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Representing wrongdoing

A major new resource explores the representation and reality of wrongdoing in Spain.

Before the days of the internet, TV and radio, it was much harder for people to find out about exciting, macabre true-crime stories – but they did.

Launched today (29th September), an AHRC-funded project based at the University of Cambridge has taken a look at the way ‘wrongdoing’ was experienced in cultural terms in 19th-century Spain, looking at historical and legal material, as well as literary sources. A major part of its activity has been the work on chapbooks – the equivalent of the modern popular press, intended to inform and entertain.

The collection of this unusual material (4500 items in all, 2000 from Cambridge and 2500 from the British Library) was catalogued and digitised for a project called ‘Wrongdoing in Spain 1800-1936: Realities, Representations, Reactions’, led by principal investigator Professor Alison Sinclair. The analysis of the papers focused on how wrongdoing was represented – and how historically accurate it was.

Only around a fifth of Spanish adults were literate in the 19th century, meaning that the chapbooks needed to be highly visual, with text in rhyme that could be easily remembered. As an exhibition at the Cambridge University Library in 2013 showed, English publications at the time were a little more sophisticated, an indication of the higher levels of literacy in England. We can see differences, however. While English texts for children focused on warning children against bad habits so that they could grow up to be respectable adults, Spanish texts tended to cover the entire life period, illustrating the different fates of people making different choices.

Once published, this popular material continued to circulate for decades, creating myths and heroes from stories, and producing an imaginary world that did not necessarily mirror the ‘real’ world.

Interestingly, Sinclair emphasises, the concept of ‘wrongdoing’ encompasses not just crime, but includes issues of morality and societal norms. “Wrongdoing as a concept is broader than crime, and it’s broader and more fundamental than those things that legislation stops us doing,” she explains.

She also emphasizes how we need to doubt how far the material is reporting ‘true’ stories, or anything like a ‘true version’, arguing that they are nonetheless valuable if they are entirely fictitious as they constitute a cultural reality and indicate people’s interests and reading habits.  “Reading material of this type is like reading Private Eye, set in the 19th century!” she laughs. “What I am really interested in is the idea that what is public knowledge is what gets around. It’s not what happened - it’s what people believed to have happened. It’s a bit like the question of what we do or do not know these days about wars going on. There’s censorship and all sorts of different versions from different papers and television programmes. I’ve always been interested in the gap between what might have happened, which we don’t ever get access to, and the different versions we do get.”

The project has involved collaboration with the British Library throughout, at the planning stage and all through the project, and there has been consultation with librarians and digital experts in both libraries in order to pool and assess this fragile material. “Working with professionals within the libraries is great. They really are full of knowledge, and they keep me up to date on all sorts of information and events,” says Sinclair.

Digitising and cataloguing the material has helped to preserve it – and now it is openly accessible to scholars from all over the world via the internet, searchable via word, theme and image. It is also possible to sample it via two online exhibitions – ‘Read all about it!’, at Cambridge University Library, which sets Spanish and English popular materials side by side for comparison, and ‘Wrongdoing meets modernity’, a Facebook gallery at the BL, curated in collaboration with them.

In addition to this  the team are working with colleagues in Spain on a proposal to create a universal short-title catalogue of all the available material, securing the status of those involved in this project as major players in the area. The end result would allow researchers to view all of this type of material as a whole and create more of a sense of context.

“When putting this project together, and particularly in relation to this ephemeral material, I thought, ‘We’ve got all this stuff that other people don’t know about, and I have known about for 40 years, since I was doing my thesis’,” says Sinclair. “And it sort of went from there, it only took a bit of scratching at the surface to see the catalogue records were fairly sketchy, and it’s very fragile material. So this was a way of preserving it. The work for this grew, much like Topsy, and it’s going to carry on.”

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