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Fake News in Early Modern England

Polaris Podcasts: Three Lectures by Rebecca Hasler

[1] Welcome to the latest Polaris podcast, this time a series of three public lectures by Rebecca Hasler at the University of St Andrews. The lectures were this year’s St Leonard’s College Research Prize Lectures in the Arts & Humanities.

[2] In the first lecture, ‘New and Fake News in Early Modern England’, Rebecca argues that ‘in the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods, there was no clear divide between news and fake news. Instead, both were used as a means of documenting God’s providential interventions in the world’. Covering examples from dragons to spontaneous combustion, we learn that what matters for definitions of fake news ‘depends upon the perspective of the reader’.

[3] In the second lecture, ‘Discovering Crime, Real and Fake’, Rebecca assesses the credibility of reports claiming that London was overrun by a hierarchical underworld of criminal beggars. How does fake news create the impression of real and serious social problems? And what are the parallels between the criminalisation of vagabonds in early modern England and fake news about immigrants today?

[4] In the third and final lecture of the series, ‘Fake News: Satire and Fiction’, Rebecca argues that satire can provide an inoculation against the allure of fake news, taking as her starting point similar language used to condemn early modern news readers and today’s victims of fake news. Both groups run the risk of being accused of gullibility. Taking up examples of satirical news, on subjects ranging from astrology to the plague, Rebecca suggests that the critical reading encouraged by satire, and the self-awareness that this fosters, can train us to be less gullible when we stumble across fake news reports.

Michelangelo Merisi Caravaggio, The Cardsharps (c. 1595) © 2017 Kimbell Art Museum

[5] You can share your thoughts about the lectures in the comments section below. Respond to Rebecca direct with any questions on Twitter @RLHasler. Or feel inspired to respond to the Call for Papers for ‘Pamphleteering Culture, 1558-1702‘, an upcoming conference at the University of Edinburgh. More information can be found at

Zoë Sutherland

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