Seeing how quickly news of the resignation of Pope Benidict XVI spread on Twitter, The Atlantic’s Rebecca Rosen wondered how people found out about the last Papal resignation back in the Middle Ages.
In 1415, mass media happened not on a TV but at, well, Mass. “This is the big thing about the Middle Ages,” George Ferzoco, a medievalist at the University of Bristol, told me. “We tend to think that they had no such thing as a mass medium. The fact is they did. And that mass medium was the sermon, because everyone would regularly be at one.
“Imagine,” he continued, “what it’s like to have a major international meeting lasting a few years, and you’ve got to discuss written texts. Well you’ve got to have an army of people writing this stuff out, nonstop, day and night. So all of these people together would have been potential news sources. They would have sent news back to their home cities, or indeed to people who they deem are important or interested.”
From Constance, news traveled outward through a network of messengers on horseback. Couriers “would take documents out of Constance, go to a town 20 or 30 miles down the road, transfer things there to a fresh person and a fresh person and so on,” said Ferzoco. Medievalists I spoke with estimated that this sort of “Pony Express” system could have conveyed the news of Gregory XII’s resignation to major European cities such as Paris in something like a week.