Joaquim Nabuco Foundation Librarian
Cordel literature is called so because of how the pamphlets are sold, hanging from strings (cordão), at fairs, markets, plazas and newsstands, mainly in the countryside towns and in the suburbs of the big cities. This name was given by intellectuals and it is what appears in some dictionaries. The general population refers to cordel literature simply as folheto (pamphlet).
The tradition of these popular publications, usually in verse, comes from Europe. In the 18th century, the expression literatura de cego (blind man literature) was already common among the Portuguese because of a law declared in 1789 by Dom João V allowing the Irmandade dos Homens Cegos de Lisboa (Brotherhood of the Blind Men of Lisbon) to do business with this kind of publication.
This type of literature doesn’t only exist in Brazil, but also in Sicily (Italy), Spain, Mexico and Portugal. In Spain it is called pliego de cordel and pliegos sueltos (loose pamphlets). In all of these places there is popular literature in verse.
According to Luís da Câmara Cascudo, in the book Vaqueiros e cantadores (Cowboys and Singers) (Porto Alegre: Globo, 1939. p.16) the pamphlets were introduced to Brazil by singer Silvino Pirauá de Lima and later by the pair Leandro Gomes de Barros and Francisco das Chagas Batista. In the beginning of cordel literature publishing in the country, many authors were also singers who
improvised verses, travelling through the farms, villages and towns of the semi-arid region. With the creation of private presses in homes and poets’ tents, the system of distribution changed. The author of a pamphlet could remain in the same place for most of the time because his work was being sold by ‘folheteiros’ or ‘revendedores’ (those who sell cordel literature) employed by him.
The popular poet is a representative of the people, reporter of events of life in Northeast Brazil. There is no limit in the choice of themes to create a pamphlet. One can narrate the deeds of Lampião, the adventures of heroes like João Grilo or Cancão de Fogo, a love story or important events of interest to the public.
According to Ariano Suassuna, a scholar of the subject, the popular literature in verse of Northeast Brazil can be classified into the following categories: heroic, marvellous, religious or moral, satirical and historical.
Currently, cordel literature does not have as good a market in Brazil as it had in the 1950s, when two million pamphlets about the death of Getúlio Vargas were printed and sold in a total of 60 titles.
Today pamphlets can be found in some public markets, such as São José Market in Recife, some fairs, like that of Caruaru, and in second-hand bookstores. There is a collection of cordel pamphlets available for consultation in the archives of the Blanche Knopf Central Library at the Joaquim Nabuco Foundation.
Recife, 18 July 2003.
(Updated on 28 November 2009.)
Translated by Peter Leamy, February 2011.
Ilustration by Rosinha.
CURRAN, Mark J. A página editorial do poeta popular. Revista Brasileira de Folclore, Rio de Janeiro, a. 12, n.32, p.5-16, jan./abr. 1972.
VILA NOVA, Sebastião. Literatura de cordel. Recife: IJNPS. Instituto de Pesquisas Sociais, 1976. (Folclore 19).
HOW TO CITE THIS TEXT:
Source: GASPAR, Lúcia. Cordel Literature. Pesquisa Escolar On-Line, Joaquim Nabuco Foudation, Recife. Available at: <http://basilio.fundaj.gov.br/pesquisaescolar/>. Accessed: day month year. Exemple: 6 Aug. 2009.