The mystery of the disappearing Fugger newsletters

Part of my latest post in The Ministry of Culture:

I have been re-reading George T. Matthews’ selection of archives of the Fugger Newsletters and wondering why they seem to have been so thoroughly overlooked. They are, in style and content, the forerunners of what we find on the Web today: An idiosyncratic description of events around the world that are frequently illuminating whether or not they are factual.

Some of the letters are nearly complete novels in themselves. This one paragraph describing Lisbon following the death of the Portuguese king in battle in 1578 tells an entire epic just from the aftermath of the event.

Otherwise business here continues as though nothing untoward has taken place. The ships that arrived from India are being unloaded, the merchants ply their trade and go to sea; it is the nobility and soldiers alone who have perished. No merchant has suffered thereby since they all stayed behind. The four regents whom the king appointed to rule the kingdom in his absence were ratified in their office by the Cardinal. The Government and Officials deal with the people in so friendly a manner that everyone is astounded thereat. In spite of these terrible tidings no riots have occurred and if a stranger, who had never been here before came to the city, he would swear by all that is holy that no ill-fortune has befallen this kingdom for a hundred years.

There are many references to the Newsletters online – but the texts themselves aren’t available. None of the descriptions on the web give a feel for the vast richness of the archive. The Wikipedia entry on the Fuggers doesn’t even mention the newsletters and they are by far the family’s most significant legacy (note to self – update Wikipedia).

One thing that has really captured my imagination reading them this time is that although the dispatches are presented in chronological order it is highly unlikely that they were received that way. Because of the difficulty of sending these letters (or anything else) The Count and his successors received different parts of stories at different times. So he might hear of a king’s decision to go to war, then of his coronation, then of his successor’s defeat and then of the original king’s death. I think this would be a wonderful way to tell a story.