Teaching with cheap print

For a class on early modern violent crime earlier this week, I’d asked the students to use Early English Books Online to find examples of cheap murder pamphlets to bring to class. One of them had found a real corker (link requires EEBO subscription, I’m afraid, though I might transcribe it at some point): The bloody innkeeper, or sad and barbarous news from Glocester-shire (1675).

(So there I am enthusing over this pamphlet, and they’re all very polite, bless ’em, but I think they must be pretty certain by now that teacher is a complete weirdo…)

What happened: a Cromwellian soldier (unnamed) had returned from the wars and set up as an innkeeper in Gloucestershire with his Scottish wife. Because of her Scottish connections, pedlars (the travelling salesmen of the day) from Scotland were frequently among their customers. The innkeeper, neighbours noticed, did surprisingly well considering that the inn was rather small and off the main roads. In fact, he did so well that after some years he was able to set up in a larger and much more impressive establishment in Gloucester.

Sometime later a smith rented the house, and subsequently needed to build a workshop in the garden. He was digging out foundations for his anvil when he found some human bones. The neighbours came to help continue the digging, and they found several bodies with their flesh “much consumed”, but some of them “had certain remnants of wollen and linen garments remaining, whereby it might be perceived that they were buried there in their cloaths”. So it was clear that they had been killed and buried there to hide the crime, but who had done it? Then:

at last just Heaven, whose purer eyes could not suffer such villany to escape unpunisht, wonderfully opened a way to the discovery, for as they were viewing more narrowly the bones and corps, and removing the earth and rubbish to behold them the plainer, they perceived a knife stuck in by the blade bone of one of their breasts, which being taken up and scoured from the rust, they found thereon engraven the name of a man who owned it…

All of which “together with divers other circumstances being considered” led “the neighbourhood” to strongly suspect that the innkeeper had been robbing and killing his customers and that was why his business did so well. Presumably he was arrested and at the time the pamphlet was printed was awaiting trial (which is why the author won’t name names).

An initial difficulty students tend to have with these pamphlets is grasping that for readers at the time this kind of discovery of murder in pamphlets wasn’t just a matter of ‘chance’, as it seems to us. Even when words like “miraculous” appear in pamphlet titles, it seems quite hard for modern, secular minds to get the significance of it.

It belongs in a wider context of beliefs in Providence, which I’ve written about here before. Some pamphlets rub it in more than others (it was relatively, um, subtle in this particular pamphlet, I thought), but the message is: if you do such evil things, however hard you try to conceal it, God will act to see that you get caught.

So cheap print like this becomes an interesting source to explore (among other things) the topic of early modern religious belief, which is far from being a new subject but has often tended to be studied through more ‘elite’ (…or at least reputable) intellectual history sources and methods.

Not that cheap print gives us a transparent window onto ‘popular’ culture: who actually read these things? how did they read them? did they take away the intended messages? All tough questions. But after all, no source is easy. And the more I use these for teaching, the more I like them. I think I might even put together an outline for a course , bringing in a wider range of cheap print (16th to 19th centuries probably), not just the crime-related stuff. And of course there’s so much good secondary literature on the history of books and reading these days and opportunities to cross over with other disciplines. Mmm…

For those of you who don’t have access to EEBO or ECCO (Eighteenth Century Collections Online), there are increasing numbers of free online resources for this kind of cheap print. The latest would appear to be Curiosities of Street Literature (H-T: Giornale Nuovo), which has scanned an entire volume of a 19th-century anthology of a particular genre of murder pamphlet, the ‘last dying speech’. (And see JA Sharpe, ‘ “Last dying speeches”: religion, ideology and public execution in seventeenth-century England’, Past and Present, 107 (1985).) But there are also sites like these:

Rogues’ gallery: the early literature of crime online
The word on the street: broadsides at the National Library of Scotland
From the bottom up: popular reading and writing in early America
Yesterday’s news: seventeenth-century English broadsides and newsbooks
Bodleian Broadside Ballads
The Complete Newgate Calendar

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