Bullinger's correspondence - a network of international news exchange

Rainer Henrich

(Paper given at St Andrews Bullinger Colloquy, September 2002. A full version has been published under the title "Bullinger's Correspondence - An International News Network" in the book Architect of Reformation: An Introduction to Heinrich Bullinger, 1504-1575, ed. by B. Gordon, E. Campi, Baker Academic: Grand Rapids, Mich. 2004.)

I guess it is trivial, but talking about Bullinger and news, we have to remember that Bullinger did not start his day reading a newspaper. There is no doubt that Bullinger was waiting very often anxiously for the latest news from France or the Netherlands f. ex., but he had to wait for the arrival of an official messenger or another traveller who told him what he had heard at Bern or Konstanz or who delivered the letters that had been handed over to him somewhere on his travel. The amount of news circulating throughout Europe had increased tremendously since the end of the Middle Ages, as had the number of people interested in things that happened at distant places. Among the first who tried to collect and use news for their own purposes were merchants. Princes and magistrates had a vital interest in this kind of information, too. But newspapers in the modern sense of the word - which means periodically printed collections of news reports for the general public - came into being only around the turn of the 17th century.

In view of these facts it is somewhat surprising that in 1933 Leo Weisz published a thin book entitled "Die Bullinger Zeitungen". To understand this, we have to bring to mind the meaning of the German word "Zeitung". In today's language it is the equivalent of "newspaper", but in 16th century's German, it is a common word for "news" in a very general sense, often combined with "neu": "nüwe zyttung" meaning "topical news". The Latin equivalent is "nova". When Bullinger labels a fascicle of papers with "Zeitungen", it does not contain newspapers, but letters and other documents concerning topical news. In his book, Weisz published 21 documents from Bullinger's correspondence, qualifying them as "Zeitungen" in the sense of "news reports". At the same time, he tried to portray Bullinger as a pioneer of news publishing. Some reports in this book are personal letters addressed to Bullinger, but most of them have a different, non-personal form. While Bullinger's personal letters have been collected and studied for a very long time, most non-personal news reports from his correspondence are widely dispersed and have not been collected and listed so far. Since Weisz, we are used to see Bullinger as an important figure in the history of journalism, but nobody has tried to deepen the research on this special aspect of his correspondence so far. I cannot do this extensive work, but I should like to share with you some observations made on the abundant wealth of Bullinger's papers.

As most of you know, Bullinger's correspondence was immense, and fortunately a good deal of it survived. Over the years, Bullinger has built up a far-reaching network of correspondents, and the sheer number of surviving documents makes his correspondence an invaluable source for the history of the 16th century. According to our card-index, about 12000 letters still exist. Most of them were sent to Bullinger by about 1000 different correspondents from all over Europe, while only about 2000 of his own letters have survived. Our chronological edition of Bullinger's correspondence has reached now the year 1539, and 1342 letters have been published so far. Of course, much more of his letters can be found in other publications, old and new, such as "The Zurich Letters" published by the Parker Society, the three volumes of "Bullingers Korrespondenz mit den Graubündnern", the "Correspondance de Théodore de Bèze", Bullinger's correspondence with Calvin in the volumes of the Corpus reformatorum and so on, but most of his letters and papers are still waiting for publication.

As a medium of communication, letters fulfilled many different functions. For example, Bullinger used them as an instrument for international church politics, as Andreas Mühling showed recently. Many letters reflect debates on theology and questions of church order. Others illustrate Bullinger's pastoral care or his private friendship with colleagues and relatives. To a large extent, however, letters served as the primary medium for the exchange of news. Very often Bullinger and his correspondents urged each other to write about news, or they excused themselves because reliable news were not at hand. In many letters, news reports have the character of a separate rubric, distinguished sometimes by switching from Latin to German. The reason for this may be that the news source was German, but on the other hand, this fact indicates that there was a German speaking audience beyond the recipient of the letter, as we will see later. Many letters consist of nothing else but news. More than once, New Year's greetings have been enriched by some topical news, f. ex. in a letter of the famous catholic politician and historian Ägidius Tschudi. This gives the impression that a news report could even have the value of a little New Year's gift.

News, however, were not always integrated into the text of a letter. Already in the 15th century, they were often written on separate leafs and enclosed into or added to a letter. These attachments ("Zeitungen" in a more specific sense) were not always written by the same hand as the letter, because such news reports could have their own lives. They were passed from hand to hand and were copied for further distribution without restraint. This makes things complicated. Usually it is not too difficult to identify and register personal letters, but with non-personal news reports it is different. Often they were separated from the covering letter, date and address are missing, and even if we recognize the handwriting, the writer and the author might be different persons. So it is not surprising that these reports have been neglected by most collectors and editors such as Johann Jakob Simler in the 18th and Traugott Schiess in the 20th century. When they transcribed large portions of Bullinger's correspondence, they often passed over this kind of documents. That is why they are missing from our edition, too, as far as they they do not have the form of a letter or at least of a supplement to a formal letter. Together with other documents that were exchanged with covering letters, such as transcripts of official records, news reports are still an underestimated source for historical research.

