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Spanish Chapbooks

This is the contagion, the wretched contagion, that comes down from literature to the common people."

—Ramón del Valle-Inclán, Los cuernos de don Friolera (1921)


Not quite by accident, but largely because of an interest in ephemeral literature printed in Spain shown by Hispanists here in the early twentieth century, Cambridge University Library has an impressive and rich collection of what a French colleague has termed ‘no-books’. Usually referred to in English as chap-books, and in Spanish as sueltos, or pliegos sueltos (loose leaves or folded loose leaves), these predecessors of the yellow press provide a fascinating bird’s eye view of popular culture from the eighteenth century onwards.

The collection presented here is a small initial selection of about four and a half thousand sueltos being catalogued and digitised for the AHRC-funded project ‘Wrongdoing in Spain 1800-1936: Realities, Representations, Reactions’. The project is focusing on particular aspects of the cultural representation of wrongdoing and its relation (or lack of it) to historical realities at the time of production, but the resulting collection will enable the exploration of other themes within this fascinating literature. Cambridge University Library has a collection of nearly 2000 sueltos, including nearly 200 poster-sized aleluyas, which typically have 48 illustrations and accompanying text in couplets. To this will be added important collections from the British Library. At both Cambridge and at the British Library, these collections have suffered in the past from a lack of attention from cataloguers, so at present it is difficult for researchers to scan the material for themes or characteristics. The consequences of digitising and cataloguing will open the way for a new wave of activity in relation to this material. Not only will digitisation of the sueltos be a significant contribution to the stewardship, conservation and enhanced accessibility of a body of cultural material (under an open license, it will be possible to see and use these fascinating items from all over the world, at any point where internet access is possible), but they will also be catalogued in a way that will make it much easier to work with these sources.

The full range of the collection of sueltos is greater than what is covered by the term ‘wrongdoing’, and includes popular devotional texts, short plays and items of popular poetry. But ‘wrongdoing’ encompasses not just crime, but moral understanding of right and wrong, the transgression of social norms, and religious concepts of sin. The sueltos therefore open up the potential for thinking about this broad topic, and to consider the social and cultural responses it has elicited over time. Such responses include anxiety, the desire for retribution, identification with perpetrators or victims. Most of all it raises the question of why we are interested in culture that indicates the shocking or the unsavoury, and of why we, as cultural consumers, take a type of pleasure in the wrongdoing of others.

An exhibition of this material, alongside analogous popular material drawn from the Library's collection of English chapbooks and broadsides, opened April 2013. Its narrative follows a type of life-cycle of wrongdoing, from education about how to know right from wrong, through the challenges that arise as we grow up, and characteristically become involved in family frictions, and then illustrating the sorts of actions of violence and excess that can result. A final section focuses on the representation of retribution, whether divine or otherwise.

Under the leadership of Dr Leonard Polonsky and as part of its International Digitisation Project, The Polonsky Foundation has provided major funding towards the development of the digital library's infrastructure.

Content of this collection has been funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.