Town Crier

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Historical Sketch on Town Crier

Town criers could well be described as “historical newscasters”. It is known that the tradition was started in ancient Greece, when heralds were used to announce the severing of relationships which would lead to an official proclamation of war. The herald would also be used to bear proposals of truce or armistice.

The origin of the word “stentorian” has been attributed to the Greek warrior Stentor, who played a part in the Trojan war and whose voice was said to be as powerful as the voices of 50 other men. The first use of criers in the British Isles was said to date back to Norman times, when the cry “oyez, oyez, oyez”, (old French for “hear ye”) was used to draw the attention of the mostly illiterate public to matters of importance.

As town criers enjoyed royal protection, the command “don’t shoot the messenger” had very real significance. In the capital city of Edinburgh, one of the last known town criers was George Pratt – about the year 1784 – who was noted for his pompous delivery in discharging his duties. George had a high opinion of the importance and dignity of his situation as a public officer. They persecuted him with the cry of “quack, quack!” – a monosyllable which was particularly offensive to his ears. This cry was sometimes varied into “swallow’s nest”, a phrase which he also abominated, as it made an allusion to a personal deformity – a large wen that grew beneath his chin.

The Medium is NOT the message

Hermes, the fleet-footed messenger with wings on his heels and cap symbolizes fast floral delivery. However, Hermes was originally neither winged nor a messenger - that role was reserved for the rainbow goddess Iris. He was, instead, clever, tricky, a thief, and, with his awakening or sleep-conferring wand, the original sandman whose descendants include a major Greek hero and a noisy, fun-loving god.

In the Iliad, Iris is the messenger god and in the Odyssey, it's Hermes, but even in the Iliad (Book 2), there is a passage where in the words of Timothy Ganz, Hermes serves as courier:

"Then King Agamemnon rose, holding his sceptre. This was the work of Vulcan, who gave it to Jove the son of Saturn. Jove gave it to Mercury, slayer of Argus, guide and guardian. King Mercury gave it to Pelops, the mighty charioteer, and Pelops to Atreus, shepherd of his people. Atreus, when he died, left it to Thyestes, rich in flocks, and Thyestes in his turn left it to be borne by Agamemnon, that he might be lord of all Argos and of the isles."

In this sense, town criers have been took their role as Hermes and then were used to issue warnings and acted as conveyors of local news. In Haddington, East Lothian, after a fire which destroyed one side of the High Street in 1598, the “coal and candle” proclamation was introduced. This was an instruction to the burghers to acquaint themselves with every device for fire prevention. The proclamation was announced by the town crier nightly except Sunday from Martinmas to Candlemas.