Paul F. Grendler’s 1989 overview of education in Renaissance Italy includes an important chapter with the title “Girls and Working-Class Boys in School.” (1) This way of categorizing students fits the usage of the early sixteenth century perfectly. Giovanni Antonio Tagliente (ca. 1465?-1528?), for example, on the title page of a 1524 primer described his audience as “those who know nothing – young, old, and women.” A decade earlier, Gian Alberto Bossi had praised a bequest for a grammar school for poor boys by pointing out that it would make the unlikely possible, "The poor boy will learn as if he were a rich one." (2) These classifications were not condescending, just matter-of-fact, since entire social classes (and the vast majority of women) were only rarely given the opportunity to learn to read and write. Even if they achieved literacy, individuals in these groups were almost entirely excluded from the Latinate sort of education for which most early textbooks were designed. Educational (and publishing) categories were largely determined by gender and by class, though not in a symmetrical way. (3) Women and working class men were not completely barred from education, but they had few opportunities to go far in school. In the sixteenth century, vernacular textbook authors would come to appeal directly to such readers.

Readers and listeners (click to enlarge - 311 KB jpeg image)

Readers and listeners (click to enlarge - 311 KB jpeg image)


Tagliente elaborated on the kinds of non-Latin learners in a preface. First, he addressed his “Most wise readers and dearest listeners,” in recognition that some in his audience could read with facility while others could not. Then he claimed that he intended with this book to make it possible for anyone who knew how to read to teach anyone else who could not (“even women” he added: etiam le donne). Moreover, his book would be useful for self-study by “all those who know the beginnings but do not yet read well.” (4) Tagliente not only divided the social world of readers vertically among those who read Latin and those who did not, but he also delineated several categories among non-Latin readers, not all of them equivalent to differences in social status. Vernacular-only readers could be female or male (but not professional men). They could be looking to master simple reading skills or to achieve some level of facility in reading. They may or may not also have aspired to be able to write. This last category, furthermore, included some seeking to write in an elementary way, others whose ambitions were to facility, and even men (and more rarely, women) who aspired to write for a living, as scribes. (5)

It is also clear that Tagliente was not composing a textbook in the sense of a book intended for use in a school. The schooling he imagined involved a parent teaching a child or, as he repeatedly added, a literate adult teaching an illiterate friend. The logic of this, of course, was that relatively few non-Latin schools existed. Not surprisingly, therefore, there were few vernacular textbooks before the invention of printing. Such texts as came to exist were often self-help or how-to manuals. This chapter will concern a broad range of non-Latin instructional books. It does not attempt to be comprehensive, merely to give some examples of the variety of publishing for learners outside the elitist, establishmentarian Latin schools.


Tagliente's complex understanding of the public for his textbooks was possible only because he stood at the end of a long philological achievement, the humanist invention of a carefully periodized history of Latin and its descendant languages. The humanists had discovered that language was socially determined. They understood that languages were the products of speech communities that could be large or local and that varied from social class to social class. (6) An author, then, might well conceive a specific public for a given book, but once it was offered on the open market, its audience could vary greatly. Once a text was annotated, commented upon, translated, or reformatted it became a new work with a new audience. This understanding stood behind the successful marketing of Latin textbooks and it would become important to the development and marketing of learning tools in the vernaculars.

Open Bibliography (330 KB pdf)
(1)  Grendler 1989, 86-108.
(2)  Libro maistrevole, Tagliente 1524d, 3: li grandi & li piccoli & … le Donne che niente sanno; this translation is that of Anne Schutte 1986; later in this chapter I also follow her translations. Bossi's poem is edited and translated by Marzorati et al. 2003, 72: Discit inops quantum si dives.
(3)  This asymmetry had also been true of the Middle Ages. Dante was explicit about it in the Convivio, fully two centuries before Tagliente: Cestaro 2003, 70-72. See also Farenga 1983, 403-405; Witt 1995, 84-87; Stevenson 2005, 143, 152-156. Cornish 2000, 170-178 explains how the late medieval female audience differed from that of the sixteenth century and the degree to which "vulgarization" aimed at a particular non-Latin elite, not merely a broader audience.
(4)  Tagliente 1524d.
(5)  Well nuanced discussions of social class and educational norms are those of Matthews Grieco 1991, 34-38; Lucchi 1992, 124-127; Maccagni 1993, 643-647; Ortalli 1993, 60-70; Trovato 1994, 24-35; Houston 2002, 141-171.
(6)  Waswo 1999, 410-412.

Posted by admin on September 22, 2008
Tags: Chapter Six

Total comments on this page: 7

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Eric M. Sacco on paragraph 1:

You quote Tagliente as saying “poor boys” would receive the same opportunities as “rich one[s].” Is this equivocal to what you term “working class men” at the end of the paragraph? I’m not sure I understand the usage of the term “working class” as it applies to Renaissance Italy; does it have the same Marxist connotation as in twentieth-century historiography?