Thanks to his excellent international connections, Bullinger was one of the best informed men of his time. Day by day he received reports about the latest developments throughout the continent and even at distant corners of the earth such as Madeira, Florida, Persia and Crimea. There is no doubt that Bullinger's main focus was on the situation of protestants, wherever they lived, so he took a special interest in news from the battlefields of the religious wars, from the courts of the leading European dynasties and from the Imperial Diets and other conventions. On the other hand, as most of his contemporaries, he did not disdain reports about spectacular events such as horrific crimes and accidents, atmospheric phenomena, monstrosities and so on. Of course, news were not always reliable; very often, they were nothing else but rumours. Sometimes they are qualified as such, and in many cases they had to be denied or corrected in the following. It is not uncommon to hear complaints about the unreliability and contrariness of news.

Some people and some places were especially prominent as news providers within Bullinger's network. Some of his most assiduous correspondents concentrated on this special type of communication. Ambrosius Blarer f. ex. sent a large amount of news he had collected from different sources. As a member of one of the leading families of Konstanz, he was in close contact with politicians and merchants. He exchanged letters and news with other colleagues and friends, f. ex. at Augsburg, which was one of the most important market places for news exchange. Bullinger himself had intensive contacts with Augsburg, even at a time when Zwinglians were no longer tolerated in the city, and the same is true for Nürnberg. At these places, lay members of patrician families were Bullinger's main news sources. In most cases, however, church leaders of protestant cities provided him with news reports. Most news from Italy reached Zürich through the ministers of Chur, Johannes Fabricius and Tobias Egli. Calvin and Beza reported extensively about the situation in France. Johannes Haller in Bern was an excellent source of news thanks to his trustful contacts with the magistrate. Many news came to Zürich through Basel, where Johannes Gast and others never hesitated to forward what was sent to them from Strassburg or elsewhere. Other reports came from the courts of Hessen or even Paris through the French ambassador to the Swiss confederation, or directly from soldiers and commanders on the battlefields. Former students and refugees reported from England; their letters were often collected by book traders travelling to the Frankfurt book fair, another important centre of news exchange. While we can observe well established routes of news traffic, some reports reached Zürich in a roundabout way. A letter written by Wolfgang von Erlach at Augsburg to his brother in Bern for example was forwarded to Geneva before it reached Bullinger through Beza. We should not forget that Bullinger had additional news sources beside his correspondence. Visitors came to see him, colleagues and other citizens showed him letters that were sent to them, and members of the magistrate gave him partial access to the official correspondence of the city.

As a church leader with international ambitions, Bullinger used the continuous and increasing flow of news as a secure base for his far- reaching political goals. But he did not restrict the use of this precious resource to his own purposes. The exchange of news within the network of his correspondence was reciprocal. More and more Bullinger became an outstanding middle-man of news exchange. He forwarded incoming letters and reports to others, sometimes asking them to send them back after use. Many reports were copied and redistributed by Bullinger himself or by helping hands. Most of them are lost, together with so many letters that Bullinger sent to others. Only a few of them came back to Zürich after the death of a correspondent, while others survived in foreign archives. However, it is almost impossible to find them if they do not have the form of a letter signed by Bullinger.

The most distinctive form of Bullinger's news reports since the time of the Smalcaldian war (1546) is a bulletin with short extracts from incoming letters as well as from oral reports. As other news editors of his time, Bullinger usually mentions the place where the letter came from and the date. This form is also typical of the famous "Fugger-Zeitungen" which were collected at Augsburg more than 20 years later. The name of the sender is often missing. Some reports give testimony of letters to Bullinger that are lost, but it is evident that not always Bullinger was the addressee of the underlying source. Most of his bulletins were edited in German, even if the source was Latin. This is a clear sign that they were intended for a broader audience, not exclusively for his fellow ministers at Zurich or in other protestant cities. We do not know much about the distribution of these bulletins, but probably they were not written at regular intervals or as a paid work, and certainly they were not destinated for the general public. Contrary to a modern journalist, Bullinger did not intend to provide broad masses with news. While at other places, spectacular news reports were often printed as Flugschriften with titles such as "Neue Zeitung" or "Gründliche Relation", this branch of publishing was almost non-existent at Zürich, and Bullinger did not use this medium. There is no doubt, however, that the magistrate took a vivid interest in news from Bullinger's hands. Indeed, the cities and courts had their own networks of news exchange. They received reports from friendly governments, from envoys, messengers and spies. But Bullinger's network was much more widespread and active. He was a kind of liaison officer or connecting link between these different networks, and both sides profited from the exchange of information, especially in a city which was not a prominent trading post nor housed a university or a residence. Many documents provided to the authorities by Bullinger can still be found in the records of the city. Probably it is not unreasonable to assume that similar cooperation existed in other protestant cities and that one of the implied duties of the ministers was to entertain some intelligence service or news agency in support of the protestant authorities. This special aspect of the church-state relationship seems to have been mostly overlooked so far.

