Skip to main content


Wokery, war and fake news – life in the 1600s

European war in the 17th century, as depicted by Jean Pierre Franque. Leemage/Corbis/Getty

Reading Samuel Pepys’s diary from the summer of 1665, says Dominic Sandbrook in UnHerd, you get the feeling “you might be looking in a mirror”. One factor is the sweltering heat: June was “the hottest they ever knew in England”, Pepys wrote. There was also fake news – “ill reports” that Lord Sandwich had been killed in battle against the Dutch – and a “ferociously complicated” European conflict which, like the Ukraine invasion, became a proxy war between existing religious and political divides. For a long time, publishers ignored the 17th century. “The Stuarts weren’t as sexy as the Tudors.” But we’re finally waking up to a period eerily reminiscent of our own.

The root of this similarity is that the 17th century, like the 21st, saw an extraordinary advance in information technology. Back then, the emergence of the printing press fuelled the same “paranoia, hysteria, sensation and scandal” that characterises our online discourse. For 17th-century writers, the belief that the “world had been turned on its head” – the kind of thing you hear today about “Brexit, or transgenderism, or whatever” – was “remarkably common”. The world, according to one commentator at the time, was “off its hinges”. There was even a proto-woke movement in the Puritans, who believed they’d been “awakened to injustice” and that life was an “unending struggle against sin”. Personally, I hope all these parallels hold up. Why? Because they suggest a “new age of pleasure-loving debauchery” is just around the corner. “Can’t wait.”