An exhibition at the BNE reviews three centuries of proto-journalism through the popular flying sheets, precursors of the newspapers that already gave rise to ‘fake news’ five centuries ago
In the fifteenth century there were no newspapers. But the news was already traveling from one end to the other in badly printed, crudely illustrated and usually anonymous flyers. These sheets that gave an account of hoaxes and true events were called relations: political events, wonders, catastrophes, crimes and monstrosities. Of great popular pull, they were the origin of journalism and an instrument of power that already disclosed ‘fake news’ five centuries before the expression was coined
This is confirmed by the exhibition ‘True News, Wonderful Prodigies’, with which the National Library of Spain (BNE) explores, until mid-June, the germ of journalism. Its curators, Adelaida Caro and Nieves Pena, have selected a striking hundred from the more than 4,000 flying leaves that the BNE treasures. In a chronological arc of almost three centuries, it goes from Columbus’s letter on his arrival in America in 1492, printed from a manuscript by Fray Bartolmé de las Casas and which was a bombshell, to the appearance in 1661 of the ‘Gazeta de Madrid’, considered the first Spanish newspaper.
“With a bad impression and print runs of 1,500 to 2,000 copies, depending on the interest of the story, they were sold for about three maravedís,” explains Pena, Professor of Literature at the University of La Coruña and a student of our proto-journalism. «In quarter or folio size, and addressed to the ‘curious reader’, they deal with political and military milestones, parties and courtly gossip or religious acts such as canonizations or beatifications. They give news of epidemics, catastrophes such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, eclipses, of frightening events and cases, of crimes that we would classify today as gender-based violence but also of tournaments, fairs or bullfights, what today would be sports », specifies the police station.
The Crown and the Church, agents and poles of power, soon understood the importance of these relationships and tried to keep them under control. Generally anonymous, there are also some with signatures as relevant as Quevedo, Cervantes or Lope de Vega and illustrious humanists such as Álvar Gómez de Castro or López de Hoyos. Those of events, the most popular, recount events such as the earthquake that shook the peninsula in 1755, which hit Cádiz and destroyed Lisbon, the eruption of Vesuvius in 1631, or they tell in verse the bubonic plague epidemic that decimated Logroño in 1599 “Others, like the newspapers today, speak of inflation, fear of plagues, wars or the appearance of fantastic beings, and there is one that refers to the news of the battle of Lepanto, the expectation that aroused the unexpected arrival of the prince of Wales to Madrid in 1623, or the incredible story of the lieutenant nun,” says Adelaida Caro, head of the BNE’s Department of Manuscripts, Incunabula and Rares.
“They were newspapers when newspapers did not exist, and through them we see that ‘fake news’ already existed in the Golden Age.” «There are reports that narrate the victory of the Invincible Armada that never happened, false triumphs of the thirds of Flanders, that speak of the man who lived 300 years or the nun who, in an intestinal effort, had her natures come out of man,” says Nieves Pena.
Their purpose was to “inform, entertain and move” and there were them all over Europe. «The peculiarity of the Spanish sheets is their poor quality compared to those printed in Lyon, Antwerp or Venice. It is a miracle that they have come down to us, and we owe it to collectors such as Jerónimo de Mascarenhas, a Portuguese scholar who bound documents from more than three centuries”, explains Caro. «Today they are essential for the knowledge and study of the history, culture and society of that time and also for the history of mentalities. Since they document multiple aspects of the golden culture –from editorial practices to popular uses and customs, celebrations, fashions, weather phenomena and a long etcetera”, the curators conclude.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.