In the delicate relationship with the magistrate, the question of confidence was crucial, and sometimes this problem is reflected in Bullinger's correspondence. For example, Blarer was not pleased when he heard that one of his personal letters to Bullinger was read to the Zürich council, and on the other hand, Bullinger had to be cautious when he distributed documents he had received from officials as the town clerk, for example. Usually Bullinger's bulletins, which were copied and distributed easier than personal letters, concentrate on news from outside the confederation, and Zürich news are missing completely. Of course, Bullinger informed his correspondents occasionally about events in Zürich, but he entrusted internal information to personal letters only. In his correspondence with Blarer, he even used a form of cryptography invented by the latter, but this is a rare exception and Bullinger did not really get used to it (from Blarer we hear that he mixed up two of the characters).

Bullinger did not only forward topical news, he also collected them and supported others who pursued a similar goal. He used news reports for example when he wrote his "Diarium". As a historian, he was very keen on collecting all kinds of records. We have evidence of his effort to sort his rich documentation covering important political events, but probably it is impossible to reconstruct the original order. We can see, however, that in his understanding, non-personal news reports were but one form of "Zeitungen", together with letters and other testimonies of topical events. It is known for a long time that he generously supported his colleague Johann Jakob Wick who was establishing a huge collection of news reports, the famous "Wickiana". We find there a great number of reports provided by Bullinger, and after Bullinger's death, his own collection of "portenta" was handed over to Wick, as you can read in the latest issue of Zwingliana.

At this point, we have got a pretty clear idea of Bullinger's role in international news exchange. Finally, we shall take a critical look at Weisz' thesis that Bullinger was "one of the founding fathers of modern journalism" ("Erzvater des modernen Journalismus"). There is no doubt that Bullinger's letters and papers are an outstanding source for the study of early modern news traffic, because the Zürich antistes was deeply engaged in collecting and providing topical news. But as we have seen, other church leaders and learned men did a similar job. Christoph Scheurl, Joachim Camerarius, Johannes and Jakob Sturm and many others have written innumerable news reports. The most prominent example probably is Melanchthon who made Wittenberg a main centre for news traffic. In many respects, his correspondence resembles Bullinger's, as far as news exchange is concerned. According to Weisz, Bullinger was among the first who not only collected news to bring them to a broader audience, but who tried to influence the opinion of the recipients through his reports. But similar observations can be made on other correspondences of his time. By the way, it is not quite easy to verify or falsify the assertion as far as Bullinger is concerned, as the authorship of many news reports is doubtful. To give you an example, Weisz presents a detailed report about the massacre of St Bartholomew's day, but probably it is not Bullinger's work. We have to assume this, because in several of his letters, Bullinger mentions a French report that he received through Ulisse Martinengo and that was translated at Zürich. Of course, Bullinger's own reports are written from a definite protestant perspective, and he does not hide his sympathies and antipathies. But as far as I can see, most of his bulletins are anything but propagandistic. Usually they are condensed but accurate summaries of the underlying sources.

As a remarkable example of Bullinger's journalistic skills, Weisz brings forward a very vivid and graphic account of the horrible death of several noblemen whose carnival costumes caught fire. However, Weisz missed the fact that the source of this account was an oral report of a citizen of Zürich who had visited the stepmother of one of the victims. For a critical assessment of Bullinger's journalistic qualities, we have to refer to documents which he wrote as an eyewitness to the events. An interesting example are his accounts of a lightning-caused fire that burnt one of the towers of his Grossmünster church in 1572. There are at least two different reports which were sent to colleagues at Schaffhausen and Chur. Interesting enough, they are not identical, although they agree on all details. Not surprising, Bullinger interprets the event as a visitation by the Almighty, but his reports reveal not so much bewilderment as objective observation. In his news reports as in his historical writings, Bullinger proves himself to be a calm and reliable observer of the events of his time. Probably he was not as innovative as Weisz thought him to be. Much more than a news reporter, he was a collector and news editor. But thanks to the clever use of his astounding correspondence network, he definitely belongs to the notable forerunners of modern journalism.


Aktualisiert am 9. Februar 2009.

Home