Textbook history privileges the visual aspects of pedagogy over the oral/aural ones. Only rarely, mostly in drilling books, can we actually hear teachers lecture or students recite. Moreover, if there is a single, general movement across the chapters below, it is from the textual toward the visual both in pedagogical terms and in design and printing technique. This movement mirrors a development towards the increasing visualization of information in European culture more generally and the tendency to entrust information ever more to printing and design professionals. (32) However, early modern teachers did not attempt to separate textual from visual literacy. On the contrary, much that is interesting about the schoolbooks of the day derives from their insistence upon the visual nature of all learning and on visualization as a universal intellectual technique. Renaissance schoolmasters inherited the rhetorical, psychological, and pedagogical models for this insistence from medieval memory theorists and practitioners. (33) Printing intensified this aspect of education, because it allowed teachers to put carefully designed visual models into the hands of every school child and many adults, who thereafter owned those images personally in the form of books they would keep life long.

Printing also allowed for the display of texts in visually compelling packages. One example is Erasmus's On Eloquence (De Copia), a compilation of commonplace phrases for composition. Erasmus's book was transformed several times by teachers and printers who wandered far from the author's original intent. First it was enlarged and redesigned, then abbreviated, and still later put into tabular form. (34) Similarly, editorializing and typography altered some popular Latin grammars well beyond anything their ostensible authors could have recognized. In the case of emblems and almost contemporaneously in handwriting instruction manuals, printing as a design technology made possible entirely new genres of book. Like many other things in the history of the book, the design changes wrought by printing were immense in quantitative terms but developed qualitatively only gradually, sometimes through collaborations by authors and printers and sometimes independently of the efforts (and wishes) of teachers. Tracing design changes in some detail, therefore, has been a primary concern of mine.


Throughout this online book, I have also been concerned with marketing issues, because these are genuinely new considerations in the age of print. This bias again reflects my sense that early modern culture was profoundly visual. The invention of printing multiplied the number of books and prints in the world and thereby altered irrevocably the market for ideas. It created mass-produced printed objects for every phase of life, every social class, every age group. One of the more immediate results of the printing revolution was the appearance in multiples and ubiquitously of the word on public display, not just in churches, schools, and libraries where medieval people encountered public words, but also in homes, shops, taverns, theaters, city streets and squares, even at rural roadsides.


Images, of course, had always been labeled and often incorporated words in antiquity and in the Middle Ages. In learned circles the ekphrastic evocation of a work of art was a recognized literary genre. But the medieval public for images was immensely larger than the public for written words. Literacy rates were just too low for images to function widely with written accompaniment. Printing, it seems, not only made for increases in literacy (erratically, it is true, but inevitably); it also made it useful to pair almost every image with words -- words that explained or labeled objects, words that teased or intrigued viewers, and words that sold the ideas and images to which they were attached. (35) Textbook publishing could not but be directly involved in this change and was perhaps more susceptible to it than other fields of printing. For textbooks were the tools with which both elite and common folk learned to decipher the abundance of new words and images around them.

Open Bibliography (330 KB pdf)
(32)  Useful discusssions in McKenzie 1989, 104-106; Cahn 1994, 53-57; Crosby 1997, 129-137, 227-238; Coppens 2005, 34-37; Follak 2007, 155-157.
(33)  Carruthers 1990, 229-257 and 1998, 135-142; B. Smith 1999.
(34)  Erasmus 1963, 6-7; Jardine 1993, 129-132, 141-145.
(35)  Elkins 1999, 211-212.

Posted by admin on September 16, 2008
Tags: Introduction

Total comments on this page: 6

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MQuinlan on whole page :

Ah the joys of the visual cortex.

April 5, 2009 2:11 pm
Alexandra on paragraph 3:

The comment that early modern cultural had a strong sense of the visual is very interesting–I feel that we usually hear (with regards to stories at least, but learning too) that society was more verbal based, as with stories passed down by word of mouth etc. But this actually makes much more sense to me!

October 11, 2011 1:37 am
indradjojo on paragraph 4:

I was wondering too about the literacy rates. Roughly how many readers would be in these classrooms? Also, I know that in medieval manuscripts, the monks who wrote the texts did not usually illustrate the texts. Is this the same in printing? Would artists be commissioned to incorporate images to the texts?

October 11, 2011 11:09 am
Paul Gehl :

There is an enormous literature and much debate on this question of how illustration was done. In textbooks specifically (and this cannot be generalized to all fields), the tendency is for the author of the text to specify the diagrams and illustrations required to the printer and the printer would then hire an artist to realize them. For manuscripts these artists were often part of a workshop team that confected the books to order. For printed books, the tendency was for a wood engraver to work from a pattern provided either by the author or by an artist. But typically in print there is an attempt to keep the illustrations closely related to the texts.

October 11, 2011 7:50 pm
katiegirvan on paragraph 1:

Interesting! I bet the the utilization of visual models in textbooks made them much easier to understand and aided many students who performed better with visual representations rather than just text.

March 11, 2013 2:48 pm
Paul F. Gehl :

You are pointing to something that educational reformers were campaigning for in exactly this period, but it took a long time for visual learning to become a really widespread ideal. The popularity of emblems –which were not originally intended for young people– probably helped promote this kind of thinking among educators.

March 11, 2013 2:51 pm

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