My overall approach has been to choose a very few texts and authors to explore in some depth and a few others to set the broader context. Typically the textbooks treated at length merit inclusion either because they are telling in pedagogical terms (they were widely used, or somehow innovative, or else highly traditional), or because their publishing history exemplifies some particular problem of production or marketing. The comedies of Terence, the Donat, and the proverbs of Pseudo-Cato (treated in chapters one and two), for example, were traditional school texts with particularly long publication histories. Inherited from the pagan past, they had been moralized across centuries of classroom use in the Christian Middle Ages. These texts show how medieval manuscript models were transformed, sometimes slowly and at other times in rapid spurts, before the invention of print, by print technology, and again by changes in pedagogical fashion.

By contrast, most Latin grammars, whether innovative or conservative, were modern print products that had short and local histories. Twenty years was a long life for such a text, fifty or more a rare feat. (Chapters three and four offer examples.) Only a few grammars remained in use for centuries (examples are discussed in chapters four and five). Alternatives to the most popular texts were offered at several periods during the course of the long sixteenth century. I have tried to include works, then, with both long and short, wide-spread and local use.


Most of what I have included concerns the Latin schools and the Latin curriculum. Latin was the international language of humanism, and Latin schools offered the most prestigious, sophisticated, and internationalizing kind of education. They promoted the creation of schoolbooks to match in both prestige and ambition. Latin books, even elementary ones, had an international market, so the study of those printed in Italy (especially Venice) has particular importance for the wider history of educational publishing. Textbooks imported into Italy offer still other insights on marketing.


However, humanism created a philological world in which serious study of the vernaculars could also be undertaken, and so in the final two chapters I have also tried to survey other kinds of textbooks on the Italian market and beyond Italy. Those for commercial education, mathematics, and music represent the future of European textbook publishing. (They are treated in chapter six.) As a coda (chapter seven), I address the history of a new form, the emblem book, which was  invented by humanists in the sixteenth century and sometimes used in schools. All these books may be seen as popularizations of Latin high culture, and early on they typically had this function whatever else their authors may have been attempting. As the sixteenth century progressed, however, these vernacular forms also developed a logic -- or more exactly, a series of logics -- of their own. Considering them mere popularizations would distort the meanings they had even in the earliest years of printing in Italy. (26) Specifically, the authors and publishers of vernacular textbooks seem to have felt a particular need to moralize loftily in traditional Christian terms. This tendency derived in part from worries about popularizing. Popularizers knew that they were offering tools once restricted to elites to a broader audience and they worked hard to teach the proper, moral applications of technique. (27)

Traditional Latin pedagogy communicated many lessons to the new vernacular teaching, most importantly the notion that all learning should be an education to virtue. This stance was reflected directly in schoolbooks on both sides of the linguistic divide. Modern scholars differ in their evaluations of the effectiveness of the humanist program as an education to moral decision making, but they tend to agree that Latin educators consistently claimed to be teaching morals as well as literary or scientific subjects. (28) Vernacular teachers did the same. The publisher of one arithmetic put it thus:


This book is offered to those thoughtful and modest youths, whom it will please to study it with diligence (all agitation put aside). Finding it corrected in many places and with several pertinent additions, and taking pleasure in its convenient usefulness, they will take care to give thanks to Jesus Christ, who has granted that they be able to work for the common benefit of good folk. (29)

This kind of introduction was not at all unusual. The sentiments are repeated over and over with increasing urgency as the Protestant Reformation and Catholic Counter Reform progressed. (30)


Whether the subject was language, handwriting, mathematics, geography or music, humanist teachers took their cue from Plato, more or less Christianized as needed. Teachers merely tailored the notion of educating the good citizen in moral behaviors to the subject at hand and to the level of discourse they chose for it. This was the strategy of music teacher Franchino Gaffurio, writing in the 1490s:

Socrates and Plato and also the Pythagoreans, attributing a moral resource to music, ordered by a common law that adolescents and youth, and young women too, be educated in music, not for inciting to desire, through which this discipline becomes cheapened, but for moderating the movements of the soul through rule and reason. . . . Now, since the nature of boys is restless and desirous of amusements all the time and on that account does not tolerate severe discipline, Plato himself orders that boys be educated to honest music, the pleasure of which most commonly offers the pathways of virtue. On the other hand it is occasionally also to be assigned to older men as an honest amusement for the consolation of a laborious life. (31)

Gaffurio here echoed several sentiments that derived from his classical sources and that were commonplaces of humanist pedagogy. Learning is life-long; it is best achieved when discipline can be combined with pleasure; it conduces to the common good.


