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Abstract David Zaret


References to an emergent public sphere are proliferating in studies of 17th-century England.[1] However, these references coexist with widespread disagreement over the precise meaning of claims about a public sphere. Was popular participation a substantial feature of the early public sphere, or was this place only an ideal upheld by a few authors? Closely related to this question is the problem of credibility for expressions of contestable opinions by ordinary persons. At the outbreak of the English Revolution, there was scarce, if any, dissent from communicative norms of secrecy and privilege, which were rooted in patriarchal and organic worldviews. Invocation of a popular right to a “voice” in conversations on contestable issues was necessarily perceived as irrational as a foot claiming the prerogative of a brain. Contemporaries just as strongly opposed ‘innovation,’ viewing it as deviance, antithetical to all social order.


Under such conditions, how could a public sphere emerge or expand, when widely-shared habits of thought militated against perceptions of credibility for expressions of contestable opinions by persons who lived outside the charmed inner-circle of politics?  Current historical research describes more popular involvement in conversations on public issues, links this to shifting political imperatives in the English Revolution, and explores its social contexts. But what remains unclear is how this development surmounted or circumvented deep-seated assumptions that attributed positive consequences to discussion of contestable issues only under very limited circumstances: when it occurred in ‘councils,’ for example, Parliament, the Privy Council, municipal councils, and parish vestries. Outside such corporate places, expressions of contestable opinions on public issues were likely to be construed, at best, as presumption, more likely as factious or seditious libel


In my paper I argue that emplacement of popular political conversations—in homes, churchyards, inns, taverns, and, later, coffee houses—not only facilitated expressions of contestable opinions in petitions but also impeded their credibility. Places of provenance impeded credibility because, when linked to particular circumstances, opinions with any critical content were liable to perceptions of libel. The relocation of political claims to a virtual place, in print, reinforced credibility; this concealed petitioning places and thereby deflected perceptions of presumption or libel. This spatial analysis of credibility derives from recent work in sociology on the credibility of truth-claims in science, which in turn builds on studies of science in 17th-century England.


[1]  E.g., Ann Hughes, Gangraena and the Struggle for the English Revolution (Oxford, 2004); Jason Peacey, Politicians and Pamphleteers: Propaganda during the English civil Wars and Interregnum (Aldershot, 2004); Kate Peters, Print Culture and the Early Quakers (Cambridge, 2005); Joad Raymond, Pamphlets and Pamphleteering in Early-Modern Britain (Cambridge, 2003); Phil Withington, The Politics of Commonwealth: Citizens and Freemen and Early Modern England  (Cambridge, 2005).