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Before the days of the internet, television and widespread daily newspapers, how did people find out about acts of wrongdoing, and before reading for pleasure became a mass occupation how did they get access to fictional or entertaining accounts of criminals and their crimes? In much of Western Europe this information was distributed in the form of cheap broadsides and pamphlets (known as chapbooks) sold by wandering dealers. These publications were the equivalent of the modern popular press, but they survive today only in very small numbers.
The University Library’s new exhibition, opening today to the public in the Milstein Exhibition Centre, displays some of our uniquely rich holdings of nineteenth-century Spanish chapbooks, and contrasts them with material produced in the same era for English readers. These were two dramatically different audiences: only about one in five Spaniards was able to read in 1860, whereas in England at that time some two-thirds of the population was literate. As a result, Spanish popular literature had dramatic visual content and text that was often in verse, to be easily remembered and shared. The English material on display, by contrast, used more sophisticated language to address a better-educated audience.
The exhibition traces the lifecycle of wrongdoing, from highly – and sometimes gruesomely – illustrated books showing children how to behave well, through the consequences of family relationships, to the final retribution for convicted offenders. Characters in the display include bandits, drunkards, drowners, murderous women and numerous other reprobates – not all of whom were brought to justice.
Accompanying the exhibition is a virtual exhibition website, which has been made possible by a gift from the Howard and Abby Milstein Foundation and includes images of every item on display and extended captions for selected items. The new exhibitions area is at http://exhibitions.lib.cam.ac.uk. We have also been able to digitise a selection of English items in full for the Digital Library. These sit alongside a collection containing fully digitised versions of the Library’s holdings of Spanish chapbooks, created as part of an AHRC-funded research project, Wrongdoing in Spain 1800-1936: Realities, Representations, Reactions. Over time the Digital Library will include all the University Library’s holdings of these ephemeral and fascinating Spanish publications.
The exhibition is open 9am-6pm Monday to Friday, 9am-4.30pm on Saturdays, until 23 December.