The first age of printing saw many changes in school books, as in books of other sorts. Many of these changes, however, were effected not by the demands of the technology itself but rather for the sake of marketing books. Similarly, the demands of a universal, moral pedagogy influenced both the content and form of new school books. In this chapter, we will consider a genre of book new in the sixteenth century that, perhaps more than any other, united the moral impulse with the marketing one. This was the emblem book, born of humanist recreation in making up playful analogies, but quickly taken up by publishers who marketed it as a tool for moral education.


Moral-analogical thinking was essential to the medieval pedagogy which Renaissance school masters inherited and sought to reform. For Christian educators, every individual act had its analogue in the larger world, either in the present, through history, or in literary fact. In the age of print this belief was communicated in a variety of typographic dress and sometimes took the form of outlines, tables, diagrams, or illustrations which could be facilitated by the new technologies of relief printing and engraving. But no Renaissance pedagogue seriously challenged either the moral content of elementary and intermediate education or the fruitfulness of the analogical method. (1) On the contrary, the perceived urgency of moral education increased in the course of the long sixteenth century in response to political intrigues, religious wars, and the rising status of the commercial classes relative to that of the traditional noble and clerical elites. Educators of all classes clung to old-fashioned morals amidst a storm of social instability.


By contrast to such conservatism, the marketing strategies applied to mass-produced books were genuine novelties. Title pages, prefaces, and colophons offered new rhetorical topoi on reading and study and variants on old ones. They also promoted new, consumerist behaviors with respect to books. The very fact of mass production acted to commodify books; advertising claims followed closely behind. In many forms and on many subjects, textbooks served to educate consumers in the new market behaviors as well as in the traditional skills of the Latin-school course.


Another invention of the sixteenth century, closely tied both to marketing and to visually presented moral analogy, was the emblem book, which we may define most simply as a collection of picture-puzzles. In an emblem, a striking picture is accompanied by a motto and a poem or two, sometimes in several languages, typically with the intent of embodying several layers of meaning. Each emblem was a free-standing object, usually presented on a single page or single page opening. The emblem book was a collection of individual emblems, sometimes systematically organized, often not. It could have one theme or many, but almost always it claimed to have a moral purpose. Emblem books have generated an enormous critical literature in the last half century, but there are few accounts that explain how and why the emblem book came to be a popular educational tool even though it had no place in traditional classrooms. (2)

The emblem form was popular throughout Europe but reached its greatest sophistication as a teaching tool not in Italy but in Northern Europe. In this chapter, then, our survey of sixteenth-century Italian textbooks will conclude by considering some teaching tools that were neither specifically Italian nor properly speaking textbooks. Still, despite their non-Italian pedigree, emblems and emblem books were quintessentially sixteenth-century, printerly inventions which pointed to the future of education. They served during most of our period to educate the public both to morals and to methods of reading and thinking. They offered a new way of visualizing moral problems. The emblem was in part a response by humanists to the nascent, alternative educational system of practical / technical training. Although emblems were often vernacular or multi-lingual as well as Latin, they represented for the most part a novel way of presenting the wisdom of classical Christianity (what Alfred W. Crosby calls the Venerable Model) to a broad new public. The potential of emblems as teaching tools was immense. Examining them will show where textbook publishing was headed by the time the long sixteenth century passed into the age of enlightenment.


We will also discover that book workers -- from authors and editors to scribes, typesetters, and printers -- embraced emblematic thinking as a way of bridging the ethical distance between commerce and science, between textbook making and teaching. Although it is clear from their advertising that humanists accepted and even embraced the market model of book making and distribution, the printing revolution was not achieved without creating tensions in establishmentarian thought. In particular, humanists often portrayed printers as technicians run amok, automatically reproducing massive numbers of errors and infelicities that would pass unnoticed or do no permanent harm in a more natural oral / aural classroom situation. Emblematic printer's marks served to smooth over the difference between commercial and learned goals by situating publishers' aspirations within the framework of humanist morals. By including an emblematic printer's mark, book makers and sellers embedded humanist modes of thought into many books and pamphlets they offered. Teachers in turn adopted this emblematic manner of labeling to advertise their own learning in and outside classrooms. (3)

Open Bibliography (330 KB pdf)
(1)  Hobart and Schiffman 1998, 96-104; Stafford 1999, 10-15; Waquet 2001, 36-40; 190-200.
(2)   It is not useful here to enter into the debate over the definition of an emblem; the most important contributions are Harms 1975, 8-17; Scholz 1993, 154-157; Elkins 1999, 196-203, 209-212; Manning 2002, 24-31, 37-38; and, as regards emblematic printer's marks, Bregoli Russo 1990, 27-73; Wolkenhauer 1998, 169-70 and 2002, 53-71.
(3)  On the commercial functions of emblems, Elkins 1999, 209-211; Stevens and Gehl 2003, 274-277.

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

Total comments on this page: 7

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dianarobin on whole page :

This my favorite chapter. I learned so
much about the culture of
sixteenth-century printing and, above
all, about the role analogy plays in
pedagogical theory and practice.

March 17, 2009 3:59 am
dianarobin on paragraph 6:

You also make it clear that emblems
were an important tool in the cultivation
of philosophical thinking.

March 17, 2009 4:03 am
Richard Mallette on paragraph 2:

When DID pedagogues begin to challenge the moral content of early education? In other words, to what cultural developments may we tie such challenges, assuming they have really ever taken shape?

July 16, 2009 11:08 am
Hana Katsenes on paragraph 4:

We discussed these “several layers of meaning” in the emblem at the beginning of Simplicissimus Teutsch.

November 27, 2011 12:41 pm
Paul F. Gehl on paragraph 1:

The persistence of this kind of pedagogical thinking is no longer in question. Indeed scholars are more than ever alive and attentive to the existence of the kinds of popular literature and elementary texts that were produced right into the 19th century. A fine example is Alexander Ames’s study of Pennsylvania German Vorschriften, “Quill and Graver Bound,” in Winterthur Portfolio 50 (2016), 1-83

July 26, 2016 10:19 am
Paul F. Gehl on paragraph 3:

Further to this development, see Eamon 1990, cited in full at section 6.13.

January 16, 2019 10:59 am
Paul F. Gehl on paragraph 6:

To Diana’s point here, it is clear that every field of learning was affected by what William Ashworth calls “the emblematic world view.” See his “Natural history and the Emblematic World View,” in Reappraisals of the Scientific Revolution, edited by David C. Lindberg and Robert S. Westman, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1990, pp. 303-332, esp. 312-320.

January 16, 2019 11:04 am

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