In recent years, it has become clear in the larger field of book history that readership studies, or more generally the history of the reception and use of printed books, resists generalization. Every early modern reader brought unique experiences to the individual copy he or she picked up. The reading each individual gave a book can sometimes be studied, but it can rarely be pronounced typical. This degree of variation obtained in the manuscript age and remained the case in the age of printing. The mass production of books does not mean that we have to do with a different kind of reading history. The invention of printing merely changed the history of some singular readings into a history of many, many singular readings, complicating the problem of generalization. (17) Educational publishing in the sixteenth century, then, must be understood to embrace numerous exceptions to the few apparent rules. Even in so narrowly defined a field, publishing ideals and practices varied greatly and progressed unevenly. From most modern points of view early modern publishers acted inconsistently, even erratically. Then too, some one hundred fifty different texts in well over two thousand different editions were produced in Italy during this period specifically for the use of teachers and students in the single area of Latin grammar. I cannot claim to have read all these texts or even to have seen them all, far less to have examined all the editions, sometimes many dozens, of individual texts. (18) Trying to account for every text or even most of them would give a picture so blurred as to be unreadable.


Still, some sorts of reading are easier to study than others and educational reading is one of them. (19) We can evaluate the meanings individual textbooks had when there were many editions in large print runs and when there are sources that allow us to describe the classrooms in which these books were used. Classroom use is by its nature less singular than private reading because it is the moment when groups of students are learning how to read, a skill they will employ life-long. As they grow intellectually readers employ these skills with increasing degrees of individualism. In the classroom they are more likely to act like each other. Thus, the classroom affords us a window on groups of readers, but it does not always give us a clear view. Textbook history is always limited because the evidence, overwhelmingly the textbooks themselves, cannot unambiguously reveal how those books were used. At best, Renaissance textbooks offer a limited view of how they were probably intended to be used.


Another tricky problem concerns what evidence has come down to us and what is simply lost. Elementary textbooks, especially grammars and arithmetics, have a very low rate of survival. (20) A few telling examples will serve to measure the problem. We know that the most widely used basic Latin textbook in Renaissance Italy, the Donat (erroneously ascribed to the late ancient author Aelius Donatus), had many printings. Some thirty separate editions are known from fifteenth-century Italy, but only a few of these editions survive in more than a single copy. A similar rate of survival characterizes editions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, with the added problem that catalogs and bibliographies for the later period are much less complete than for the fifteenth century. The rare survivors, our only evidence for the publishing history of this important and common text, are scattered in libraries across Europe and the Americas, and we will never know how many editions were made that do not come down to us at all.


By way of corollary, one innovative elementary textbook of the fifteenth century, a reworking of the Donat, purportedly by the Roman humanist Pomponio Leto (1428-1498), is known in a single copy of an edition apparently printed after the author's death. Leto's achievement remains a footnote in the history of humanist education because it had no practical effect on other writers or teachers. His little reform grammar was published, but it had no publishing history. (21) Another great humanist of Leto's time, Giorgio Valla (1447-1500), also wrote a Latin grammar, in this case a lengthy, systematic treatment which appeared in his posthumously published encyclopedia entitled A Work on Things to be Pursued and Those to be Avoided (1501). In 1514, the three books on grammar were excerpted from the larger work and published as a separate volume, ostensibly offered for school use. But there is no evidence it ever reached the hands of students. The book is very rare and we have no way of knowing why. Most likely it was printed speculatively in a small run and did not find enough of an audience to merit a reprint.


