Meet the bawdy forbears of Paris and Moll

January 12, 2007

A new type of mass communication. A fixation with celebrities, gossip, opinion and scandal. Stories of miraculous births and prophecies.

It may sound like modern-day mass media, writes Jon Marcus, but these are the elements of the earliest written popular culture pamphlets and broadsides on the streets of London in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, according to a new scholarly exhibition.

Crooks, Rogues, and Maids Less Than Virtuous uses rare written materials collected in the 1930s by a Columbia University professor and unearthed by researchers at the University of Massachusetts, who have put them on display in Boston.

"What I like about it is that it's trashy stuff," said Cheryl Nixon, the Harvard University-educated English literature expert who oversaw the project.

"It's not lofty poetry. Average, everyday people (from that era) are becoming literate for the first time. And it makes sense that they're reading about crime and prophecies and these kinds of things."

The materials were cheap, sold on the streets to common people and of little interest to scholars until recently. "It was seen as refuse, as street chatter, gutter literature," Dr Nixon said.

Yet some of the writers of these pamphlets, such as Daniel Defoe, the author of Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders , evolved into the earliest novelists. Their "true life" stories cover crime, sex, politics and other topics. Defoe wrote one called Conjugal Lewdness or Matrimonial Whoredom .

One of the most famous episodes chronicled in the pamphlets on display involved a woman called Mary Tost who claimed to have given birth to rabbits. The local doctor and then the royal surgeon verified her story, but it was eventually exposed as a hoax.

Another hero of the street press was a blind and deaf man named Duncan Campbell, who was believed to be able to see the future.

Dr Nixon believes there are parallels between what happened 300 years ago and what is occurring now, with the advent of another new medium, the internet, and the persistent fascination with celebrity.

She said that the old stories "are similar to what we read today, wacky personalities who caught the imaginations of people. In some ways, it's a very strange and foreign period; but in some ways it sounds like today - it sounds like Paris Hilton."

Meanwhile, she said, the London political pamphlets "are like today's blogs, where people get online and start spouting off".

Crooks, Rogues, and Maids Less Than Virtuous , the Boston Public Library, until May 1.

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