of all in ancient Greek. Middle French contributed the –et suffix. The poem was particularly popular in Paris, where authorities chastised university students for reading it instead of more serious works. It was notorious, as well, in England and the Netherlands. By the fourteenth century, the word panfletus was used in medieval British Latin in the extended sense of short treatise.
The term has three main OED definitions. The first, which is obsolete, is A short handwritten work or document of several pages fastened together; a handwritten poem, tract, or treatise (OED pamphlet, n.1.a). This was the sense of the term before the advent of the printing press in England c. 1473. The OED cites examples of this usage up to 1532. The second definition, current today, is A short printed work of several pages fastened together without a hard cover; a booklet; a leaflet (OED pamphlet, n.1.b). Up to the eighteenth century, the term was used for any type of short, printed literary work smaller than a book: plays, romances, poetry, newspapers and newsletters. The third definition is A work of a polemical or political nature issued in this form (OED pamphlet, n.1.c). This sense of the term was common, judging by the OED citations, from the late sixteenth century onwards.
Joad Raymond’s informative book on Renaissance pamphleteering describes early modern English printed pamphlets as separates, small, unbound, disposable books intended for gentlemen’s amusement (Raymond 7). Sandra Clark notes that they were usually printed in black letter type, even after the 1590s when roman became the norm for more serious works (Clark 24). A typical pamphlet consisted of between one and twelve sheets of paper or eight to 96 pages in quarto (Raymond 5). It was a cheap book with an insulting name, the figurative whore of the print world, available to any in return for a small payment. Pamphlets cost between tuppence, the cost of a pound of beef or two visits to the theatre, and sixpence (Clark 25). In fact, according to Raymond, one obsolete sense of the word not mentioned in the OED is a prostitute. He quotes water-poet John Taylor’s coupling of these two denotations:
For like a Whore by day-light or by candle,
‘Tis even free for every knave to handle:
And as a new whore is belov’d and sought,
So is a new Booke in request and bought.
When whores wax old and stale, they’re out of date,
Old Pamphlets are most subject to such fate.
(qtd. in Raymond 9-10)
After the death of Henry VIII, Reformation and counter-Reformation writers issued numerous tracts in an attempt to influence opinion among the literate gentry (Raymond 15-16). The Royal Company of Stationers was granted its charter in 1557 making the printing trade independent of royal patronage and more commercially responsive (Raymond 12). Pamphlets, like other printed materials, were still subject to censorship by the Bishop of London. News pamphlets reporting on battles became common in the 1560s, although topical ballads were still current with the less educated. Accounts of monstrous births, another popular genre, were first printed as broadside ballads, but later as pamphlets in quarto (Raymond 15-16).
By the 1580s, the term pamphlet was most frequently used for vernacular works of contemporary interest. Raymond considers this era the turning point in the pamphlet’s popularity, with larger markets due to rising literacy, urbanization, greater printing capacity, and continuing religious controversy (Raymond 11). As Sandra Clark points out, middle-class readers by this time were sophisticated enough to appreciate a variety of genres, classical allusions, and figurative language (Clark 21). Lively cony-catching accounts of the Elizabethan underworld used fictional anecdotes to discuss social issues. Pamphlets sometimes offered an outlet for libel, such the famous 1584 attack on Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, known as Leicester’s Commonwealth (Raymond 20). Counter-Reformation pamphleteers even denounced Queen Elizabeth herself (Raymond 20-22).
Prose pamphlets supplanted the ballad as the most common news medium in the 1590s (Raymond 17). Paul J. Voss dates the rise of the news pamphlet to England’s 1589-1593 alliance with Henry IV of France against the Catholic League in France (Voss 1). There were as many as 60 different pamphlets on this conflict with a total circulation of perhaps 45,000. They influenced playwrights and poets such as Marlowe, Shakespeare, and Spenser, testifying to a nascent nationalism that permeated the culture (Voss 2). However, pamphlet writing was still a poorly paid, low status class of literary production, to which educated writers like Thomas Nashe and Thomas Dekker reluctantly turned out of financial desperation (Clark 38).
Throughout the early modern period, pamphlets became increasingly multi-purpose, intertextual, literary, and quotidian. By the middle of the seventeenth century, Raymond argues, they had become an essential tool for anyone bent on influencing English public opinion (Raymond 25). Bookseller George Thomason, who understood the value of pamphlets as testaments to their times, became the first known systematic collector of pamphlets in 1640 (Raymond 6). Pamphlets, in spite of their low birth, had advanced to a position of power in England.
Their reign, however, was relatively short. By the early 1700s, newspapers and literary periodicals had taken on many of the more respectable functions of pamphlets (Raymond 383). The first history of pamphlets was written in 1715 by Myles Davies (Raymond 384). Early modern English pamphlets then appear to have languished in libraries, until they were anthologized by nineteenth-century collectors and analyzed in the late twentieth century by scholars interested in the history of the book.


Cite this page

MLA citation

Devine, Marina. Pamphlets in Early Modern England. The Map of Early Modern London, Edition 7.0, edited by Janelle Jenstad, U of Victoria, 05 May 2022,

Chicago citation

Devine, Marina. Pamphlets in Early Modern England. The Map of Early Modern London, Edition 7.0. Ed. Janelle Jenstad. Victoria: University of Victoria. Accessed May 05, 2022.

APA citation

Devine, M. 2022. Pamphlets in Early Modern England. In J. Jenstad (Ed), The Map of Early Modern London (Edition 7.0). Victoria: University of Victoria. Retrieved from

RIS file (for RefMan, RefWorks, EndNote etc.)

Provider: University of Victoria
Database: The Map of Early Modern London
Content: text/plain; charset="utf-8"

A1  - Devine, Marina
ED  - Jenstad, Janelle
T1  - Pamphlets in Early Modern England
T2  - The Map of Early Modern London
ET  - 7.0
PY  - 2022
DA  - 2022/05/05
CY  - Victoria
PB  - University of Victoria
LA  - English
UR  -
UR  -
ER  - 

TEI citation

<bibl type="mla"><author><name ref="#DEVI2"><surname>Devine</surname>, <forename>Marina</forename></name></author>. <title level="a">Pamphlets in Early Modern England</title>. <title level="m">The Map of Early Modern London</title>, Edition <edition>7.0</edition>, edited by <editor><name ref="#JENS1"><forename>Janelle</forename> <surname>Jenstad</surname></name></editor>, <publisher>U of Victoria</publisher>, <date when="2022-05-05">05 May 2022</date>, <ref target=""></ref>.</bibl>