Still another methodological problem concerns terminology. Teachers and publishers in the long sixteenth century possessed no standard or uniform vocabulary with which to describe textbooks, a fact aggravated further by the humanist habit of looking for original, striking, or elegant expressions. Their titles could be grand or humble, largely without reference to the audience the author had in mind or the physical size or shape of the book. Even terms that would seem to indicate a specific kind of treatment or level of instruction can be deceiving. As a result it is often possible to judge the level of a given text and its intended audience only after a physical examination of multiple editions. (22)


Venturini's Rudiments - really for beginners? (click to enlarge - 752 KB JPEG file)

Venturini's Rudiments - really for beginners? (click to enlarge - 752 KB JPEG file)

For example, the Latin term rudimenta ought by every possible logic refer to a work for beginners. But the Rudimenta grammatices of Francesco Venturini (dates unknown) is a handsome, imposing folio of almost four hundred spaciously arranged pages. It was published only once, at Florence in 1482, and it is hard to understand how it was used without examining many copies for annotations and other signs of ownership and use.

Grammatical basics in small format.

Grammatical basics in small format (click to enlarge - 373 KB jpeg file)

A comparable title might seem to be the De Fundamentis grammatices methodus of Pietro Cittadella (dates unknown), and it too was published only once, at Venice in 1535. But Cittadella's book runs to only forty pages in small octavo. It is so rare there is no real hope of comparing copies. There is almost no evidence of how it was used except the author's preface, which simply says it is an introductory work that will be followed by a longer and more detailed one, apparently never published. (23)

 Another small-format elementary grammar, 1536 (click to enlarge - 651 KB jpeg file)

Another small-format elementary grammar, 1536 (click to enlarge - 651 KB jpeg file)

Again, the Rudimenta grammatices of Johannes De Spauter (ca. 1460-1520) is more like Cittadella's book than Venturini's, or so it would seem on first glance. It was usually presented in a single quarto-sized gathering of ten or twelve leaves, crowded with type in several sizes employed to specifications by De Spauter himself. It got many dozens of printings in this format between the first edition of 1514 and the end of the sixteenth century. Often it stood as the first work among several at the same basic level in collections. De Spauter was the most talked-about textbook author of his day, so we know a great deal about how the Rudimenta was used. But in 1537, Robert Estienne at Paris included the Rudimenta in a folio collected works of enormous dimensions for a textbook (nearly 33 cm.). The types are among the largest and most handsome of the French Renaissance. At that size and splendor it can only have been intended for a learned audience, or perhaps for a prosperous teacher with some ready cash. (24) This habit of dressing the same text in radically different forms persisted across our period.

One text in many formats (click to enlarge - 477 KB jpeg file)

One text in many formats (click to enlarge - 477 KB jpeg file)

Another Rudimenta grammatices, that of Niccolo Perotti (1430-1480), started its long textbook life as a generous folio. Within a few decades it also got treatments in large and small quarto. Much later it appeared in octavo as well. Before it got its own octavo editions, however, Perotti's grammar was excerpted by a Florentine grammar master, Benedetto Ricardini (active around 1500). Ricardini's Erudimenta grammatices was one of the earliest grammars to appear in octavo. On its face, it appears to be a highly original basic grammar book advertised with Perotti's name. It turns out, on close examination, to be a pastiche of advice on Latin composition drawn from a dozen or more authors. (25) Obviously, it is necessary to see texts like Perotti's in a full variety of formats before generalizing about how they were used.

Another edition of Perotti (click to enlarge - 359 KB jpeg file)

Another edition of Perotti (click to enlarge - 359 KB jpeg file)

Open Bibliography (330 KB pdf)
(17)  Chartier 1987, 6-12, 183-197; McKenzie 1989, 89-90, 101-106; Wheatley 2000, 52-57; Pawley 2002, 143-160; Ruffini 2002, 144-147; Cormack and Mazzio 2005, 1-8.
(18)  The hundred-odd titles I have examined are listed in the bibliography, as a Short Title List of Editions Cited.
(19)  Milde 1988, 7-11; Chartier 1995, 83-90; McKenzie 2002, 201-209.
(20)  Jensen 2001, 104-105; Sandal 2006, 55-57.
(21)  This version of the Donat is discussed at greater length in sections 2.04 and 2.05. Leto also wrote a more general (and equally innovative) grammar published in 1484. It too had very limited influence; see Zabughin 1910, vol. 2, 208-223; Ruysschaert 1954.
(22)  Kirkenheim 1951, 54-55.
(23)  Cittadella 1535, fol. 1v.
(24)  Hébrard 1983, 79-80; Colombat 1999, 37.
(25)  Ricardini 1510, apparently the only edition.

