Mercurius Fumigosus



Mercurius Fumigosus was a newsbook produced from 1654 to 1655 by John Crouch, a Royalist journalist previously imprisoned by Cromwell's government for his earlier newsbooks The Man in the Moon (1649-1650) and Mercurius Democritus (1652-1654). Like these earlier titles, the contents of Mercurius Fumigosus is characterised by a mixture of ribald reports of debauchery, crude humour, and (superficially) fantastical or whimsical nonsense-stories and poems.

This project, entitled Decoding the news — Mercurius Fumigosus as a source of news in the interregnum, 1654-1655, has used corpus-based techniques to take a closer look at the text of Mercurius Fumigosus and what it tells us about the contemporary society. The project was supported by a grant from the British Academy, reference LRG 35423.


All too frequently Mercurius Fumigosus has been briefly dismissed as mere smut and whimsy. Raymond (1993: 20) describes it as “frivolous and pornographic ... a melange of titillating wonder stories”, a view echoed by writers elsewhere who describe it as “frankly pornographic” (Cranfield 1973: 16), “scurrilous” and “indecent” (Royle 2004: 627). Frank (1961: 242) alludes to its “non-political, irreverent, smutty and facile” nature and describes Crouch’s work as “lazy, glib and harassed” while Thompson (1979: 13) identifies Crouch as being part of an “irresponsible opposition” to Parliamentary rule.

Some of these descriptions ring true, albeit partially. That Mercurius Fumigosus contained a certain amount of scurrilous irreverence is undeniable, and much of its content was based around lewd tales grounded in pornography.

However, these synopses of Crouch’s work seem incomplete and overly dismissive. Its uniqueness alone should afford it attention, yet typically Crouch’s publications receive little more than passing mention in relevant histories of the period where more standard, formulaic newsbooks receive much more. This project has sought to redress this imbalance.

An illustration from Mercurius Fumigosus issue 21     

Using the techniques of corpus linguistics - most notably, the use of concordances of key terms in the text - it has been possible to decode many of Crouch's repeated motifs and metaphors. Many of these are based in the slang of the time. A proportion of the decoded terms can be validated in slang dictionaries compiled in later centuries. However, Mercurius Fumigosus provides an earlier attestation than was previously known for many of these slang terms, in some cases earlier by 200 years or more. Other terms are not recorded at all in the later slang dictionaries.

The decoded Mercurius Fumigosus presents a layer of society centred on sexual exploits - often reported as misadventures or humiliations - in an era famed for its overtly Puritan public morality.

Project outcomes


Cranfield, Geoffrey (1973) The Press and Society. London: Longman.

Frank, Joseph (1965) The Beginnings of the English Newspaper. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Raymond, Joad (1993) Making The News: An Anthology of the Newsbooks of Revolutionary England. New York: St Martin’s Press.

Royle, Trevor (2004) Civil War: The Wars of the Three Kingdoms 1638-1660. London: Abacus.

Thompson, Roger (1979) Unfit For Modest Ears: A Study of Pornographic, Obscene and Bawdy Works Written or Published in England in the Second Half of the Seventeenth Century. London: MacMillan.


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