Myles Davis's "Icon Libellorum, or a Critical History Pamphlets," affords some curious information; and as this is a pamphlet-reading age, I shall give a sketch of its contents.

The author observes:

From Pamphlets may be learned the genius of the age, the debates of the learned, the follies of the ignorant, the bévues of government, and the mistakes of the courtiers. Pamphlets furnish beaus with their airs, coquettes with their charms. Pamphlets are as modish ornaments to gentlewomen's toilets as to gentlemen's pockets; they carry reputation of wit and learning to all that make them their companions; the poor find their account in stall-keeping and in hawking them; the rich find in them their shortest way to the secrets of church and state. There is scarce any class of people but may think themselves interested enough to be concerned with what is published in pamphlets, either as to their private instruction, curiosity, and reputation, or to the public advantage and credit; with all which both ancient and modern pamphlets are too often over familiar and free.—In short, with pamphlets the booksellers and stationers adorn the gaiety of shop-gazing. Hence accrues to grocers, apothecaries, and chandlers, good furniture, and supplies to necessary retreats and natural occasions. In pamphlets lawyers will meet with their chicanery, physicians with their cant, divines with their Shibboleth. Pamphlets become more and more daily amusements to the curious, idle, and inquisitive; pastime to gallants and coquettes; chat to the talkative; catch-words to informers; fuel to the envious; poison to the unfortunate; balsam to the wounded; employ to the lazy; and fabulous materials to romancers and novelists.

This author sketches the origin and rise of pamphlets. He deduces them from the short writings published by the Jewish Rabbins; various little pieces at the time of the first propagation of Christianity; and notices a certain pamphlet which was pretended to have been the composition of Jesus Christ, thrown from heaven, and picked up by the archangel Michael at the entrance of Jerusalem. It was copied by the priest Leora, and sent about from priest to priest, till Pope Zachary ventured to pronounce it a forgery. He notices several such extraordinary publications, many of which produced as extraordinary effects.

He proceeds in noticing the first Arian and Popish pamphlets, or rather libels, i. e. little books, as he distinguishes them. He relates a curious anecdote respecting the forgeries of the monks. Archbishop Usher detected in a manuscript of St. Patrick's life, pretended to have been found at Louvain, as an original of a very remote date, several passages taken, with little alteration, from his own writings.

The following notice of our immortal Pope I cannot pass over:

Another class of pamphlets writ by Roman Catholics is that of Poems, written chiefly by a Pope himself, a gentleman of that name. He passed always amongst most of his acquaintance for what is commonly called a Whig; for it seems the Roman politics are divided as well as popish missionaries. However, one Esdras, an apothecary, as he qualifies himself, has published a piping-hot pamphlet against Mr. Pope's Rape of the Lock, which he entitles 'A Key to the Lock,' wherewith he pretends to unlock nothing less than a plot carried on by Mr. Pope in that poem against the last and this present ministry and government."

He observes on Sermons,—

'Tis not much to be questioned, but of all modern pamphlets what or wheresoever, the English stitched Sermons be the most edifying, useful, and instructive, yet they could not escape the critical Mr. Bayle's sarcasm. He says, 'République des Lettres,' March, 1710, in this article London, 'We see here sermons swarm daily from the press. Our eyes only behold manna: are you desirous of knowing the reason? It is, that the ministers being allowed to read their sermons in the pulpit, buy all they meet with, and take no other trouble than to read them, and thus pass for very able scholars at a very cheap rate!"

He now begins more directly the history of pamphlets, which he branches out from four different etymologies. He says, "However foreign the word Pamphlet may appear, it is a genuine English word, rarely known or adopted in any other language: its pedigree cannot well be traced higher than the latter end of Queen Elizabeth's reign. In its first state wretched must have been its appearance, since the great linguist John Minshew, in his 'Guide into Tongues,' printed in 1617, gives it the most miserable character of which any libel can be capable. Mr. Minshew says (and his words were quoted by Lord Chief Justice Holt), 'A Pamphlet, that is Opusculum Stolidorum, the diminutive performance of fools; from πἁν, all, and πλἡθω, I fill, to wit, all places. According to the vulgar saying, all things are full of fools, or foolish things; for such multitudes of pamphlets, unworthy of the very names of libels, being more vile than common shores and the filth of beggars, and being flying papers daubed over and besmeared with the foams of drunkards, are tossed far and near into the mouths and hands of scoundrels; neither will the sham oracles of Apollo be esteemed so mercenary as a Pamphlet.'"