Posted by admin on September 16, 2008
Tags: Introduction

Total comments on this page: 18

How to read/write comments

Comments on specific paragraphs:

Click the icon to the right of a paragraph

  • If there are no prior comments there, a comment entry form will appear automatically
  • If there are already comments, you will see them and the form will be at the bottom of the thread

Comments on the page as a whole:

Click the icon to the right of the page title (works the same as paragraphs)


No comments yet.

Paul F. Gehl on paragraph 3:

An important new contribution to the evidence available is Annemarieke Willemsen, Back to the Schoolyard, Brepols, 2008, which presents a broad range of physical evidence (archaeological to artistic) for the architecture, implements, and practice of medieval and early Renaissance classrooms. It is lavishly illustrated.

December 9, 2008 8:20 am
MQuinlan :

Thanks for this source.

April 5, 2009 1:51 pm
Susan Barron on whole page :

Yes, the Devil are is the generalizations!

February 9, 2009 3:32 pm
sgaylard on paragraph 6:

These images are so intriguing — it might be helpful to give author, title, publishing date as the label for each image, rather than waiting for the reader find the same info in the text. I think this would allow for easier visual comparison.

March 29, 2009 11:52 am
Susan Barron on whole page :

Moral: The Devil is in the Generalizations

April 19, 2009 5:24 pm
Robert Williams on paragraph 6:

To SGaylard’s list I would also add page height & width.

April 21, 2009 9:30 am
Paul F. Gehl :

You two have put your finger(s) on one of the things on our to-do list. We are developing a database of images in Humanism For Sale (and other pages from the books illustrated here) that will have details about the editions and the copies photographed. Our plan is to make it possible for you to link directly from the images here to the database, which will also include notes on design and marketing features of the books in question. All pending time and funding, naturally.

June 20, 2009 4:59 pm
laur_bee77 on paragraph 2:

It would seem to me that prior to the invention of mechanical printing presses the distribution of texts would vary from one another greatly, which would influence the overall learning of material in the texts by students. The ability to mechanically print texts led to standardized testing and teaching to the masses, removing the regionalizing. I think your point that “the classroom affords us a window on groups of readers” is still true and although the delivery of texts have become more standardized and consistent the view is still not clear. You state that as students grow intellectually as readers they “employ these skills with increasing degrees of individualism”, Educators are faced with a decreased level of overall understanding and comprehension of material in and out of the classrooms by the students who stuggle to grow individually in the face of standardized testing and mass production of classroom textbooks. I wonder if it was more beneficial to have students learn from regional texts created by their teachers.

September 21, 2009 10:05 pm
laur_bee77 on paragraph 2:

I tried to respond to this paragraph and after hitting “add comment” it disappeared so I will attempt again. I wonder if it was more beneficial to students in the Renaissance to recieve their education from teachers and regionalized texts rather than from mass printed materials. I agree that the classroom “affords us a window on groups of readers, but does not always give us a clear view.” This statement could not be truer as we face standardized testing efforts based on mass produced generalized text books which are used in classrooms. Students struggle to comprehend material and ‘keep up’ yet don’t actually learn and it is evident on their tests and in their interactions with one another in and out of the classroom. It does not really surprise me that students do not choose to expand their horizons by exploring older considerably more difficult texts of old.

