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The culture of discussion that erupted in eighteenth-century Cambridge assumed many forms, of which David Hughes’s pamphlet collection offers just one particularly enduring example. A range of factors had facilitated the production of cheap pamphlets, not least, the lapse of the Licensing Act (1695) through which state sponsored restrictions on publishing were relaxed and pre-publication censorship no longer enforced. With lay opinions now cheaper to promulgate, pronouncements on religion and philosophy that play so important a part in Hughes’s collecting were no longer the preserve of scholars supported by nobility and Church. An iconic instance of this democratisation of knowledge is the rise of periodical press publications containing essays, letters and poems that commented on manners, morals, current affairs and much else. Sometimes scholarly but always readable, these symbols of enlightened advancement promoted learning to a reading public of unprecedented range and size.

That these and other print genres became merely one cog in a broader mechanism of discussion is evident in the presence of occasional annotations by Hughes and earlier owners in his pamphlets and periodicals. This was an age when texts were avidly read and then passed between readers thereby generating discussion in convivial clubs and circulating libraries as well as learned societies such as the Royal Society (to which many of Hughes’s authors belonged and dedicated their texts). With their freely accessible libraries, coffee houses proved particularly attractive to readers from across the social scale as public spaces for reading and debate. Viewed as ephemera, pamphlets discarded by local readers (as well as a Cambridge coffee house) found their way into Hughes’s collection where they leave a permanent record of this transitory world of Enlightenment debate.

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