Those who will have the word to be derived from Pam, the famous knave of Loo, do not differ much from Minshew; for the derivation of the word Pam is in all probability from πἁν, all; or the whole or the chief of the game.

Under this first etymological notion of Pamphlets may be comprehended the vulgar stories of the Nine Worthies of the World, of the Seven Champions of Christendom, Tom Thumb, Valentine and Orson, &c., as also most of apocryphal lucubrations. The greatest collection of this first sort of Pamphlets are the Rabbinic traditions in the Talmud, consisting of fourteen volumes in folio, and the Popish legends of the Lives of the Saints, which, though not finished, form fifty folio volumes, all which tracts were originally in pamphlet forms.

The second idea of the radix of the word Pamphlet is, that it takes its derivations from πἁν, all, and φιλἑω, I love, signifying a thing beloved by all; for a pamphlet being of a small portable bulk, and of no great price, is adapted to every one's understanding and reading. In this class may be placed all stitched books on serious subjects, the best of which fugitive pieces have been generally preserved, and even reprinted in collections of some tracts, miscellanies, sermons, poems, &c.; and, on the contrary, bulky volumes have been reduced, for the convenience of the public, into the familiar shapes of stitched pamphlets. Both these methods have been thus censured by the majority of the lower house of convocation 1711. These abuses are thus represented: "They have republished, and collected into volumes, pieces written long ago on the side of infidelity. They have reprinted together in the most contracted manner, many loose and licentious pieces, in order to their being purchased more cheaply, and dispersed more easily."

The third original interpretation of the word Pamphlet may be that of the learned Dr. Skinner, in his Etymologicon Linguæ Anglicanæ, that it is derived from the Belgic word Pampier, signifying a little paper, or libel. To this third set of Pamphlets may be reduced all sorts of printed single sheets, or half sheets, or any other quantity of single paper prints, such as Declarations, Remonstrances, Proclamations, Edicts, Orders, Injunctions, Memorials, Addresses, Newspapers, &c.

The fourth radical signification of the word Pamphlet is that homogeneal acceptation of it, viz., as it imports any little book, or small volume whatever, whether stitched or bound, whether good or bad, whether serious or ludicrous. The only proper Latin term for a Pamphlet is Libellus, or little book. This word indeed signifies in English an abusive paper or little book, and is generally taken in the worst sense.

After all this display of curious literature, the reader may smile at the guesses of Etymologists; particularly when he is reminded that the derivation of Pamphlet is drawn from quite another meaning to any of the present, by Johnson, which I shall give for his immediate gratification.

Pamphlet [par un filet, Fr. Whence this word is written anciently, and by Caxton, paunflet] a small book; properly a book sold unbound, and only stitched.

The French have borrowed the word Pamphlet from us, and have the goodness of not disfiguring its orthography. Roast Beef is also in the same predicament. I conclude that Pamphlets and Roast Beef have therefore their origin in our country.

Pinkerton favoured me with the following curious notice concerning pamphlets:—

"Of the etymon of pamphlet I know nothing; but that the word is far more ancient than is commonly believed, take the following proof from the celebrated Philobiblon, ascribed to Richard de Buri, bishop of Durham, but written by Robert Holkot, at his desire, as Fabricius says, about the year 1344, (Fabr. Bibl. Medii Ævi, vol. i.); it is in the eighth chapter.

Sed, revera, libros non libras maluimus; codicesque plus dileximus quam florenos: ac PANFLETOS exiguos phaleratis prætulimus palescedis.

But, indeed, we prefer books to pounds; and we love manuscripts better than florins; and we prefer small pamphlets to war horses.

This word is as old as Lydgate's time: among his works, quoted by Warton, is a poem "translated from a pamflete in Frenshe."


D’Israeli, Isaac. Curiosities of Literature. Vol 1 (or 3). Ed. The Earl Of Beaconsfield [Benjamin Disraeli]. London: Frederick Warne and Co. and Bradbury, Agnew, & Co., 1881. Project Gutenberg web version [EBook #21615]. First released May 26, 2007; revised January 16, 2009. Produced by Jonathan Ingram, Janet Blenkinship and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team, 1 December 2016.

Last modified 1 December 2016