In the ancient world, and in most Latin-school contexts of the fifteenth and early sixteenth century, these generalizations were intended for the political classes. Only boys of respectable birth would need to master the commonplaces. Starting in the early years of the sixteenth century, publishers of vernacular textbooks faced a new need, to expand such classicizing ideals to apply in the market for mass-produced and relatively cheap books aimed at a new public. They were helped along by expertise they had gained in the marketplace for Latin textbooks in the first fifty years of printing and by an advertising rhetoric they had also developed in that period.

Open Bibliography (330 KB pdf)
(26)  Hellinga 1988, 39-140; Rummel 1995, 107-125; Waswo 1999, 410-412; Waquet 2001, 7-26, 207-229.
(27)  Bell 1999, 14-18; Houston 2002, 220-222.
(28)  Grafton and Jardine 1986, xii-xiv, 22-28; Grendler 1989, 102-108, 114-121; Gehl 1993, 116-127; Black 2001, 24-33 and 2007, 298-300; Frazier 2005, 14-16.
(29)  Tagliente 1548; see chapter 6.
(30)  Toscani 1993, 107-112; on the correction of texts as moral act, Lerer 2002, 15-53; West 2006, 253-261; on the Counter-Reformation convergence of philological and religious conservatism, Wyatt 2005, 204-209, 218-223.
(31)  Trans. by Palisca 1985, 193.

Posted by admin on September 16, 2008
Tags: Introduction

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MQuinlan on paragraph 4:

interesting– the more popular the more proper

April 5, 2009 2:10 pm
Dan Sheerin on paragraph 3:

Yes, Latin was the international language of humanism, but also the international language of ecclesiastics and of the professions, whether they fit into the humanist paradigm or not. Knowledge of Latin was required for any upward mobility.

May 8, 2009 7:06 pm
Dan Sheerin on paragraph 4:

Yes, popularizations, but also propagation of humanist culture. There was a struggle at every level between humanism and what one might call traditional scholasticism (not limiting the term to philosophy/theology but to the whole cursus of late medieval education). Humanistic Latin, bonae litterae, and new or revived pedagogies were at once the emblems and the cultural capital of the humanists.

May 8, 2009 7:07 pm
Dan Sheerin on paragraph 6:

A good argument could be made, I think, that the mores taught elementary & intermediate education, although often a matter of morality (in the modern sense), was as much or even more a matter of manners (> motto attributed to William of Wyckham (d1404): “Manners maketh man.”), and was not so much an education in moral decision making (an expression suggestive of casuistry), as an education in proper behavior. This education in proper behavior had, to be sure, a moral component, but it was very much concerned with correct behaviors and the astute management of social, political, and business relationships.

May 8, 2009 7:10 pm
Paul F. Gehl :

I don’t know why it occurs to me to reply only now (five years after Dan’s thoughtful comment) — maybe I am just being deliberate, as admonished by the source texts here. I think he is right in pointing to manners as the immediate dimension of morality that classroom subjects address. But I think that ancient, medieval, and Renaissance thinkers generally saw morality as a continuum that ran uninterruptedly from table manners to moral decision making. Moreover, this continuum or spectrum of behaviors crossed through language learning, thus the power of Latin study to inculcate good habits along the way and the importance of good manners of all sorts to the orderly learning of language.

September 23, 2015 2:35 pm
Dan Sheerin on paragraph 8:

Not just the good citizen, but the good Christian, or so the exponents of these various disciplines would have claimed. In addition, although a providential origin might be claimed for these skills, they were, in fact, morally neutral, as also was, e.g., rhetoric. Schoolmasters had the dual and sometimes contradictory tasks of equipping their students with the instruments of agression, defense, and manipulation, the tools of power, and of inhibiting or, at least, channeling agression and imbuing the tools they provided with a moral aspect (rather like business colleges teaching “business ethics”).

May 8, 2009 7:11 pm
Dan Sheerin on paragraph 11:

political classes] Maybe “clerico-political classes”; in sXV-XVin “political” would extend to both secular and ecclesiastical politics for they were at once two distinct politico-legal spheres, but very often inextricably intermingled.

May 8, 2009 7:12 pm
Paul Gehl on paragraph 11:

As Dan Sheerin points out above, the establishment (as we would say today) was both clerical and lay and so deeply intertwined that we may rightly consider them one ruling class. Both groups found challenges as well as opportunities in the arrival of printing and its popularizing force. The extensive recent literature on these themes is expounded in detail in Rosa Salzberg, Ephemeral City, Cheap Print and Urban Culture in Renaissance Venice (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2014); see especially pp. 32-38.

November 21, 2016 5:55 am

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