20 April 2010

News and Media: Town Criers

By Zoe Archer

You want to learn the latest news, not just the gossip from your neighborhood, but royal proclamations, the date of the next market day, and government edicts both local and national. But printed material is hard to come by and expensive. Plus, you can't read. So, how do you find out the news?

The town crier.

Having a person announce the news is an ancient custom, but the tradition in Britain is said to have begun some time after the Norman Invasion, when criers would call, "Oyez, oyez, oyez." In old French, this translates to "Hear ye," cries we hear today in the modern justice system. In order to make sure people knew the news was about to be announced, cries would beat small drums, blow horns or ring bells. At the sound, those nearby would gather around to listen.

The criers were men, and sometimes women, who were well respected in the community. They read from a list of notices, including advertising, and then post the notices on the doorway of an inn or tavern so that those who could read might be able to catch up on the latest intelligence.

In Britain, town criers were protected by the monarchy, so that they could not be heckled or prevented from doing their job, and in other countries, criers received similar protection, thus ensuring that the news was distributed.

Our modern newscasters are always well-dressed to present an air of authority. But the practice didn't begin with the advent of the newsreel and television. Town criers made sure to dress elaborately to give themselves the same impression of authority. The traditional outfit of the red and gold caped rope, tricorn hat, white breeches and black boots dates to the 18th century--with some regional variations--and many criers enjoyed the magnificent, elaborate uniform of their profession. Even today, there are competitions around the world where criers vie not only for the honor of being the best at announcing the news, but also for the title of Best Dressed Town Crier.

Though we now have many more sources for news (including this blog), the town crier still exists and reminds of our past, when we'd take a moment to gather around with our friends and neighbors to listen and catch up on the latest happenings.