The Rise of Literacy in Europe

Street Literature

Along with more serious books in Latin for scholars and clergy, printed materials for wider audiences emerged in the 16th century. Intended for people who usually could not afford to buy books, they were cheap and concise while their content was often primitive and therefore accessible for uneducated readers. Street literature is the all-encompassing term for broadsides and chapbooks. They formed the staple reading diet of the common people of all ages from the 17th to the 19th century, and were often thrown away or used for other purposes after being read. They were sold on the street by hawkers or chapmen. Street literature contained news and proclamations as well as stories, ballads, and songs. Many medieval stories and oral tales went into chapbooks, and they enjoyed extreme popularity.

Broadsides were single sheets of paper printed on one side so that they could be read unfolded or attached to walls. A full and particular Account of the Sale of a Woman, published in Newcastle, relates a shocking incident that took place in Edinburgh in 1828. Similar accounts of topical events were spread in early mass media and fostered the circulation of news and information. The texts were often read aloud for the benefit of the illiterate, and they carried woodcuts as an illustration that were not always connected to the content of the chapbook but promoted visual literacy.

Besides information on current affairs, broadsides also contained ballads that were often sung by hawkers in the market-place or at the fairground. Ballads addressed both moral and religious issues as well as current affairs. Pettegolezzi e Baruffe delle Ciane Fiorentine is an Italian ballad that reflects the popularity of gossip and quarrels. They were narrated mostly in dialect, and, in reading them, it is not difficult to imagine the square, almost like a theater, where women are squabbling and people look out of the windows to comment on the scene.

When a sheet of printed paper was folded into a booklet, it was called a chapbook. The length varied between 4 and 24 pages. Chapbooks contained entertaining or instructive reading matter, as well as longer ballads. The ballad Cân o senn iw hên feistr Tobacco (1718) by Alban Thomas was the first ever text to be published by a printing press in Wales and discussed the evil and immoral nature of tobacco. The ballad played an important role in social and cultural life during the 18th and 19th centuries.

Chapbooks belonged to the most popular reading material among lower classes across the Europe. In France they were called Bibliothèque bleue due to the blue paper used for covers and encompassed a vast array of topics, including the retelling of popular novels and scientific works in accessible form. Histoire generalle des plantes et herbes by Leonhart Fuchs was published in 1729 and provided a comprehensive insight into botany.

Street literature was the forerunner of newspapers and mass media. Today, street literature offers valuable insights into the everyday lives of the people across Europe of early modern times.