For centuries, street literature was the main cheap reading material of the working classes: broadsides, chapbooks, songsters, prints, engravings, and other forms of print produced specifically to suit their taste and cheap enough for even the poor to buy.

Starting in the sixteenth century, but at its chaotic and flamboyant peak in the nineteenth, street literature was on sale everywhere – in urban streets and alleyways, at country fairs and markets, at major sporting events and holiday gatherings, and under the gallows at public executions. For this very reason, it was often despised and denigrated by the educated classes, but remained enduringly popular with the ordinary people.

Anything and everything was grist to the printers’ mill, if it would sell. A penny could buy you a celebrity scandal, a report of a gruesome murder, the last dying speech of a condemned criminal, wonder tales, riddles and conundrums, a moral tale of religious danger and redemption, a comic tale of drunken husbands and shrewish wives, a temperance tract or an ode to beer, a satire on dandies, an alphabet or “reed-a-ma-daisy” (reading made easy) to teach your children, an illustrated chapbook of nursery rhymes, or the adventures of Robin Hood and Jack the Giant Killer.

Street literature long held its own by catering directly for the ordinary people, at a price they could afford, but, by the end of the Victorian era, it was in terminal decline and was rapidly being replaced by a host of new printed materials in the shape of cheap newspapers and magazines, penny dreadful novels, music hall songbooks, and so on, all aimed squarely at the burgeoning mass market.

Fascinating today for the unique light it shines on the lives of the ordinary people of the age, street literature has long been neglected as a historical resource, and this collection of essays is the first general book on the trade for over forty years.

In every country across Europe, at some point or other during the last five hundred years, cheap printed materials were the staple diet of ordinary people, providing a rich array of entertainment, education, and information. They came in various forms, but were usually variations on the theme of single sheets or simple booklets, and they were carried far and wide in pedlars’ packs and sold in the streets, at fairs and markets and wherever crowds gathered, as well as in backstreet shops.

Their content was as broad as can be imagined: news and scandal, crimes and last-dying confessions of murderers, divinations, instructional works, wonder stories, miracles, folktales and legends, love stories, celebrations of national victories and lamentations for the good old days. They were often couched in the form of poetry or song, and included pictures in the form of woodcuts and engravings to add to their appeal.

In every country across Europe, governments and local and religious authorities tried at times to suppress or control these cheap printed materials. Sometimes, too, the authorities would adopt the format of cheap print to spread their own moral and conformist messages. The educated elites almost always treated cheap print with disdain, but the people continued to buy these items in their tens of thousands, and the printers knew exactly what they wanted.

Neglected and reviled for centuries, cheap print shines a light on the culture and lives of ordinary people. This is the first volume to take a pan-European perspective, with each chapter detailing the experience of a particular country or region, offering the reader the opportunity to progress from the particular to a continent-wide overview. This combination of the ubiquity of the materials and overarching themes with the variations wrought by local circumstances can be summed up in the phrase always the same, but everywhere different.

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