A new exhibition of 1870-71 caricatures at Cambridge Modern and Medieval Languages and Linguistics library 

A few weeks ago, we opened a new exhibition in the Modern and Medieval Languages and Linguistics library, relating to a collection of 1870-71 caricatures held in the University Library. This project was highly collaborative, involving librarians, academic staff and students. It followed an exhibition held at the UL last year and started with translations of the text and legends of French caricatures into English.

Poster for the MMLL caricatures exhibition

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Frederick Justen and L’Eclipse: the early 20th c. donation of 1870-71 Franco-Prussian caricatures and satirical magazines to Cambridge UL

Six large volumes of around 1100 caricatures of 1870-71 (KF.3.9-14), digitised by Cambridge Digital Content Unit, with funding by Cambridge Digital Humanities, have just been made available on our Digital Library. This digitisation was enabled through a research project coinciding with the 150th anniversary of the Franco-Prussian war and focusing on collections of French and German caricatures produced at the time which were brought to the UK shortly afterwards. While beginning to investigate the 1870-71 caricatures collection, I wondered about the role and evidence for the contribution of the bookseller Frederick Justen (1832-1906), who we know played a key role in assembling and bringing to the UK several collections of 1870-71 caricatures (see the articles by Daniels, 2005 and Müller, 2011-12).

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Rich and ravenous: caricatures of the siege of Paris by the Prussians (September 1870 – January 1871)

In a previous blog post, we talked about series of caricatures held in Cambridge University Library and other collections (such as Heidelberg University Library) depicting food shortages during the 1870-1871 siege of Paris. The Parisian diet was considerably and disturbingly altered and extended during this time, as people resorted to eating rats, cats, dogs, and horses. The current lockdown, due to the COVID-19 outbreak, with obvious economic consequences, is predicted to increase social inequalities, despite government measures such as the furlough scheme or the extension of free school meals vouchers over the summer holidays. Did the siege of Paris level or increase social differences, and how were they perceived by contemporary caricaturists? Satirical prints specifically targeted the way privileged classes coped with the situation of penury and food shortages. The relative suffering of the wealthy, bourgeois or aristocrats, is treated humourously in many of the caricatures produced at the time. They stress the fact that, though they also experienced rationing, hardship and privations, certain categories of the population did manage to avoid starvation and, as restaurants were open, were still able to enjoy behaviours of their previous life.

Heidelberg UL, vol. 2 p. 121 and 175 ; Cambridge UL, KF.3.10

In the Album du siège, Cham depicts a manservant informing his lady, reclining languidly in a chair, that her horses are ready – on the dinner table. A print of Paris assiégé shows a helpful manservant jovially reassuring his mistress, a marchioness surrounded by her domestic ménagerie (dogs, cats, fish and birds) that with such an entourage, she need not fear hunger…

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Eating cats and dogs during a lockdown: caricatures of besieged Paris (September 1870 – January 1871)

150 years ago, in the midst of the Franco-Prussian war and the Commune, the besieged population of Paris experienced situations of lockdown and hardship which to some extent resonate with the confinement we have been through recently. During the COVID-19 outbreak, our confinement may have altered some of our eating habits and consumption, but despite initial panic buying, UK supermarkets have still been stocked and food has been plentiful, whereas the circulation of people, goods and provisions to and from besieged Paris was completely impeded.


Collection de caricatures et de charges pour servir à l’histoire de la guerre et de la révolution de 1870-1871. Heidelberg UL, vol. 2, p. 91 ; Cambridge UL, KF.3.10

Cambridge University Library, as well as a number of institutions and museums in the UK, France, Germany and the US, holds an important collection of caricatures of the Franco-Prussian war and the Paris Commune, (hand-coloured) lithographs, most of them produced in series. Those focusing on the first siege of Paris include “Souvenirs du siège” (30 prints) and “Paris assiégé: scènes de la vie parisienne pendant le siège” (31 prints) by Draner; the “Album du siège” (39 prints) by Cham and Daumier, and two series by Faustin: “Paris bloqué” (24 prints) and “Les femmes de Paris assiégé (idylles et épopées)” (8 prints). In the context of a research project on 1870-71 Franco-Prussian caricatures, Cambridge Digital Library has already digitised the first of the six volumes of the Cambridge prints, and Cambridge Digital Humanities has funded the photography of the remainder of the collection, due when the library reopens. In the meantime, we can refer to other digitisations of this material, in particular that of Heidelberg University Library. Continue reading