Glossary of Early Modern Popular Print Genres


Criminal narrative

Modern concept
Justo y ejemplar castigo. Relacion de la sentencia ejecutada el dia 14 de Mayo en el pueblo de Tarrassa, en la persona de Narciso Casademunt y Aulét. Valencia, Biblioteca Serrano Morales, CII R.18521

Other languages

  • Dutch: misdaadliteratuur
  • French: biographie de criminels, réçit de gueuserie, complainte criminel, confession (often parodic), roman criminel, canard sanglant, chanson criminelle 
  • German:  Kriminalliteratur 
  • Italian: storie criminali, narrativa criminale 
  • Polish: opowieść kryminalna, opowieść detektywistyczna
  • Spanish: coplas de ajusticiados 

Material form



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Criminal narratives are stories about criminals, be it fictional or non-fictional. This genre comprises many forms such as criminal biographies, dying speeches, murder and execution ballads, and penny prints. Dying speeches are pamphlets that included a sensationalist account of crimes and the execution of those who perpetrated these crimes. Such pamphlets appeared in England and Spain. In many cases they were to a large degree based on real historical events. However, they abundantly focussed on murderers as their subjects. As the name of the genre suggests, a large portion of these pamphlets were dedicated to the final words of the convict. Through their representation in these pamphlets, the last dying speeches had a moralizing role, warning the reader of the consequences of crime. These speeches often followed a stereotypical form, giving not only a confession of the crime but also a highly emotional ‘moral biography’ of their past sinful lives, of the circumstances that led them to crime, and of their eventual repentance and peace with their execution.  

A substantial number of French canards, sensationalist news pamphlets, dealt with criminal narratives: the canards sanglants. These were popular especially in the 17th century. In later (19th-century) newspapers, much sensationalist crime news was included in the faits divers section. 

A particular form of a criminal narrative was the cony-catching tract. They were quasi-fictional accounts of crime hunters, especially popular in Britain. They shared characteristics with picaresque novels in the sense that they were forms of a broader rogue literature, concerned with elements of crime and vice in society. Contrary to the picaresque however, the cony-catching tract presented itself as a true account of an investigator, rather than the fictional story of the rogue. The cony-catching tract was also more explicitly moralizing, providing one of the first examples in pamphlet literature where entertainment value was used to spread its moral message more effectively. This thus marks a departure from the heavy-handed moralizing tracts and sermons that were usually published as pamphlets.  

Related terms

cony-catching tract, dying speech, gallows speech, criminals’ last words, criminal biography, murder ballad, execution ballad, execution broadside, pamphlet, penny print


A. Bayman, ‘Rogues, Conycatching and the Scribbling Crew’, History Workshop Journal 63 (2007), 1-17.

P.J. Buijnsters, Levens van beruchte personen. Over de criminele biografie in Nederland gedurende de 18e eeuw (Utrecht: HES, 1980).

V. Combe, Histoires tragiques et “canards sanglants”: Genre et structure du récit bref épouvantable en France à la fin du XVIe et au début du XVIIe siècle, thesis Université Nice Sophia Antipolis, 2011,

I. Casas-Delgado and J. Gomis Coloma, ‘Female Transgression and Gallows Literature in the Spanish literatura de cordel’, in: D. Atkinson, S. Roud (eds.), Cheap Print and the People: European Perspectives on Popular Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2019), 33-59.

L.B. Faller, Turned to Account. The Forms and Functions of Criminal Biography in Late Seventeenth- and Early Eighteenth-Century England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983).

A. Fox, The Press and the People: Cheap Print and Society in Scotland, 1500-1785 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020), chapter 7: ‘Last Words and Dying Speeches’.

H. Gladfelder, Criminality and Narrative in Eighteenth-Century England (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2001).

J. Gomis ‘Los rostros del criminal: una aproximación a la literatura de patíbulo en España’, Cuadernos de la Ilustración y el Romanticismo, 22 (2016), 9-33.

J.-F. Heintzen et al., Chanter le crime: Canards sanglants et complaintes tragique (Saint-Pourçain-sur-Sioule: Bleu autour, 2022).

A.F. Kinney, Rogues, Vagabonds, & Sturdy Beggars: A New Gallery of Tudor and Early Stuart Rogue Literature Exposing the Lives, Times, and Cozening Tricks of the Elizabethan Underworld (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1990).

L. Lebourg-Leportier, La tribune et l’échafaud. Les biographies de criminels à l’époque moderne (Paris: Classiques Garnier, 2022).

M. Lever, Canards sanglants. Naissance du fait divers (Paris: Fayard, 1993).

L. Liapi, Roguery in Print. Crime and Culture in Early Modern London (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2019).

S. Liebel, Les Médées modernes. La cruauté féminine d’après les canards imprimés français (1574-1651) (Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2013).

H-J. Lüsebrink, Kriminalität und Literatur im Frankreich des 18. Jahrhunderts: Literarische Formen, soziale Funktionen und Wissenskonstituenten im Zeitalter der Aufklärung (Munich: Oldenbourg, 1983).

J. Marco, ‘Bandidos y bandoleros en la literatura de cordel’, in: J. Huerta Calvo and E. Palacios Fernández, E. (eds.), Al margen de la Ilustración. Cultura popular, arte y literatura en la España del siglo XVIII (Amsterdam-Atlanta, Rodopi, 1998) 39-52.

A. McKenzie, Tyburn’s Martyrs: Execution in England, 1675–1775 (London: Hambledon Continuum, 2007).

U. McIlvenna, S. Gøril Brandtzæg, Ju Gomis, ‘Singing the News of Punishment. The Execution Ballad in Europe, 1550–1900’, Quaerendo 51 (2021), 95-122.

G. Olson, Criminals as Animals from Shakespeare to Lombroso (Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter, 2014), Chapter 2: ‘Catching Conies with Thomas Harman, Robert Greene, and Thomas Dekker’.

M. Rospocher and R. Salzberg, ‘Murder Ballads. Singing, Hearing, and Writing about Murder in Renaissance Italy’, in: T. Dean and K. Lowe (eds.), Murder in Renaissance Italy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 164-188.

J. Salman, ‘An Early Modern Mass Medium:  The Adventures of Cartouche in Dutch Penny Prints (1700–1900)’, Cultural History 7 (2018), 20-47.

J.A. Sharpe, ‘“Last Dying Speeches”: Religion, Ideology and Public Execution in Seventeenth-Century England’, Past and Present 107 (1985), 144-167.

A. Sinclair, ‘Thinking in Pictures: Wrongdoers and their Re-formulation in 19th-century Spain’, Bulletin of Spanish Studies 88 (2011), no. 7-8 , 109-119

N. Zemon Davis, Fiction in the Archives. Pardon Tales and Their Tellers in Sixteenth-Century France (Cambridge-Stanford, CA: 1987).

Modified on: 05/02/2024