The limping messenger

Douce’s illustrations from almanacs date from about the last quarter of the eighteenth century to the early 1830s. As is often the case with the part of his collection that remains arranged by subject, the images are taken out of their original context and they do not follow a chronological order. These prints are not even classified by theme, since Douce was interested mainly in their technique. They seem to belong to different editions of the popular calendar Der Hinkende Bote (or Messager boiteux), published in the Swiss cantons. As can be seen in my previous post on this matter, a constant motif that makes their title-pages instantly recognizable is the figure of the limping pedlar offering his goods to a motley crowd:

Anonymous, The limping messenger, c. 1770-1800, wood-engraving (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford)

The contents of these almanacs were almost as diverse as their readers. Douce was interested in the means by which both tales and visual types are not only transmitted from generation to generation, but also circulated within society. In the pages of these publications, images of exotic peoples and lands coexist with depictions of historical events, practical jokes, freak accidents, popular festivals, public ceremonies, and other current affairs:

Jean L, Christening of the infant Henri d’Artois, c. 1821, wood-engraving (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford)

As the image above suggests, the adventures and misadventures of different European royal houses were given as much coverage as they have in today’s glossy magazines. But, in the turbulent aftermath of the French Revolution, to their births, marriages, christenings, and coronations coups and assassinations were often added:

Possibly E. W. Zimmer, Assassination of Gustav III of Sweden, c. 1792, woodcut (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford)

In this woodcut, courtiers in fancy dress dance and talk in a ballroom, while the conspirator Anckarström fires a gun at the king, dressed in Oriental costume. Violent deaths must have been a favourite topic among the readers of these almanacs, since plenty of well-publicized cases were depicted in their pages:

Jean L, The murder of M. Corboz and his maid, c. 1820, woodcut (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford)

The murder of Monsieur Corboz in Geneva, widely reported in the British press (see, for instance, The Examiner, 26 November 1820), was the subject of pamphlets that provided dramatic details of the case and of its trial, as can be seen in the Procès complet des assassins de M. Corboz et sa servante:

Procès complet

Another cause célèbre that fostered wild speculation and endless conspiracy theories was the mysterious murder of the magistrate Antoine Bernardin Fualdès in the French town of Rodez:

Anonymous, Murder of the magistrate Antoine Bernardin Fualdès, c. 1817, woodcut (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford)

What readers wanted from these illustrations were accurate depictions of the setting, a detailed sequence of events, and faithful portraits of the accused. Fulfilling these requirements often resulted in wooden renditions of the news, far removed from the heroic tone of the series of drawings that Théodore Géricault (1791-1824) produced about the same subject:

Théodore Géricault, L’enlèvement de Fualdès, 1817-18, Brown ink and graphite © musée du Louvre département des Arts graphiques, © Direction des Musées de France, 2005 © Réunion des musées nationaux.

Popular calendars in pre-industrial Europe

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