September 21, 2009 10:18 pm
Paul F. Gehl :

Well, I’m all for studying historical texts. But one of the basic principles is to look at them carefully on their own terms and avoid anachronisms at all cost. Generalizing is always a peril, and anachonism is among the problems we risk when we generalize. With reference to your specific observation, the peril is in overstating the identity of printed books. Standardization as we know it is hard to impose on early printed books. Certainly they are more standardized than manuscripts, but by our measures they vary immensely from copy to copy both in production terms and in patterns of use.

September 22, 2009 9:57 am
Ken Gouwens on paragraph 4:

A new and highly useful resource on Leto and his students is the website http://www.repertoriumpomponianum.it

The group that runs the site has a conference scheduled for 2010 on “Percorsi di cultura libraria fra Quattro- e Cinquecento.” Proceedings from the last conference will soon appear in print: _Pomponio Leto tra identita’ locale e cultura internazionale._ Atti del Convegno Internazionale, Teggiano 3-5 ottobre 2008 (Roma: Roma nel Rinascimento / Teggiano: Parco Letterario “Pomponio Leto”, forthcoming [2009]).

September 28, 2009 10:49 am
Abby Jordan on paragraph 3:

It’s intriguing to think that a whole slew of textbooks could have existed that we simply don’t know about. It’s interesting to wonder where all these resources could have gone, since they no longer exist, while it seems as if something that was used in such a wide area should have had a better survival rate.

October 6, 2011 10:33 pm
Paul F. Gehl :

You are pointing to a commonplace in textbook history, that these books were literally used to pieces. But I also think we overstress this point too much. We still have a chance to find more examples. Just in the last ten years or so, copies of editions we did not know about (or did not know survived) have turned up, because librarians are cataloging online and their records show up internationally to be recognized by scholars. And we are far from having full cataloging still for many European libraries, especially those in small towns or private institutions.

October 7, 2011 9:30 am
Peter K :

I imagine many examples of these texts also remain hidden in private collections or the uncataloged (or non-public) inventories of booksellers. Some records of these books do see the light of day briefly when they are recorded for sale online. Unfortunately, many of the records do not persist on the internet like those of the libraries. I think it would be valuable to collect, store, and share these often fleeting descriptions (as imperfect as some may be) for the use of scholars and collectors alike. Oceans of potentially valuable information on books are appearing and disappearing on the internet every day.

June 30, 2013 5:22 pm
katiegirvan on paragraph 5:

Although there was no uniform vocabulary to describe textbooks, were there some areas that attempted standardization of textbook vocabulary?

March 11, 2013 2:16 pm
Paul F. Gehl :

For Latin schoolbooks, which is my primary subject in this section, there are several terms (like “rudimenta,” which I mention here, or “manuale”) that should indicate elementary texts, but they simply aren’t used regularly, especially early on. This specific kind of description of intended audience is usually included later on in the title or in a preface or introduction where it will specify “for boys” or “for young people.” I discuss this further in chapter six, at 6.07 and 6.19

March 11, 2013 2:40 pm
Paul Gehl on paragraph 3:

This is true, Peter, though not entirely a new problem. Dealers’ printed catalogs always included useful information (my files are filled with tear sheets or photocopies). Some libraries created indexes to this material, and digitization has allowed for more and more of it to be stored and used. But you are really pointing to a different problem entirely, the fragility of records that are created only on line. Capturing that information would alleviate one other problem, the cases of very rare survivals that emerge on the market for a moment and then disappear back into private collections where they may remain hidden to interested scholars for a generation or longer.

July 1, 2013 8:01 am
Paul F. Gehl on paragraph 1:

A particularly good introduction to the kinds of sources for textbook history is provided for the specific case of sixteenth-century Zurich by Urs B. Leu, “Textbooks and their Uses –An Insight into the Teaching of Geography in 16th century Zurich,” in Scholarly Knowledge: Textbooks in Early Modern Europe, Geneva, Droz, 2008, pp. 229-248, esp. 229-237.

August 21, 2017 12:17 pm

You must be login to comment.
Create an account or login