September 20, 2009 10:53 pm
Paul F. Gehl :

“Working class” is –both for Grendler and to me– a modern term of analysis (inevitably understood in Marxist or post-Marxist terms, though neither of us is a Marxist). It does not have an exact equivalent in the sixteenth century, but it helps us understand the elitism of the Latin school curriculum. Italians of the period had a clear sense that the full-dress Latin course was most appropriate for boys of the political classes. Correspondingly, they knew that most boys and women did not have access to this course except through the charity or good will of some educators. The interesting thing about the prefaces to the self-study books that appear in the 1520s is that their authors both recognize this opportunity gap and set out to remedy it by selling their new books to this under-served group. This kind of sales pitch is perennial for self-help books –look at Amazon any day!– but it is still a novelty at this period.

Your reference to Marxism, Eric, raises a slightly different question too, namely, does the awareness of class differences necessarily imply tension or conflict between the two groups? Although many of the voices we can hear in the period deny such tension –they tend to see class differences as inevitable and to respond in terms of the obligation to Christian charity– there is also plenty of explicit evidence that the rulers felt there was social tension and that a degree of social mobility through education was one way of relieving it.

September 21, 2009 8:45 am
Paul Gehl on paragraph 3:

Distinctions of this sort occur in many kinds of literature that tried to bring the fruits of Latin learning to readers who had no facility in reading Latin. An interesting example, the Psalm translations of Lodovico Pittorio, apparently composed in 1522 and printed many times, are explicated by Èlise Boilet, “La fortune du Psalterio Davitico de Lodovico Pittorio en Italie au XVIe siècle,” La Bibliofilía 115 (2013), 621-628. The first edition is addressed to “persone divote & del latino ignare,” ibid., p. 623n10.

May 23, 2015 9:25 am
Peter K on paragraph 3:

It’s interesting how you have put the non-Latin reader in the context of marketing books. As accessible as a vernacular textbook was, do you think there were still major economic hurdles that might have inhibited their commercial success? I can imagine large institutional buyers (or influencers) and the educated elite shunning the vernacular texts. I recently came across Edmund Reeve’s “An Introduction into the Greeke Tongue” (London: NP, 1650), a early Greek grammar in English. The title page reads “Composed for their sakes which understand not Latine; and yet are desirous to have some competent knowledge in the originall sacred scripture.” One would think that a basic Greek grammar in English might have a ready audience, yet the book does not appear to have had much life beyond the first edition (a second issue including an an errata leaf was printed in 1657).

Another work that comes to mind is Elizabeth Elstob’s “Rudiments of Grammar for the English-Saxon Tongue” (London: Printed by W. Bowyer, 1715). The book is the first Anglo-Saxon grammar in English, and Elstob’s preface speaks to why she wrote it: “Considering the pleasure I myself had reaped from the knowledge I have gained from the original of our mother tongue, and that others of my own sex, might be capable of the same satisfaction: I resolv’d to give them the rudiments of that language in English dress.” This beautifully printed book, with new Anglo-Saxon types created for the project, was a commercial flop. It was ignored in favor of other works (in Latin) in use at the time. Like Reeve’s grammar, Elstob’s book ended with the first edition.

May 25, 2015 7:52 pm
Paul Gehl :

Thanks for these two examples, Peter. I think they start to give an answer in their own words. Both of them offer personal histories–apparently pretty singular if not in fact entirely original– for how difficult it was for the non-Latin literate to study ancient languages. Although both Reeve and Elstob saw immediately how it would help others to have an introductory text in English, they did not recognize that their own experiences were so nearly unique that there was no built-in audience for their books. It is easy for us to underestimate the conservatism of educators in the early modern period. The institutional buyers all wanted textbooks that would fit the existing curriculum, not entirely new ones.

Still, your initial question about marketing rhetoric merits some further thought, for at least Reeve and Elstob specifically devised addresses to non-Latin reading potential users. This practice of imagining a not-very-educated reader/user goes back at least to Tagliente, and there are other examples later in this chapter too –see 6.17 on “poor churchfolk.”

I’ll hope to come back to this theme with further examples, and maybe some more solutions too.

May 26, 2015 6:28 am
Paul Gehl on paragraph 3:

Peter’s 17th and 18th-century examples, above, make me think that a real desideratum would be to trace the trope of the non-Latin reader through book history over the long haul. Before printing (and therefore before the marketing impulse was strong), there is a regular distinction between those who read (Latin) and those who are illiterate. It appears especially in prefaces to translations of Latin works into vernaculars in the manuscript period, where the reader is addressed sometimes fairly personally. It seems to me to take on new meaning in the “how-to” period we encounter several times in Humanism For Sale, e.g. at 4.14 and 4.18 above, and below at 6.11, where it is clearly a marketing tool. The key period for this is the 1520s.

Perhaps putting a lot of examples like Peter’s from a single large discipline or genre (his are language study works –grammars) would be an instructive data set.

May 27, 2015 6:10 am
Paul Gehl on paragraph 5:

The classic reading of the early humanists’ transition to validating the use of Italian vernaculars is still Hans Baron’s, best consulted in his Crisis of the Early Italian Renaissance, 2nd ed (1966), 338-351.

January 3, 2017 6:44 am

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